I remember the procession starting at Dene Corner. From there we walked to the Cross Inn, on to Ewhurst Green then back to Staplecross, on to Cripps Corner – where the judging took place outside the White Hart pub – then finally back to Staplecross.
You had to be in fancy dress to walk in the procession, and you had to have walked in the procession in order to be judged. There were always a lot of tableaux, I can’t remember quite how many; these were judged on any part of the route. During the long walk, children would often get lifts on the trailers to help their little legs.
I can recall the bonfire being held in three different places, one of which was the field opposite the pub and next to the thatched cottage. Major Knight, who lived there at the time, was always very anxious about bonfire night; no mishaps happened that I can remember. The other two venues for the bonfire were the field next to the pub and a field up Forge Lane that was owned by Mr Ralph at the time.
The fireworks, when delivered, were stored in a box in a garage belonging to Joe Stonely (the husband of our current president Marjorie Stonely). One year there was a little accident: they caught fire! After that incident, they were stored in a metal bin in the garage. On the morning of the bonfire, they would be transported in his wheel barrow and set up before being let off by some of our society members.
The street collection would always be counted on the Sunday at 11:45AM at the Cross Inn. All the collection would be donated to the parish and hospitals. A certain amount would be put aside to give to anyone in the parish who was in need; this was always done very tactfully.
Five generations of my family – my Grandfather, Dad, myself, my children, and now my grandchildren – have been or are members of the society. I was seven years old when my Father died and apparently it was his wish that my brother and I were made bonfire members; I have remained in the society since and became actively involved in its running at the age of 18.
I do not remember when the OAP outings started; they were run each year by Joe Stonely as a mystery trip, so that is why we have kept the surprise going. I have organised the trips for about 20 years.
The bonfire dinner was started by Joe Stonely as a thank you to all who helped on bonfire night. Some of us members would be taught by Doris Godden to provide the entertainment on the evening. What a laugh we used to have and it always seemed to be ‘alright on the night’! The dinner proved to be popular and hence it is still being held 40 years on.
It describes how our Society’s Bonfire Night has been held in the past although some activities are no longer continued in the same way today.
The most spectacular evening of our parish calendar belongs to every last Saturday in October. For generations that night has been deafeningly celebrated with bonfires, torches, rockets, processions and effigies. Together with many other towns and villages in Sussex we have complied with a 1606 Act of Parliament “for a publique thanksgiving to almightie God everie yeere on the fifte day of November” for the failure of the Gunpowder Plot. The Sussex Bonfire Calendar now runs from late August to December.
Guy Fawkes, however, is not solely responsible for these annual rituals of remembrance and revenge. In ancient times, the 1st November was the Celtic festival of Samhain, which marked the actual beginning of the Celtic year. A confusing cultural legacy of effigies, fires, sacrificial rights and commemoration of the dead has been passed down, to be further muddled in the 9th century by the Christian Church adopting the 1st November to remember its saints. Re-named All Hallows Eve, the significance of this Christian occasion remains blurred by the earlier customs of a Celtic civilisation presided over by the Druids. The monk-like costumes adopted by the Robertsbridge Bonfire Society eerily recapture these ancient pagan traditions on fiery smoke-filled nights.
The Gunpowder Plot was a dramatic plan to destroy King James I and Parliament and restore Catholicism to England where religious persecution was rife. Almost 400 years later some of the Sussex societies burn effigies of Pope Paul V and others, like Lewes and Mayfield, remember their own martyrs who were burned at the stake by laying wreaths on their memorials. The Ewhurst and Staplecross Bonfire night has largely remained a benign community celebration, although many other societies from within the county are now invited to take part in the end of October festivities.
Traditionally the members have come from the local farming community, although the Trading Standards Officer and Head Teacher have been enthusiastic supporters. Indeed, Marion Brown who has been stalwart as Secretary since the age of 18, is a Nurse.
Fundraising takes place throughout the year to stage a spectacular Bonfire Night and all the money collected from spectators during the celebration is dispersed to local beneficiaries by the end of November.
