Bonfire in Rye

By Jimper

The late sixties and early seventies heralded the end of a period of great success in the history of Rye Bonfire Society. Bonfire in Rye nearly died as the older members came to their end and the young ones that had taken part in the late fifties and early sixties had much more to interest themselves with. It was, to many of them, much more fun to chase the pretty girls and dance the new twist to the vibrant noise of a pop group, than organise a raffle or arrange a table at a jumble sale. The swinging sixties saw the bonfire members’ numbers drop drastically to end the decade with only five fully paid up members.

Together we managed to put on our last fifth with my own personal bank manager telling me he was not prepared to lend me any more money to waste on fireworks. That year I had to pay for them out of my own pocket. And so the Society took a break until Andy Robinson and his wife revived it five years later.

When I was the leader, in name only, many of our meetings often took place in my van or car parked up somewhere in Rye because we could not afford to hire a room and the main attractions of the Society had worn out.

The famous dragon that breathed fire from his nostrils had been dismantled by the local school kids as a project and was never resurrected, ending its days out on the local town tip in the council field. The Bloater Boat was out of operation with two flat tyres and no crew to serve the smoked fish and bread. The new hygiene rules were now coming into force and the rats that may have visited the boat for eleven months of the year were no longer invited on 5th November. Each year one of the lads would have taken a tractor up to the field opposite the Peace and Plenty at Playden where the vessel had stood under the hedge from last year and drying it out empty it of dead leaves and nests. A six-inch paintbrush and a bucket of whitewash to paint the price of the wares on the side of the hull, then a coke brazier was stood in the middle and a plate of rusty steel placed over it to warm the bloaters upon. The bread in trays were loaded in the bows, all the flags and bunting that came to hand were strung up in the wire rigging along with the stuffed parrot as their mascot.

Then the contraption was parked on the grass verge opposite Bryants Garage (now Skinners). A Tilly lamp and the road side street lamp was all the lighting they had and woe betide anyone who bought one of the fish, not knowing the true nature of the creation in their hands, for a bloater is nothing other than a complete herring, guts and all, salted, then hung up and smoked over a smouldering fire of oak sawdust. Any complaints to the chefs in the boat, of bones or any thing else were answered with a replacement or two thrown at one.

The burning boat, the symbol of Rye Bonfire Society, was also dragged from retirement in the hedge. A large thirty-foot steel lifeboat from a cross channel ferry welded to an iron chassis on wheels was all it consisted of. Into this was loaded a lot of old wood, car tyres and cans of waste oil to make a fire in the stern. The burning boat was always the last tableaux in the procession followed well behind by the local fire engine. The reason for its position in the procession became clear as they passed along the narrow streets. You could see nothing other than black choking smoke after it’s passing. The sides of the hull used to glow red and the heat had been known to crack shop windows and make paint peel from the street side property. Today, 2005, it would be illegal, as it probably was then, to make the spectators suffer the heat and pollution all in the name of fun.

There was never any problem getting a crew to man the Bloater or Burning Boat in those days for the jobs were jealously guarded by last year’s crew who were following in their fathers’ chosen profession for that night.

The idea of a Burning Boat as the emblem for Rye is supposed to have originated from the days when the French attacked Rye and the inhabitants preferred to burn their Sussex oak craft rather than let the French capture them. The traditions of a burning boat lives on to this day and each year Rye has a boat of some description on the fire.

One year while I was the boss, we were asked if we would accept a large yacht to dispose of. The owner said he “would put it on site for us” so that year we built our fire around this thirty foot monster. The night was what we called a wet one; it never stopped raining and as the winter came on, more rain, and the ground turned to thick mud as only Sussex earth can make. Before Christmas in Sussex they say it is of the loving kind; “it clings to you!” Then in the New Year it is called Sussex butter because it spreads on anything it touches. Well it was our societies job to clear the town salts of all the rubbish after Bonfire Night. That particular year the ground was so soft that we were unable to take a tractor on it so everything had to be manhandled off the field in sacks and dustbins.

