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Last Updated: Saturday, 6 November, 2004, 12:18 GMT
Explosive event remembers Guy Fawkes

By Martha Buckley
BBC News

Lewes bonfire celebrations
Lewes Bonfire Party's roots lie in 17th century anti-Catholic feeling
They had been warned by the police and the organisers of the event itself to stay away, but still the crowds flocked to the normally sleepy town of Lewes for Britain's best-known bonfire celebrations.

From mid-afternoon, the trains into the East Sussex town were crowded with revellers, with queues extending the length of station platforms.

All roads into the town were closed from late afternoon and shops and businesses started boarding up their premises in preparation for what was to come.

Men and women in striped "Guernsey" shirts were stationed on the corners of the town's picturesque streets handing out programmes for the event coordinated by five separate bonfire societies.

The action began around 1700 GMT with the traditional children's procession wending its way through the streets.

'No Popery'

Then came the main event with the bonfire societies parading down the main High Street dressed either in Guernseys, giving them an air of 18th century sailors, or else in a range of spectacular and outlandish costumes, ranging from native American and Zulus to Vikings and Victorian ladies.

Many, including some children no older than seven, carried flaming torches and pulled wheeled metal troughs filled with fire.

Lewes bonfire celebrations
The march through the town centre parodied a military parade

They marched to the beat of drums and brass bands in a kind of parody of a military parade.

Fireworks exploded as they went, filling the air with pink-tinged smoke, adding to the clouds already hanging over the streets from the burning torches, and letting off ear-splitting bangs.

Each society carried its traditional banner and effigies emblazoned with slogans such as the Cliff society's notorious "No Popery" banner, reminding the watching crowd of the event's roots in anti-Catholic feelings dating back to the burning of 17 Protestant martyrs in Lewes in the 16th Century, and fed by the 1605 gunpowder plot.

Traditionally, effigies of the Pope are burned alongside those of Guy Fawkes at huge bonfires which follow the procession at sites on the edges of the town.

Each year the marchers also carry effigies and tableaux passing comment on issues of the day. These are filled with fireworks which explode as they pass through the parade and are also destined to be consumed by flames.

This year's targets included the perennially unpopular traffic wardens, following a shake-up of parking in Lewes, with a giant parking meter among the effigies.

Prescott effigy

There was also a model of John Prescott, in reference to the deputy prime minister's coming decision on whether to grant planning permission for a new stadium for Brighton and Hove Albion.

After the procession, the crowds headed off towards the separate bonfire sites manned by the different societies to watch the burning of the effigies and enjoy spectacular pyrotechnic displays.

After this, those who had come to the town from outside faced the annual giant queues to get onto trains, while those staying in Lewes continued the party into the night.

Many of the bonfires were ticket-only events with no tickets available to purchase outside Lewes, in a bid by the bonfire societies to restrict the thousands of out-of-town visitors, who have sparked safety fears in the past.

The Lewes fireworks have become something of a victim of their own success, with the town annually swamped with more visitors than it has the capacity to cope with and non-residents now urged not to come.

Lewes bonfire celebrations
Historically the party has been an excuse for 'wild' behaviour

The Lewes Bonfire Party has never been politically correct. Its very roots lie in the explosion of anti-Catholicism, mingled with jingoistic patriotism which was prevalent in Protestant England from the 17th century and the famous gun powder plot onwards.

While the sentiments may not have been universally condemned in their day, the way the people of Lewes chose to remember 5 November often was.

High jinks

The event became an annual day of misrule, when laws were flouted and normally respectable citizens let down their hair and indulged in high jinks.

The roots of today's elaborate costumes lie in the fact that the revellers often had to disguise themselves to avoid arrest. Even membership of the bonfire societies was kept secret in their early years.

Wheelbarrow of fire
Wheeled troughs carrying fire were dragged through the streets

Despite the disapproval of many in authority, the event was often wild, with huge bonfires outside what are now the law courts in the High Street and fireworks, including large rockets, being thrown around the street.

Over the years the event has grown in size and developed customs and traditions along the way reaching its current form about 100 years ago.

Fires were banned from the streets early in the 20th century and moved instead to the current sites away from the town centre with the agreement of local authorities.

The flock of out-of-town visitors are no new phenomena either, with crowds descending on the town from Brighton, the rest of Sussex and as far away as London from the beginning of the railways in Victorian times

Nowadays, with fireworks displays being cancelled around the country as insurance premiums soar, the Lewes bonfire night remains a huge draw and a event which raises thousands every year for charity.

And the only threat to its existence appears to remain its own popularity.




SEE ALSO:
'Effigy' gypsies unite at bonfire
31 Oct 04  |  Southern Counties
Crowds warned off bonfire event
19 Oct 04  |  Southern Counties
Bonfire sparks anti-Catholic claims
02 Jan 04  |  Southern Counties


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