Sussex Bonfires – Bringing the community together

By Ryan Clark and Rhea Cheramparambil

Fireworks at this time of year may not seem out of the ordinary with Guy Fawkes night and religious events like Diwali happening in early November, but I doubt you would expect them in September.

This would be unless you lived in Sussex or any of the surrounding areas. Every year different branches of the Sussex Bonfire Societies are responsible for organising a series of bonfire and firework events which start at the beginning of September and last well into November.

These bonfires are held not just to celebrate Guy Fawkes’ capture and the failure of the gunpowder plot, but also in acknowledgement to something that happened almost 50 years earlier. This was when 17 protestant martyrs were burned to death between 1555 and 1557 in Lewes during the reign of Queen Mary 1st, who wanted to punish protestants for turning their back on Catholicism during the reign of her father King Henry VIII.

Scarecrow versions of Guy Fawkes, Robert Catesby and their accomplices as well as the head of the church at the beginning of the 17th century, Pope Paul V, are burned in honour of the failure of the gunpowder plot.

Unsurprisingly, the biggest bonfire happens on Bonfire night and takes place in Lewes. Due to it being a large-scale event, there are always many road and transport disruptions. The reason for the transportation chaos is to deter people from outside areas from coming in since it is already going to be busy with Lewes and Brighton residents. Trains don’t run through Lewes, Falmer, Glynde or Southease which would affect University students on the Falmer campus.

Kirsty Tanton, who attends the Rye bonfire each year said: “I come to Rye every year as it’s closer than Lewes. Also, they stop running trains through Lewes when the bonfire is on which makes it difficult to actually get there. For me, I love being warm by the bonfire and watching the parade with my family. With everyone around it gives you a real sense of community.”

Lewes have seven bonfire societies with over 4000 members, with some even claiming to date back to the 19th century. The towns bonfire night also includes honouring the 17 protestant martyrs who were burnt alive by having 17 burning crosses carried through the town while a wreath is also laid out by the war memorial.

There is a downside to these big festivities, one of which is the danger aspect. Lewes bonfire representatives advise that children should not come to the bonfire as there are low level stun grenades every year. However, this does not stop parents from bringing them to the family outing.

Miss Tanton spoke about the safety aspects: “I think such events are mainly aimed towards children, so any risks are minimised by the people in charge. An example being wide parameters around the bonfire that are cordoned off”.

In a 2012 BBC report on children’s safety the Lewes Bonfire Council said: “That the town would be very crowded, and children may find the event confusing and frightening, with children in pushchairs vulnerable to injury in the crowded streets”. It is unlikely that their stance has changed on this safety caution.

Annie-Mae Ashton, 23, from Folkestone, who is a regular attendee of the bonfire festivities every year said she goes because “it’s an annual tradition among family and friends. It’s always a good time to get everyone together”.

Speaking on safety precautions she said: “I do think certain safety precautions should be promoted more by organisers, for example wearing gloves when handling sparklers and ear defenders for small children”.

When asked if she was aware of the burning of the martyrs, she said she was “not aware of the secondary reasons behind Lewes bonfire. However, I have heard that other towns like Hastings have bonfires to celebrate and commemorate similar events, not just on 5th November. I think it’s great that children can still learn about such tales of the past in a fun and traditional way”.

The festivities are not yet over, with the final three events yet to actually take place. The Rye, Robertsbridge and Hawkhurst bonfires will take place on the 10th, 17th and 24th November, respectively.

Edited by Kristian Bayford 


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