Bonfire History

Bonfire is also known as Bonfire Night, Fireworks Night and Guy Fawkes Night.

On any Saturday night from September through to the end of November across Sussex you can witness the great spectacle that is Bonfire. The bright coloured costumes, the rhythmic drums and the entrancing pyrotechnic displays may appear a jolly spectacle to please visiting crowds, but ‘Bonfire’ embodies a spirit that runs deep in Sussex. A spirit embodied by the freedom of expression of the individual, a freedom which many a Bonfire Boye can best describe in a few words, ‘we wunt be druv’.

Each year Hastings Borough Bonfire Society celebrates the discovery of the plot laid by Robert Catesby, Guy Fawkes and 11 other men to overthrow the English Monarchy, the elected ministers of government -. During turbulent Tudor times England was caught in a tussle between those in charge who wanted the country to be Protestant and those in charge who wanted the country to be Roman Catholic -. The 13 Gunpowder Plotters planned to kill King James and restore Catholicism. The English people would not stand for this as was evident in the lack of uprising following the failed plot. This rejection of authority was celebrated with passion from 1606 onwards.

In Hastings there are echoes of the feelings towards authority in our celebrations. The America Ground ceremony that takes place at the start of our celebrations is a fine example. We remember the Hastings Corporations attempt in 1828 to enforce their jurisdiction onto the merchants and traders that had built on land reclaimed from the sea in the area that is now Robertson Street. This resulted in a riot and the locals raised the American Stars and Stripes and declared independence: a fine example of the people standing up to ‘authority’.

All Sussex Bonfire Societies encompass an act of remembrance in their celebrations. This can involve elaborate pyrotechnics or simple burning crosses. This moment to pause and reflect allows us to remember those that made the ultimate sacrifice. To remember those individuals who gave their life such that freedom of expression was retained most notably in the two world wars.

Most Sussex bonfires feature a large ‘setpiece’ firework display known variously as an effigy or tableaux. These have caused much controversy over the years. The bonfire societies might good humoudly poke fun at local, national or international issues or the burning of an effigy might be a mark of respect.

The subject of our effigy is a closely guarded secret known only to a select few in the society and revealed on the day of our celebrations. Our local MP has shared with members her sigh of relief as she has strolled along the seafront on the day of Hastings Bonfire and she has discovered that she is not to be dispatched in paper mache likeness stuffed with fireworks. Madam, I am sure your time will come! The effigy is much misunderstood by many members of the public. It is not burnt in the spirit of satire and the same freedom of expression that the residents of the America Ground expressed to the Hastings Corporation in 1828. The reaction to the subject of our effigies has been varied. The dispatching of the parking attendants in 1999 was met with cheers. People were heard to marvel at the artistic talents of the effigy team being heard to say ‘that’s the one that gave me a ticket they just blew up’. Hastings effigies have been used to celebrate notable dates. The 2012 effigy celebrated the diamond jubilee of Queen Elizabeth II. This included a champagne bottle that was blown up along with a selection of recognisable Hastings Borough Bonfire Members. The Society’s president’s cheers at his own demise could almost be heard over the bangs. The greatest controversy seems to be reserved for effigies that do not depict real people but members of the animal kingdom. The outrage in defence of the humble seagull in 2015 by some sectors of the town was astounding. Social media was alive with condemnation by midday on the day of bonfire. However the 3 feathered friends met the same fate as every other effigy with the aid of a good supply of fireworks. The freedom to express admiration or ridicule will long be continued to be upheld by Hastings Borough Bonfire Society through its effigies.

So if as a visitor to our Bonfire celebrations you are looking at us enjoy that such an event is still alive and kicking in the 21st century. Maybe you might even like to join us?

Please find the spirit of Bonfire in some words from a poem published by W Victor Cook in 1914 may give you an insight into the ‘Spirit of Sussex Bonfire’

Some folks as come to Sussex,
They reckons as they know
A durn sight better what to do
Than simple folks, like me and you,
Could possibly suppose.

But them as comes to Sussex,
They mustn't push and shove,
For Sussex will be Sussex,
And Sussex won't be druv!


Bonfire Chant This is said before the bonfire is lit and at the end of every meeting.

