In terms of the heritage of Eastbourne, 2001 saw a reawakening of an interest in our cultural and historical roots. The first Lammas Festival took place on Wish Tower Hill, the Eastbourne Giants were created and The Pentacle Drummers were formed. The festival celebrated the English Folk tradition and reminds us of a time beyond memory. It was a time when mankind adopted a way of life that was more sympathetic to the rhythms of the earth. Yet, it was the rekindling of Eastbourne Bonfire Society that gives the town a more tangible link to the past. Everyone knows the story of Guido (Guy) Fawkes, but it is a little known fact that the town has a Bonfire tradition that goes back almost four centuries.
Within a couple of years of the Gunpowder Plot November 5th was declared a public holiday with “suitable celebrations”, namely the ringing of church bells! Local records show that in 1637, The churchwardens (of St Mary’s, Old Town) paid 3 shillings and sixpence to the ringers “to drink the V of November” and gave them bread and beer, while bonfires were laid in the road outside the Lamb Inn.
During the nineteenth century as in Lewes, the 5th seems to have become a raucous occasion. In 1837, 2 men were fined £3-15s each for letting off squibs in South Street. One couldn’t pay so was committed for 2 months! A third was fined 25/- for encouraging and inciting.
The book “Bygone Eastbourne” tells how in 1858 “ A fire was soon blazing up at the Lamb Corner, the old spot used 200 years ago, but it was left to the Seaside boys to carry out the commemoration in a style which has never been surpassed in this place. The Eastbourne sax-horn band was in attendance and, at the sound of the drums, answered by signal lights and rockets, a fine body of young men emerged from a gateway, where the procession was formed in the following order: Conductor with Union Jack, Eight
Torchmen (four abreast), a large banner inscribed “God Save the Queen”, drum, banner with inscription “No Popery”, flag, band, flag, coloured lights and eight torchmen, four abreast an effigy – Nana Sahib, with banner waving over, inscribed “Nana shall be cut in pieces” Eight torchmen, four abreast, an effigy of The Begum of Lucknow, in the act of slaying a child, with the banner inscribed,“ A Gallows awaits the Begum”, a blaze of light, consisting of forty men with torches and blazing tar barrels drawn by fifty young men.
It certainly was a grotesque procession (far different from that of today) – the various dresses, the curiously figured masks, the fierce-looking effigies, the torches and the blue lights all having a curious effect.”
A large fire was kindled outside the Marine Tavern in Seaside Road and blazing tar barrels appeared from all directions, the report continues. As promised by the inscriptions on the banner, the effigy
of the Begum of Lucknow was hung on the gallows over the flames. That of Nana Shahib, whose treachery had caused the massacre of the British Troops at Cawnpore, during the Indian Mutiny, was chopped to pieces and thrown into the fire, as
the crowd cheered and the band played Rule Britannia.”
In the middle of 19th Century, traders tried to get bonfire banned as their shop fronts were blackened by the soot from the blazing tar barels. The magistrates declined to ban bonfire, but said that the tar barrels should be discontinued. In 1888, the original Eastbourne Bonfire Boys set out from their headquarters at the New Inn (now Bibendum) and the Boys of St Mary’s in Old Town from their HQ at the Albert. One of their effigies was the Salvation Army – as riots were commonplace in the town a byelaw was passed banning bands on the seafront! The Salvation Army paraded there each Sunday and were duly arrested each week! During this period, some of the Eastbourne Societies were organised according to the different electoral wards of the town; – the East ward, West Ward, Central Ward, St Mary’s Bonfire Boys, Meads Mummers and the Original Bonfire Boys.
Little is known of Bonfire in Eastbourne during the Great Wars, but it seems that Bonfire was extinguished in 1966, when the Old Town Bonfire Society held it last Procession. 2001 saw Bonfire rekindled with the formation of a new Eastbourne Bonfire Society. The Society continues to grow both with regard to its size and its links to various groups within the Eastbourne Community. This year we will be celebrating our 13th Anniversary in grand style with a Procession and Fireworks display.