Alas, unknown to us, the large yacht we had been given and gladly accepted had a huge keel of iron filled with concrete and it now lay in the wet ashes. There was no way we could move it and it lay on the salts all winter until after Christmas the local council threatened to sue us with costs for its removal.

My solution was the best anyone could come up with. The idea had come to me as I dug a trench for a drain on the farm, so one dark night six of us lads and girls took spades and dug a trench alongside the keel and let it slip into what now is its grave; then we back filled the hole and tossed the earth around until it was spread into the surrounding mud. The following morning the eyesore had mysteriously vanished and the council were happy. Few people know that two feet below the grass is a large piece of old iron and concrete hidden by us!

Today both Bloater boat and a real burning boat are only a memory, but the dragon has been reinstated in the form of a magnificent metal scale clad beast with flashing lights and theatrical smoke, along with the Burning Boat, albeit only a model lit with red lights. The grand firework display is professionally run, the fireworks set off electronically. No more fumbling for a match in a gale of wind and driving rain to light the blue touch paper.

               THE BONEFIRE FETE

Each year the Bonfire Society was broke. All the money we collected on the night in boxes was counted the following day and distributed to the local charities at a meeting soon afterwards so the society members had to gather money for the next year. It was the same old struggle. Dances on Saturday nights in the winter were good moneyspinners but as the seventies approached, dances went out of fashion and nightclubs with discos took over. A large raffle was a good bet with most of the shops in town giving something as a prize and one year soon after Pontins holiday camp arrived at Camber, they gave us a holiday as a prize.

The summer was fete time and I remember the Mayor of Rye, Mrs Phillpots, opening an event and starting the day off by buying ten shillings worth of tickets for the tombola whose top prize was a huge teddy bear donated by the famous Deans Rag Books who had a factory in the town and employed many people. It was a sad day when they left Rye to go west.

The tombola stands out in my mind because on that day, the fete goers trying to win the large bear eagerly sought the tickets. At the end of the day only a hand full remained and a young lady with a small girl bought the last of all the tickets. But alas the winning one was not among them. The woman rightly wished to know where the winning ticket was as she thought it was some kind of fiddle. I gave her the toy and apologised. The only explanation was that earlier on someone had bought the ticket and not noticed it was a winner. So ended the day and we heard no more but it left a nasty taste in my mouth. The winning ticket had been in the drum I can assure you.

The odd dance we put on could be a flop or a roaring success. One such dance at Beckley Village Hall was slow to take off and three young lads of nine or ten were hanging around the door. I went to ask them if they would move and leave the entrance clear, they stood gawping while I rolled a cigarette and asked me if it was grass, ‘meaning marijuana’. It was in fact nothing more than Golden Virginia but the lads insisted they wished to try some drugs.

One hour later they still lurked around the door begging to have a drag so to keep them quiet, I told them to go away and come back in a few minuets while I sorted one out for them, as soon as they were out of sight I picked up a handful of new mown dry grass cuttings and unseen by them rolled a fat joint for them. They were over the moon with their adult treasure. They sat outside on a low wall and lit it up, soon to vanish into a veil of choking smoke and not long after left for home looking rather green. I hope they never tried the dreaded weed again!

Again a raffle on the night would be good for accumulating funds, as all the prizes would be donated by the good folk of Rye. In the sixties Rye had a large and varied amount of shops and an awful lot of them supported the Bonfire Society.

                       The Last Supper

The Society has always got on very well with the council and police. One year I remember someone from the council office let us down rather badly. One of the local groups (no names, but older people will know who) was making a tableaux for the night and needed to know the dimensions of land gate arch. They were quite capable of measuring for themselves the width but the height was another matter, so they asked one of the chaps in the local council office when they were still in Rye. Whether they got duff information or could not read a tape measure I don’t know but some how they made the thing too high. The resulting consequences were catastrophic.