Remember Remember the fifth of November
Gunpowder treason and plot.
I see no reason why gunpowder treason
should ever be forgot.

Guy Fawkes Guy Fawkes, twas his intent
to blow up King and parliament.
Three score barrels were laid below
to prove old England's overthrow.

By God's mercy he was catched
with a dark lantern and burning match.
Holler boys, Holler boys, let the bells ring
Holler boys Holler boys God save the King.

Hip Hip Hoorah!
Hip Hip Hoorah!
Hip Hip Hoorah!

Hastings Bonfire Costume
The Hastings Borough Bonfire Society Smugglers Costume was adopted when the society re-formed in 1995. We chose the Cinque port colours of Hastings: red, gold and royal blue as our signature colours.

East hill Beacon Another of the "traditions" of Hastings Borough Bonfire Society  is the lighting of the East Hill beacon on the night of Hastings Bonfire.  It has been lit for each of the bonfire nights since 1995.  The plaque on the wooden post supporting the fire basket reads "This beacon was lit by the Royal British Legion Hastings Branch & Womens Section  in commeration of the 50th Anniversary of VE Day 8th May 1995". the year that HBBS was formed and staged its first event in Hastings.   The top of the wooden post supporting the basket was burnt on the night of Trafalgar Day on Friday 21st October 2005 after being lit to celebrate Trafalgar Day causing the fire basket to be on the ground in the morning.   A replacement steel collar over the wooden post has proved effective to prevent ignition of the post since the new fitting was installed. The current procedure adopted by HBBS on the night of Hastings bonfire is for the beacon to be lit  at 7pm and a group of Hastings Runners descend the steps with with lighted torches, where they are used to light the torches of the procession that is scheduled to start at 7.15pm.  In 2012 the beacon on the East Hill  was lit by HBBS on 4th June to celebrate Diamond Jubilee of Her Majesty the Queen and on the night of Hastings Bonfire on 13th October 2012.

The America Ground Declaration
Hastings Borough Bonfire Society has a unique tradition of a declaration across The America Ground which was in central Hastings; an area covered by Harold Place, Robertson Terrace, Carlisle Parade, White Rock, Robertson Street, Trinity Street, and Claremont, this area to the West of the Priory-Stream  was outside the Hastings Borough boundary and was the result of the sea receding. This land was settled by squatters who named it "The America Ground" and declared themselves independent of Hastings.
The America Ground declaration is read each year when the head of the procession reaches  the Memorial Site (at the town centre) shortly after 8.15pm by Hastings Town Crier Jon Bartholomew in front of  Hastings & East Sussex Councillors, Invited guests from the twin towns, other VIPs including the MP for Hastings & Rye and a selection of other Town Criers.  The declaration was created with the support of local historian Dennis Collins recalls the history of the America Ground  that now forms part of Robertson Street. See 1066.net/america for further details about the America Ground and its history. After the declaration has been read lance work on the America Ground Banner is ignited for the watching audience before the procession restarts along Robertson Street to the fire site.  

The Declaration
The Hastings Borough Bonfire Society will now process onto the America GROUND which was formerly SEA.
William the Conqueror SAILED in where we MARCH today.
The prosperous HARBOUR of the CINQUE PORT OF HASTINGS Was here until storms destroyed it ELEVEN HUNDRED YEARS AGO.
By two hundred years ago The SEA had become LAND and merchants and people built Warehouses, Ropewalks and homes on it, AND THEY PROSPERED
The corporation of Hastings had NO JURISDICTION HERE, but tried to enforce their rule.
The people RIOTED And raised the Stars and Stripes of  THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA in DEFIANCE
The Borough RETREATED The Americans stayed independent until the Kings commissioners Claimed the ground for the CROWN.
The Stars and Stripes with the Borough arms added was PRESENTED to the Corporation of Hastings as A FRIENDLY GESTURE by the people of THE AMERICA GROUND in the LAST YEARS of their occupation.
It SYMBOLISES that spirit of enterprise and INDEPENENCE determination and GOODWILL which characterises the people of The AMERICA GROUND TO THIS DAY
We DECLARE our passage through the TERRITORY of the AMERICA GROUND.