Sussex Bonfire Tradition
The Tradition of Bonfire in Sussex
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.
There are many different Bonfire Societies each holding their own event and attending each others. Celebrations last from the start of September to almost the end of November! See our Event calendar
Bonfire celebrates and remembers the overthrow of 1605 Gunpowder Plot to blow up The Houses of Parliament. Its origins begun in the The Observance of 5th November Act or "Thanksgiving Act" - Act of the Parliament of England passed in 1606. The law was repealed on 25 March 1859 by Anniversary Days Observance Act as religious tolerance became more widespread.
Today, there is no religious context to our event. We remember the historical events, and give thanks for freedom, democracy and tolerance. Our burning crosses remind us of all martyrs who have died for the rights of religious freedom, and the poppies commemorate those who have died for our democracy and freedom.
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!
The Tradition of Bonfire in Hastings
So why do we do this strange thing? What's the local history, and why is it still current in Sussex? A living history!
Started locally in St Leonards society formed in 1854. By 1879 there were 5 societies in Hastings & St Leonards. By 1882 there were 10 societies processing!
Our first modern-day Hastings Borough Bonfire Society: -
Hastings bonfire in 1995