Bonfire Celebrations in Bygone Years

What were those Bonfire Nights in Rye of more than sixty years ago really like?

So many stories are passed down by those senior citizens who were there. They tell of amazing burning boats being carted around the town, of fireworks being thrown in the streets and of famous film stars and personalities representing Rye Fawkes. At least thirty tableau every year, and four or five marching bands. There were bloaters cooked on the Bloater Boat and Dances at the Monastery.

The story of how the Rye Wheelers relayed a flame, lit by the Mayor of Westminster, from London Bridge, sixty miles by tandem to light the 1947 Rye Bonfire on time is a legend in local folk law.

Tandem Relay with the Torch carring the flame to Light the 1947 Rye Bonfire
Tandem Relay with the Torch carring the flame to Light the 1947 Rye Bonfire

Then there were the people, the great bonfire boys of the past, names like Frank Taylor, Alf Horner, Bobby Edwards, Frank Hall, Dudley Bear, Maureen Bear, Charlie Tomlin, George Fletcher, John Winter, Ernie Odell, Clifford Bloomfield, Bill Carey, Jim McConnell, Tom Upton and so many others. In addition to preparations for their explosive night of the year, the Bonfire Boys and Girls of those times found the talent, time and ‘tanners’ to organise Variety Shows, Pantomimes, Kiddies Parties, Christmas Present Delivery, Sideshows and Teas at Rye Sports Days, Dances, Film Shows, the list is endless, all to raise cash to put on the great show. Times have changed but the Bonfire Boys of today have  stayed as true to their traditions as modern restrictions and new laws allow.


Those Bonfire Boys of old, and a few of them do still survive, would take their hats off to the men and women of today’s Rye Bonfire Society who put so much effort into making today’s Celebrations into such a fine spectacle.

Almost seventy years ago in 1945 the Second World War had just reached it’s terrible conclusion with the discovery of the death camps in Europe and the dropping of two atom bombs on Japan. The British military survivors of the six year conflict had returned home to their families and were picking up the pieces.

By November they were looking to have fun again and the Rye Fawkes Pageant was revived in that same year. The Mayor of Rye, Alderman J. Cooper, announced that “The people of Rye and their neighbours have experienced many grim incidents of the War during my term of office. A ‘Guy Fawkes Pageant’ should help to recapture some of those joyous moments of the past that are so worthy of preservation.”

The Vikings Tablaux entered by Rye Shipyard Workers
The Vikings Tablaux entered by Rye Shipyard Workers in 1946

In the offices at “Rye’s Own” is a battered file which bears the title ‘Bonfire Nights 1946-53. Contained therein is a treasured 1946 programme which says so much about Rye at that time.

It records the names of the men and women who were the heart and sole of the town. Ernie Odell the Cycle Man, Alfred Horner who was to become one of the greatest Mayor’s this town has ever seen, Arthur Paine, Jim Pilcher, George Pope, W. Clark, Mrs. M. H. Mackechnie, E. H. Stutely, J. H. Langton, Reginald Prebble, John Winter, Clifford Bloomfield, Bobby Edwards, Frank Taylor, Walter Dawes, Miss J. Downey, C. Standen, Vic Clark, Miss J. Larkin, Mrs. J. Lee, L. Adair, Mrs. Ashbee, Mrs. W. Bodilly, Ernie Goddard, Frank Small, Mrs. Stonham, P. Jempson, Miss Lister, Les Page, Frank Bourne and Sonny Martin to name just a few.

Jim Sargent and Mrs. Sargent hold the torch as the Mayor of Westminster lights the flame that will be carried 60 miles to Rye to light the Rye Bonfire of 1948
Jim Sargent and Mrs. Sargent hold the torch as the Mayor of Westminster lights the flame that will be carried 60 miles to Rye to light the Rye Bonfire of 1947

Jim Sargent and Mrs. Sargent hold the torch as the Mayor of Westminster ignites the flame that will be carried 60 miles by bicycle before lighting the 1947 Rye bonfire.


