Tag Archives: guy Fawkes

Custom survived: The Lewes Guy Bonfire Fawkes Night


This November the 5th, as I stood warming myself at the considerable pyre at are our local bonfire celebrations, I was thinking it was a rather hollow experience. Don’t get me wrong, the effort was excellent: a brilliant spectacle of fireworks, a massive whirling and pulsating fun fair, a very welcome fire and even topped by a guy. Yet, there is something missing. The celebratory aspect has gone. It’s understandable, who 500 years on really celebrates the foiling of a plot?  Well plenty do, for several hundred miles away something all together more spectacular is going on….the Lewes Bonfire.

Photograph © Andrew Dunn, 5 November 2005. Website: http://www.andrewdunnphoto.com/ My photos from back there were a bit rubbish!

Photograph © Andrew Dunn, 5 November 2005.
Website: http://www.andrewdunnphoto.com/
My photos were a bit rubbish!

Indeed its own website proclaims the ‘greatest bonfire celebrations in the world’ in ‘the bonfire capital of the world’. It’s been a long time since I experienced this grand event of Guy Fawkes celebrations, back in the early 90s, but I wouldn’t expect much has changed. Indeed a report in the 1930s described something not much different:

“The greatest of all bonfire celebrations is held at Lewes, Sussex and in 1929 no less than one hundred thousand torches were burned during the evening. Here the observance partakes of the character of a religious ceremony….the most historic is the Cliffe Society, which still uses a real eighteenth century ‘No Popery’ banner, and figures of Pope Paul IV and Guy Fawkes are carried in procession and burned. The effigies are filled with fireworks which explode when the fire reaches them…the processions start at 5.30 p.m., and each society in turn marches to the war memorial…the Cliffe Society, which alone retains the historic character of the proceedings, still uses the old eighteenth century Bonfire Prayers. Torchlight processions continue all the evening, and the effect is most impressive as the long lines of flaming torches wind through narrow, steep streets of the ancient town. The final scene takes place about 11.15 p.m., when each Society marches to an open place outside the town and burns its effigies. …lighted tar barrels were rolled through the main thoroughfares.”

Having said that it’s certainly moved on a bit since the account of 1733 which says:

“Nov ye 5th. Item pd ye ringers being ye day of Deliverance from ye powder plott 2/6d”

Or thankfully the use of live cats in the burning effigies anymore. However, as a custom it is hard to beat and the town comes alive. Indeed, there are some many parts of the Lewes Bonfire celebration, that you would need several years to experience them all.  I decided to follow the Cliffe Bonfire, the oldest of the Bonfire boyes. They never join the united parade and stand fiercely for their traditions.

It’s all his fawk!

Lewes takes its protestant heritage very seriously. Elsewhere, such as my local bonfire celebration all mention of point of it is forgotten. Speaking to the organisers of the event I was at this year even the Guy had to be fought for.  Here in Lewes, it is the impact of the Marian persecutions, as well as Guy’s foiled plot are remembered. These martyrs are recognised by the carrying of seventeen burning crosses. Pretty impressive and slightly shocking! Not only that but if you thought that only during an Orange March, in Belfast, would you see such a celebration of Protestantism, you’d be wrong. On arrival one of the main streets has a banner proclaiming ‘No Popery’. During the march, this banner is held proudly up again, as is declaring ‘the Glorious revolution of William of Orange and Mary’ itself on the 5th.  How do the Catholics feel about it? Understandably it has not been popular, in 1933 the town’s Mayor wrote to the society to ask them to stop it…they did not. Although theses traditional parts were only revived after World War One, they hold onto these elements which make them unique and controversial such as the burning of the Pope.

