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Lewes Bonfire is a series of celebrations in the town of Lewes, East Sussex which form the UK's largest and most famous Bonfire Night or Guy Fawkes Night festivities, with Lewes being called the Bonfire capital of the world.
Always held on 5 November, unless the 5th falls on a Sunday, when they are held on Saturday 4th, the event not only marks the date of the uncovering of the Gunpowder Plot in 1605, but also commemorates the memory of the seventeen Protestant martyrs from the town burnt at the stake for their faith during the Marian Persecutions.
There are six societies putting on five separate parades and firework displays on the 5th, and this can mean 3,000 people taking part in the celebrations, and up to 80,000 spectators attending in the small market town with a permanent population of just under 16,000.
The history of bonfire celebrations on 5 November throughout the United Kingdom have their origins with the Gunpowder Plot of 1605, where a group of English Catholics, including the now famous Guy Fawkes, were foiled in their plot to blow up the House of Lords.
The following January an act entitled ‘An Acte for a publique Thancksgiving to Almighty God everie yeere of the Fifte day of November’ was passed which held that the 5 November should be held in perpetual remembrance of the plot, with a special service held in every Church of England parish church.
Celebrations in Lewes were not planned or carried out annually, but were more random events that were more like riots. They continued until they were banned by Oliver Cromwell during the Commonwealth. However, they were reintroduced when King Charles II returned, but still on a random basis. Interest waned by the end of the 18th century but in the 1820s large groups of Bonfire Boys started celebrating with fireworks and large bonfires. The celebrations became more and more rowdy until in 1847 police forces were drafted in from London to sort out the Bonfire Boys. There were riots and fighting, and restrictions were clamped down on the celebrators, their locations moved to Wallands Park, at that time fields, not the suburb it is today. However, in 1850 they were allowed back to the High Streets. By this time the former riots had become much more like the processions carried out today. In 1853 the first two societies, Cliffe and Lewes Borough were founded and most of the others were founded later in the same century.
All societies attend “outmeetings” or “outfires” (the nomenclature varies between the societies), where they march with the societies from other towns and villages nearby on their respective bonfire nights, before or after the Fifth in Lewes. On the Fifth, the first six societies process separately around their own particular quarters before all except the Cliffe and South Street join together in Western Road to parade down St. Anne's Street, the High Street and School Hill, followed by members of visiting societies from nearby towns and villages. After several processions, including acts of Remembrance for the war dead, each society marches to its own fire site on the edge of the town, where there is a large bonfire, firework display and burning of effigies. The societies then return to their HQs for Bonfire Prayers. Whilst marching nearly all members carry torches, some ignite and drop bangers, locally called rookies (short for rook scarers), and some carry burning crosses, banners, musical instruments or burning letters spelling out the initials of the society. In recent years the police presence on the night has increased to deal with the large crowds attracted to the event.
|“||Imagine a head-on collision of Halloween and Mardi Gras and you're well on your way to picturing Bonfire Night, Lewes style – barrels of burning tar, processions of thousands of fiery torch-bearing crowds, massive bonfires and firework displays||”|
—Rough Guides, Daily Telegraph
Many of those processing wear smuggler uniforms (striped jumper, white trousers, black boots and optional red hat). All Societies have different coloured striped smugglers’ jumpers. A number of large effigies are drawn though the streets including Guy Fawkes and Pope Paul V, who became head of the Roman Catholic Church in 1605. In addition, each of the five main local societies creates a topical “tableau”, and the Cliffe and Southover societies display on pikes the heads (also in effigy) of its current "Enemies of Bonfire", who range from nationally reviled figures to local officials who have attempted to place restrictions on the event. Restrictions are generally ignored by the Societies. The local St. John's Ambulance team has posts around procession routes to care for anyone who has been injured.
Torch-making is a time-consuming process and begins in September, with many society members joining in. Members have to make or buy their own costumes.