New Ryers may not recognise many of these names but those who have been around a while will recall most of them with great fondness. The Bonfire celebrations of that time were a much less inhibited events than those we know today. There were few regulations, no insurance and the whole thing was run on a lot of common sense, good luck and the ability of the Rye Fire Brigade to cope with any problems. In 1945 one of the tableaux, “Mutiny on the Bounty” suffered  bad luck. Coloured flares set light the sails and the blaze necessitated the attention of the National Fire Service (as it was still known) who were handicapped by the fire igniting a large number of fireworks in the boat. (‘Twas a grand show!)

In 1947 the Firework display was staged by Joseph Wells & Son ‘Sole Pyrotechnists to Henley Royal Regatta’, the programme proudly announced. Efforts were made to entice Sir Winston Churchill to become Rye Fawkes in 1953. Sadly he declined the offer. He had possibly heard of the terrifying trip that each occupier of that sedan has to endure going to and coming back from the giant pyre. Indeed, when the famous musical comedy actress Evelyn Laye was announced in the programme it did also state she would present the prizes at Bryan’s Garage IF she survived the trip.

The Original Dragon of Rye
The Original Dragon of Rye


By 1953 the ‘Dragon of Rye’ with a ten foot long tongue of flame shooting from it’s mouth with a terrifying roar, had been introduced to the procession. It was such a brilliant creation it was taken from town to town winning prize after prize. These days he would not be welcome by ‘Health and Safety’ and would be banned from the streets. Today we have his much gentler grandson, the Jolly Green Dragon.

Spivs Paradise
Spivs Paradise


Of the fifty or so advertisers in the 1953 programme only two businesses still exist. Adams and Rose Anne.  Alas so many old Rye firms are no more. Gone also are the words of the Bonfire Boys Hymn, written back in 1948 by Frank Taylor and sung on every parade and stage event organised by the boys, forgotten in the mist of time – Or are they. Rye’s Own knows someone who remembers them and they are recorded here. We shall be listening out for them at this years Parade.

Rye Bonfire Hymn

(sung to the tune of Sussex by the Sea)

We are the Bonfire Boys, we are the Bonfire Boys, We know our manners. we collect the Tanners we are respected wherever we go

When we march along Cinque Ports Street doors and windows open wide We’re the boys that make most noise we’re the boys that built the Guy We are the Bonfire Boys.

This year’s event will be its usual colourful success but those that remember the crisp November nights of yesteryear will recall those great figures and characters who lit up the night on the fifth in days gone by. Bonfire Anecdotes From the days when Rye Burned its Boats. A wealthy resident in the High Street declined to subscribe to Bonfire Funds. On the great night a blazing boat was hauled through the town and broke adrift immediately outside his newly painted house. Unfortunately, the heat was so great that a chain could not be affixed and the boat was left to burn out. It is understood that he became a regular subscriber in after years.

A strenuous police effort to prevent the usual passage of a burning boat resulted in a cry for water. A bucket was hastily produced and the contents (paraffin) thrown on the flames. In former days, six special constables were sworn in for “the fifth.” Four played cards and two kept a look-out for the regular police.

In 1945 it was impossible to arrange a professional Firework Display and local traders reserved their entire stocks for the “Bonfire Boys” November 3rd. 1946. The fireworks for Rye had been lost in transit – In reply to frantic phone calls, a duplicate set was sent by road in time for the 5th. The famous Burning Boat emblem that appears on the programme each year was designed by Mrs. Mackehnie in 1946.

Burning Boat Emblem
Burning Boat Emblem


British soldiers used captured German fireworks for a “Victory” display at the end of the War. A rocket containing thousands of Swastikas was NOT used. Guy Fawkes came from a respectable Yorkshire family, his father was a Notary at York and Registrar and Advocate of the Consistory Court of the Cathedral. The date of his birth is unknown – his death 1606

Rye’s Own November 2014

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