Open Eye: Squibbing in the Sussex streets marks Bonfire Day

Serpent crackers fireballs and blazing tar barrels were commonplace on the streets of Lewes, says Simon Newton

Firework safety was not a priority for the Bonfire Boys of 19th century Lewes in East Sussex. Although now a spectacular example of Guy Fawkes night street theatre, the Lewes bonfire night celebrations of mid- Victorian England were more a licence to riot than a family-friendly spectator sport.

Blazing tar barrels, the selective use of fireballs and the art of "squibbing" were standard issue.

The research of OU PhD graduate Dr Jim Etherington into his local "recurrent ceremonial drama" shows that confrontations with magistrates, police and the "respectable habitants" of Lewes were common.

As early as 1795, the Sussex Weekly Advertiser of 9 November reported a fire at The Star Inn caused by "the indifference of some thoughtless persons who had amused themselves by letting off serpent crackers in the great parlour of the Inn." By 1838, street bonfires, rioting, jail terms and broken heads became regular features of Lewes streets on the night of 5 November.

In 1847, 170 of the "principal tradesmen and other respectable inhabitants" were summoned to be sworn in as special constables. On their way to a meeting on the evening of 4 November, the Bonfire Boys ambushed them on the High Street using clubs and fists. A few years later, the secretary of a local bonfire society made off with the money box and was honoured by burning in effigy with the Pope.

Today, on Bonfire Night, the streets of Lewes are innocently full of the sound of drumbeats and trumpets and the smell of gunpowder, burning torches and hot dogs. No longer are the streets filled with "evil disposed persons" as described at the 1827 Assizes. The anti-Catholicism which fuelled the Lewes bonfire nights in past centuries has now gone. Dr Etherington observes that the Pope no longer sits on top of the fire. "It's now more likely to be effigies of contemporary tabloid hate figures. Both Thatcher and Scargill have featured on top of the pyres."

The modern spin on bonfire celebrations is that they commemorate the development of the English tradition of toleration and the freedom of worship. However, it probably also simply taps into an ancient communal impulse simply to let rip as winter closes in.

Following an attempt at suppressing the event in 1853, the Lewes spectacular has become less a night of licence and more an opportunity for fancy dress, noise, torchlight parades and a safe firework display well outside the town centre. The conventional perception of the Lewes Bonfire Boys is that they were working class, male, rebellious and non-conformist.

Dr Etherington's detailed research suggests they were much less of a threat to the social order than the middle classes believed. Fire-site speeches and the elaborate firework tableaux actually expressed support for Conservative policies, imperial expansion, the military and the monarchy.

Dr Etherington has examined the community links of more than a thousand individuals connected with the bonfire celebrations and mapped out their links of kinship, neighbourhood, work and community. His sources were the great nineteenth century records of church and chapel registers of births, marriages and burials but also trade and street directories and firework night memorabilia.

The claim that the Bonfire Boys were mainly male, young and working class is also challenged by an analysis of their occupations. There seems to have been a large group of tradesmen dealing in coal, tobacco, wine, food, household utensils and as well as 31 publicans. They were highly territorial groups more intent on festivity (and protecting vested interests) than social and political revolution.

An East Sussex primary school teacher and OU Associate Lecturer on the Studying Family and Community History course, Dr Etherington is also the Secretary of the Family and Community Historical Research Society. Its new journal is published this month featuring the best examples of local research. "Its pages will be open to academic research as well as personal, non-academic community history," explains Dr Etherington. "It will emphasise accessibility and seek to avoid jargon. It will take a very OU democratic approach to learning!"

Published twice a year, the journal will include contributions about a wide range of subjects from family and household structure, paid and unpaid work, local ceremonies (such as Lewes bonfire night), workplace communities and welfare.

Topics in the first issue stretch from a study of Edinburgh's Italian community during the war to a study of truancy in a south Cambridgeshire village. The society and journal aim to build up a network of local associations and encourage small scale studies that go beyond the merely parochial.

Membership of the Family and Community Historical Research Society is available at a special introductory rate of pounds 19 which includes two issues of the journal.

Subscriptions (cheques payable to W.S.Maney and Son Ltd) and requests for further information about the society can be sent to Dr Jim Etherington, 56 South Way, Lewes, East Sussex BN7 1LY.

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