We have all been to bonfire displays over the years, but the county of Sussex has a strange phenomenon – Bonfire Societies. They do spread a little into neighbouring Kent and Surrey, but with the same degree of enthusiasm.
The East Sussex county town of Lewes is the concentration point, with seven bonfire societies celebrating ion the same day, 5th November. There is a huge influx of visitors to the small town, the police close off local roads, parking is at a premium, and the trains are closely regulated and monitored. Easily some 60,000 people come in for the marching and bonfires, finishing at around 11pm. The local pubs have security on their doors, won’t admit anyone they don’t know as regulars. Each of the seven societies has a different route, each has its own bonfire. Inevitably some routes overlap, spectators can easily be eight deep on the narrow pavements so collection boxes are rattled into faces all the time. Each one has a different costume theme, pirates and sailors are the most common.
The Sussex tradition goes back many centuries, well over 500 years, when the farm labourers were particularly poor during the autumn and winter months. Begging was an illegal activity, so men would blacken their faces and wear any form of alternative dress to hide their identity, especially as they were trying to get alms from the wealthier land-owning gentry who were notoriously parsimonious.
A lot of smaller as well as larger towns have bonfire societies around the 5th November, the first starting in mid-September. They can’t all share the same date, as they assist each other. The rivalry may be friendly, but the aim is still the same – to raise money for local good causes. Each bonfire society has an agreed marching date, for example my local town of Eastbourne on the south coast with a population of well over 100,000 had its march on 4th October 2019.
They congregated at the Crown and Anchor pub late afternoon, with other bonfire societies, and then about 8pm the march along the seafront commenced. Stewards were all along the route, roads were blocked by pre-legal arrangement and authority with the local council and police, traffic was re-directed. Groups of drummers marched as well, men and women dressed in Gothic style as they beat their drums to insistent rhythms. This primeval instinct brings out the public to see what’s occurring, so they can dig deep into their pockets.
The march lasts for well over an hour, it is easy to have over 500 people participating in varying degree of disguise, but the common denominator is having faces blacked to disguise identity while maximising the eerie atmosphere for children. Creepy.
Marchers carry burning staves, when they die out are discarded. Then at the back of the procession a truck is following, so they are not left unattended and kept safe.
Eastbourne has a bonfire on the beach, as well as excellent public firework display. Regrettably this year an unsocial element breached the fenced off part where the fireworks were going to be ignited, knocking over small areas, so this had to be rectified before festivities could commence.
There are eighteen bonfire societies described as defunct, but I would prefer to refer to them as sleeping. For example, Eastbourne was inactive for quite a few years, only revived within the past five or so, and Worthing was re-lit in 2014 after 127 years waiting to be re-ignited. The largest town in the area, Brighton with over a quarter of a million inhabitants, has had two societies in the past, but at present nothing. These were the Brighton Borough Bonfire Society, and the Brighton Bonfire Boys. However, a small village like Firle, on the outskirts of Lewes and close to opera Glyndbourne, has a very active society, one of the most popular.
As far as the bonfire itself is concerned, that can vary considerably depending on the society. Lewes is the best, they plan for months, often from the previous February, and then burn an effigy of an appropriate public figure. They are usually political leaders, from Boris Johnson to Donald Trump. The identity is kept secret until the night, as some choices may be more than controversial. In 2015 David Cameron shared his pyre with a pig. The previous year the then first minister of Scotland Alex Salmond was to have two effigies burned, one was withdrawn on police advice. Maybe his dummy was too extreme even for this event. The huge effigy is paraded through the streets, easily 20ft high, Boris was depicted wielding an axe with Theresa May’s severed head in his other hand. That gives you an idea of the cynical inventiveness that goes into the parade.
The last gathering is on 23rd November in the village of Hawkhurst, in Kent. The enthusiasm is not dimmed, the procession is still as passionate as ever, the collection charity is still as worthwhile. As long as it is not raining hard, my advice is to go along and have a great evening. It might be cold, but the warmth of the crowd makes for a memorable evening.
Make the effort, take the children, there is no shortage of bonfire parades in Sussex, maybe try a smaller one in the first year, then try something bigger. You won’t be disappointed at the spectacle.