In 2001 an effigy of Osama bin Laden ensured that the annual event received more press attention than usual (it featured on the front page of some national newspapers) as did the Firle Bonfire Society’s 2003 choice of a gypsy caravan. To mark the demise of the 17 martyrs, 17 burning crosses are carried through the town, and a wreath-laying ceremony occurs at the War Memorial in the centre of town. Ladies’ and men’s races pulling flaming tar barrels; the barrel run, take place along Cliffe High Street at the start of the evening. A flaming tar barrel is also thrown into the river Ouse; this is said to symbolise the throwing of the magistrates into the river after they read the Riot Act to the bonfire boys in 1847. The festivities culminate in five separate bonfire displays, where the effigies are destroyed by firework and flame. Up to 80,000 people have been known to attend this local spectacle, coming from all over the South and sometimes further afield.
The current celebrations take the form of a series of torchlit processions through the town. The event is organised by the local bonfire societies, under the auspices of the Lewes Bonfire Council (or Bonco for short). Lewes itself currently has seven bonfire societies:
The Cliffe, founded in 1853, traditionally represents the Cliffe and Lansdown areas of Lewes (centred around Cliffe High Street), but recently they've also claimed the South Malling suburb with the addition of the "Malling Bonfire Society". Their smugglers' jumpers are black and white, and the pioneer fronts are Vikings and Moors. The Dorset Arms is the society's HQ, and the local church is St. Thomas à Becket's. Currently the only society to march under a “No Popery” banner.
Founded in 1855, they represent the St. John's area north of Lewes Castle, based on Commercial Square, which is where their HQ, the Elephant and Castle pub, is based. The pioneers are Native Americans (this theme was picked after Lewesians visited the US in the 19th century and realised their hardships) and American Civil War soldiers, and the smugglers wear gold and black jumpers. The society also claims the Wallands Park and Landport suburbs. The local church is St John sub Castro.
Lewes Borough is the joint oldest society with Cliffe, formed in 1853. Until 1859 they were known as the ‘Lewes Bonfire Society’ and have been marching the streets of the town for over 150 years. Borough is the ‘home’ of the Zulu which is their First Pioneer Group and the Tudor which is the Society’s Second Pioneer Group. Their jumpers are blue and white. In 1863 the famous Monster Iron Key of the Ancient Borough of Lewes weighing nearly a quarter hundredweight,(over 12 kilos) was carried in the procession for the first time. The same key is still carried today in the Borough’s processions and is a symbol that on 5th November the ‘Borough Boys’ are given the freedom of the streets of Lewes. Representing the western half of Lewes and located on Western Road, their HQ is St. Mary's Social Club, which unlike the others, is not a pub. The local church is St. Anne's.
Southover has roots in the mid-19th century but it disbanded in 1985, and then reformed in 2005. It represents the Cranedown and St. Pancras areas as well as the old village of Southover. Located on Southover High Street, the local church is St. John the Baptist's, where there is a war memorial, and the HQ is the King's Head. Their jumpers are red and black and their pioneers are monks (representing the remains of the Priory of St. Pancras nearby) and buccaneers. Southover also have a Samba band, El Bloco Fuego. Banners carried include a large Tudor rose (to represent Anne of Cleves' House on Southover High Street) and a banner bearing a picture of William of Orange landing at Brixham in southwest England on 5 November 1688.
South Street was formed in 1913 as a society for the children of members of the Cliffe; however, both Cliffe and South Street now accept members of all ages. Their jumpers are brown and cream, and their pioneers are (first) Colonial Period (mid-18th century) and (second) English Civil War (mid-17th century) soldiers. They are based on South Street and the small area to the west between it and the River Ouse, and their HQ is the The Snowdrop, South Street. Their firesite is on the Railway Land.
Waterloo represents the area just to the east of the main Commercial Square part (there is a fair bit of overlap between the two) based on Market Street, a quarter of Lewes with little population as it was heavily destroyed by the local planning council to make way for roads. Waterloo's jumpers are red and white and their pioneers are Mongols and Ancient Greeks and Romans. Their HQ is the Lamb Inn.
Founded in 1967 specifically for children, Nevill has remained a juvenile society and represents the Nevill Estate. Their HQ is St. Mary's Social Centre. They hold their celebrations a week or two before the other societies with help from those six. Their pioneers are Valencians, Medieval, and British Military (1900-1950) their jumpers green and white.
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