Towards the end of September, work commences on the making of five hundred bats, or torches, using the dry method of wrapping, nailing and wiring three pieces of sacking onto the end of a 3 ft. chestnut bat. One week before Bonfire Night, the bats are dipped in waste oil for 12 hours and then drained. An earlier method involved cutting hessian into strips and then soaking them by hand in a mixture of waste oil and Stockholm tar, before wrapping them around the bats.
The bonfire is built the third weekend of October using 300 faggots that have been manually bound into 3 ft. long by 1 ft. diameter bundles of birch brushwood. Active Bonfire Boy members take turns at making an effigy of Guy Fawkes. Two guys are used: one for the pyre and one for the procession!
Derek Stone and Mick Woodgate are in charge of the display using a variety of fireworks from aerials to 10 inch mortars plus set pieces which take two days to fuse up. It is now a requirement that such fireworks are securely stored in metal containers and their whereabouts notified to the fire brigade. A far cry from 20 years ago and the regular sight of Joe Stonely emptying the stack of fireworks from his garage at Post Office House and trundling them up the field in his wheelbarrow, covered with his yellow AA jacket. The Chinese firecrackers, rookies and infamous rousers – homemade rockets which originally used the locally produced gunpowder – are now illegal on the public highway. The Ewhurst and Staplecross Bonfire Boyes have an untarnished safety record, unfortunately accidents have occurred elsewhere. The Bodiam Society used to let their fireworks off from a raft moored on the River Rother in the imposing shadow of the 13th century Bodiam Castle. One year a stray firework fell into the firework box setting the whole lot off and sending men leaping for safety into the river from the raft. The following year, against all odds, exactly the same thing happened and they vowed never to have another bonfire night.
At 6.15 p.m. on the day of the Bonfire, entrants assemble at the village hall for judging of the Fancy Dress Competition. The tableaux then gather on the Northiam Road adjacent to Rosefield Cottage and at 7.15 p.m. the blast from a maroon rocket is the signal for the torchlit procession to move off. The “procession guy” sits atop the first trailer, surrounded by torches followed by Ewhurst and Staplecross Society dressed as clowns. Following on behind, in pre-arranged order, are all the other Societies interspersed with bands.
The whole procession marches towards Cripps Corner amid much noise from bands and the rattling of collecting tins. The smoke and hiss from hundreds of flares and torches; the paganistic dancing and rhythmic drumming, the shriek of startled children and the shouts (often drunken) from a motley collection of monks, convicts, smugglers, cavaliers, undertakers, and zombies – many with startlingly convincing face paint – creates an evocative mix of excitement and expectation.
At Cripps Corner, the procession turns around and heads back towards the Bonfire field off Northiam Road, Staplecross. Extra torches are lit and as the Societies circle the bonfire, straddled by the sacrificial guy, the traditional chant of the Bonfire Boyes rings out :
“Remember, remember the 5th November
The gunpowder treason and plot.
I see no reason why bonfire treason
Should ever be forgot
Guy Fawkes, Guy Fawkes, it was his intent,
To blow up the Houses of Parliament.
Three score barrels he lay below,
To plot old England’s overthrow.
Holler Boyes, Holler Boyes,
Let the bells ring.
Holler Boyes, Holler Boyes,
God save the King”
The President’s torch is the first one thrown on the pyre, quickly followed by scores of others, until the great bonfire lights up the field. By this time, the night air is filled with constant drumming and the deafening explosions of hundreds of rook scarers and battle rousers which shake the very ground.
Individual fireworks and set pieces are ignited to a well-rehearsed plan. The cords are time and again dazzled by a spectacular display of pyrotechnics whistling, fizzing and screeching skywards to explode into neon patterns high above their heads. The display erupts in a magnificent crescendo of thunderous blasts and breathtaking aerial performances from enormous rockets and mortars and ends to great cheers of appreciation from the spectators.
Slowly everyone disperses amid a buzz of enthusiastic revelry and the Social Club fills up with cold and thirsty clowns, undertakers, convicts, smugglers, zombies, and monks….. while the now unmistakable sound of rookies and the odd rouser reverberate long into the night.