Photograph © Andrew Dunn, 5 November 2005. Website: http://www.andrewdunnphoto.com/

Photograph © Andrew Dunn, 5 November 2005.
Website: http://www.andrewdunnphoto.com/

Another guy

The burning or rather exploding of such effigies is a Lewes speciality, and boy, are they special. These put those Guys of old firmly in the shade and there worth certainly more than a penny! They are amazing and very well judged. Lewes has always been a supporter of the downtrodden and fighter against injustice. The making of effigies aside the Guy was to lampoon individuals who were against British interests or local notorieties…. including the local Catholic priest, Father Flood once….It’s all harmless fun! Remember that! When I was there it was the height of the Balkan’s conflict so it was not surprising that there was impressive effigy of Radovan Karadzic. As always a barometer for current hate figures yet always courting controversy, these effigies try to grab the zeitgeist of public feeling. For example in 2001, aptly perhaps, Osama Bin Laden was chosen… but let’s be fair so was George W Bush with fireworks in his ears! Other effigies have been Colonel Gadadafi, Rupert Murdoch and Rebecca Brookes, Cameron and Clegg (Lewes is a liberal constituency), during the expenses debacle, a MP beside Westminster was made in 2009, fat cats on a piggy bank for the banking crisis and so on! Their choice in 2003 of a Gypsy caravan was a bit more regrettable, and bizarrely a Nelson effigy was blown up in 2005! This year’s President Assad effigy was amazing by all accounts! Guy is not forgotten but here of course they do burn the Pope…they stress it’s not the current one, but the one who was responsible for the plot.

Fire up the imagination

Even more amazing are the costumes, and the Native American costumes are particularly impressive and have history as the local community supported the American natives…Roman centurions, traditional smugglers and Tudor dress add to the spectacle. by 1861 costumes included Bedouin Arabs, highwaymen, soldiers, sailors, clowns and North American Indians. During the 1870’s Pioneer groups became a regular feature, the first group to lead the Cliffe’s processions being members of the Cliffe Volunteer Fire Brigade. Reflecting Britain’s expanding Empire, firemen were superseded by Squads of Bengal Lancers and, leading up to World War One, by Indian Princesses. In 2013 even Doctor Who had a look in.

Fire and brimstone 

Back in those days, I didn’t have any idea of what exactly went on at the bonfire site except that the organisers gave a mock sermon. This is linked to 1850 which was a flash point. Pope Pius IX re-established the Catholic hierarchy in England, this led to the return of the Bonfire boys and within three years processions had started. By 1856, saw the introduction of the ‘Lord Bishop’ wearing full clerical uniform and gave a ‘sermon’. What a sermon! Dressed as bishops they gave a tirade about the evils of popery, not that it could be heard clearly, with all the hubbub. Then whizz! What was that? it couldn’t be? It was a fire work. People in the group were throwing fireworks, and no just bangers but it looked quite substantial ones. Now I realised why wore wielder’s masks. Then as the Bonfire prayer was proclaimed the crowd become more animated:

“Remember, remember the Fifth ofNovember
The 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 the King and the Parliament
Three score barrels of powder below
Poor old England to overthrow
By God’s providence he was catch’d
With a dark lantern and burning match
Holler boys, holler boys, ring bells ring
Holler boys, holler boys, God Save the King!”
This part being  familiar to most, but in Lewes we add:
A penny loaf to feed the Pope
A farthing o’cheese to choke him
A pint of beer to Rinses it done
A faggot of sticks to burn him
Burn him in a tub of tar
Burn him like a blazing star
Burn his body from his head
Then we’ll say old Pope is dead
Hip Hip Hoorah!
Hip Hip Hoorah!
Hip Hip Hoorah!”
Then there was a crackling noise and the Milosovec effigy blew up sending sparks into the air followed by a barrage of fire works…then came the Pope to cheers and more chanting…its all harmless fun!Lewes Bonfire Night is a brilliant experience. Something that you would have thought would have died out. Would I go again? Yes but I don’t think I’d take the kids…its too mad! But if you follow this blog and have never been, you must…even if you are a Catholic! It’s nothing personal and it’s all harmless fun! Remember that! This video sums it up brilliantly http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wc1lwKfSQ1g  

Custom demised: Burning Judas


“Judas is short of a penny for breakfast”

Such was the begging cry of children on Good Friday morning in a unique custom. Oddly, in one city and in one small area of that city, the urban areas surrounding the dock area of that city, was one of the county’s most fascinating and incendiary customs. As Carole Sexton in her 1992 book ‘Confessions of a Judas Burner’, notes:

“Mrs Lympany who lived in Lothian Street recalls her two elder sisters going out at 4am around 1914 carrying a burning torch and running through the streets shouting ‘Burn Judas’.” Children would parade the Judas as they ran through the streets asking for contributions with the cry of ‘A penny for Judas’s breakfast.’ The Judas would then be burnt on a local waste ground.”