The crowd loved every minute of it on the night as the tractor driver quite unaware of any problem lined his tractor up and watching the front wheels so he did not run any one over, for it was a tight fit with all the crowds jostling in the way, gave the engine the gun unaware that he was never going to get underneath. The participants on the float-leapt for their lives as the whole thing collapsed and was swept from the trailer onto the road.

That year a near naked float toured the town in the procession with a small fire blazing in the middle and along side it a bundle of dead rabbits on a stick, and over the back a dead fox on a pole. The tableau was supposed to depict a tramps’ supper with a group of tramps having dinner beneath a tall tree, a topical event for that year as Rye had been suffering a lot of trouble in the area from men of the road. Alas the fir tree had been their downfall. It was too high by a foot, the rope lashings snapped and the tree had dragged cooking pot and bed gear aside.

The dead fox was later found tied to the gas lamp that lit the railway bridge over the lines at the bottom of Rye hill. Each evening a man walked from the station carrying a pole with a hook on the end and pulled a ring on a chain to light the lamp and extinguished it in the morning never bothering about the fox that swung from the lamp standard. It hung there many days before someone cut it down. Today there would be uproar if a dead animal was displayed like that but then it was a different age.

Even the fireworks were different in those days; most of the things that went skywards were propelled by rockets that had long sticks and what goes up must come down, or it did in my young days. Today the junk NASA place in orbit stays up. The following morning there was a scramble by the local kids to retrieve the spent sticks from the River Bank where they had fallen back to earth. Woe betide anyone the night before below in the crowds of spectators when a rocket went astray!

Catherine Wheels were another big attraction. Nailed to a post that was firmly driven in the ground, the bigger the firework the more spectacular the display. Keeping them at home sometimes caused a problem for if they came adrift from the nail holding them, they vanished across the field and one could only hope the crowd saw it coming if that was the way it chose to go! Sometimes they had the habit of chasing the team that were endeavouring to set the next firework off and they seldom followed a straight line.

The whole procession leading to the fire site was lit by hundreds of blazing torches. These had been made by the local society well in advance. The team making them would gather usually in early September and go to some wood that we had been given permission to cut what we wanted. We then proceeded to saw and chop the right thickness poles down, clean them of twigs and saw them into four-foot lengths. We then bundled them up in twenty fives. These then had to be carried to our transport and taken to the old shed to have the Hessian sacking heads wrapped around them. The cloth was wired on (no nails) for fear of someone treading or driving over a spent torch on the night. They then had to be soaked in oil and paraffin for a few days before draining and stacking, trying to keep the poles from getting covered in oil. Then the day before the fire, they would be again dipped in paraffin so as to take fire and light up easily. The following day they were loaded on the transport and taken to Town and placed at strategic points around the streets to be guarded by members until the time came to distribute them out to the societies. The points for distribution on the night were well known to all the societies, and all the spent sticks are now doused in drums of water. The old spent sticks had to be picked up off the streets before the following day. Now a-days there is a team called the Green Dragons that tow iron trolleys behind the procession making an awful lot of noise, gathering them up as they go.

In my day the fire was built over a couple of days and lads slept in it to guard it from stray matches. One such chap was Ted Clayton he slept inside the fire all through the Fifties up to the Sixties. Now it is built in a day with the help of forklifts and tractors. The site is inspected by the Health and Safety Officer from the Council and the police then check to make sure it complies with a safety zone around it. Nowadays safety is number one on any agenda.

In my young days the height and safety zone was governed by the amount of rubbish we could collect and pile up, and by nothing else. The safety aspect was governed not by the police but by the heat. If it was too warm, you moved; there was no law to say how close you stood to the blazing fire. On wet nights I have witnessed people steaming from their wet clothes as they dried out.

March 2005 Issue of “Rye’s Own”

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