This was a local event mainly for local children and had features which combined the older ‘Jack O’Lent’ and the more recent Guy Fawkes and as such it was not popular with the authorities. Indeed, most of the reports recall its suppressing, such as this from the Glasgow Herald on the April 2nd 1931:

The Burning of Judas –Police stop old Liverpool Custom

The observance of the annual burning of Judas, a custom in the south-end of Liverpool, was frustrated yesterday by the police, No one knows the origin of this old custom. In times gone by adults took part in the ceremony, but in recent years it has been observed or attempted to be observed, only by the youngsters of the district. Much in the spirit of Guy Fawkes Night, they make effigies of Judas out of old clothes stuffed with straw, and in the early hours of Good Friday morning parade the streets, make bonfires and burn the effigies in the streets. In the early hours of yesterday morning before the children got up, the police searched backyards and entries, and confiscated over a score of Judas effigies and material for bonfires. Some children did later attempt to burn several effigies, but as they had been left out all night in the rain, they failed to blaze and the police coming along seized these and removed them to the destructor.”

The origins of the custom appear to underline the international nature of the city and the importance of its port for it can be found still in existence in Spain, Portugal and particularly Latin America where the video clip below hails from and understandably was picked up by the Roman Catholic community around the docks in the south end of the city around the 1800s.

Interestingly, the beating of Judas was also involved. This would need a pig’s bladder obtained from the butcher, inflated and then tied to a stick.   It is a well remembered and thought of custom of which the locals were naturally reluctant to let go. A report from 1954 records:

“It is comic to see a policeman with two or more Judases under his arm striding off the Bridewell and 30 or 40 children crowding after him crying Judas!”

Putting the fire out

According to notes on the Liverpool History website, Toxteth St was supposedly the last focus of the custom. On this website a Brenda Robson records:

“We were brought up in the tenements in the Dingle, and every year on Maundy Thursday the boys from the blocks would go around and collect wood for the ‘bommy’  they would stay up all night protecting their hoard, and on Good Friday, the fire would be lit with an effigy of Judas onto the fire. We used to sit on the steps watching the fire, eating hot cross buns. Happy memories”

A Stan Cotter who lived on Homer Street

“I am 74. I lived in Stopford street in Dingle. On Judas day we burnt wood we collected days or weeks before. Just after the War there were lots of bombed houses we played in and in the debies (bombed sites). Also wood was rationed and had to be applied for and stated why it was wanted. So sometimes we pinched some from peoples back yard going down back entries. The streets had cobbles fixed together with tar which we collected and put on end of stick to which we put matches and throw so that they went bang. We also put burning ember into tin cans hung by wire we wurled them round and threw at other gangs. On Judas day we got up early and went around the street showing “e are john” and other names of gang members to get them up. The cops tried to stop us and chased us on their bikes. They could not catch us and we taunter them to get them to chase us. After the fire the street floor was well burnt The practice ended when the corp sent police and fire engines’ think It finally ended when Hutchinson Methodist hall hire buses and took the kids out for the day . I remember going to church ground in Penyffod north wales where we were given cakes and lemonade. I think it was 1951 the practice ended.”

It lived longer than that. Although a search on Good Friday morning by Brian Shuel failed in the early 1980s, it is thought that the last burning was in 1970-1 by an Alan Rietdyk on waste ground between Prophet Street and Northumberland Street.  With the the disappearance of his relative Guy and the demonization of youths, it is unlikely that this unusual custom will ever be revived!