Its that time of year again. The Bonfire Boys Flag flies over The Landgate and preparations are being made for the annual invasion of the streets of Rye by pirates, witches, Kings and Queens, skeletons, wenches, Cavaliers and Roundheads. The Bonfire Societies are almost exclusively from East Sussex and have a history that goes back even before the fateful night that Guy Fawkes and his cronies attempted to blow up Parliament.
We are told that Rye Bonfire Society was originally born out of annual celebrations to commemorate the returning of Rye Church bells that had been stolen when the town was sacked and burnt by the French in 1377. A year later, Rye men, supplemented by others from the sister town of Winchelsea, returned to France, sacked, pillaged and dragged burning boats around the streets of St. Peter’s Port and returned in triumph with the bells. A burning boat is paraded through the streets of Rye to this very day as a reminder of the raid on the French coast in 1378.
Today’s burning boat is a mere Health & Safety shadow of the burning boats that
were paraded around the streets of Rye on Bonfire night as recently as 1966. It was traditional the flaming hull was dragged at the back of the procession, save for the Fire Engine, which followed at the end. In 1966 the flames, which were stoked with liberal amounts of paraffin, got so were stoked with liberal amounts of paraffin, got so intense during the passage down The Mint that they were melting the insulation on the telephone wires that crisscrossed above the street. The procession ground to a halt as it often did when any of the large tableaux, pulled
by farm tractors, were held up. The boat was ablaze from stem to stern and the chaps aboard were now trying to get the blaze under some sort of control. At last the procession started moving again and the flaming boat went on to the wider streets of The Deals, The Strand, Wish Street and Cinque Ports Street. The damage had been done however, two recently painted doors in the Mint were blistered and burnt and the Bonfire Society had to ‘fork out’ and get them re-painted.
The same boat, it was an old metal hull fishing boat, was used year after year. It was even taken by members of the Rye Bonfire Society to other societies’ Bonfire Celebrations. It was on one such trip back from the Battle night of fire, that Rye’s burning boat, a vessel that had been used time and again since the end of World War Two, met her fate.
Persons who shall remain nameless were being carried in the boat, which still held a good fire at the rear of the hull to keep them warm on the long trip back behind a tractor with a top speed of 10 mph. The metal boat was glowing like a red hot poker as the boys topped up the flames from time to time to ward off the bitter cold wet rain that was typical of November in those days. THEN IT HAPPENED! The whole section that protruded over the back of the trailer gave up the ghost and broke away. It fell with a crash onto the road, the tractor driver was oblivious to all this, the noise of his engine drowned out the sound of metal crashing onto the turnpike and the yells of the occupants of the remaining section of hull, where they all couched, watching their warm fire disappearing into the distance
These are incidents from the comparatively recent past but going back a few decades from then there are tales of barrels of blazing tar being let loose down Conduit Hill and Mermaid Street and of boats being taken from The Strand, set on fire and dragged blazing around t he streets. At the end of t he Nineteenth Century there were two Bonfire Societies who fought pitch battles in the streets of the town and when the police arrived in force, they would join together and take on the Constabulary.
Fortunately, those days are long gone. Now Rye Bonfire Celebration is a safe, colourful family friendly occasion to be enjoyed by young and old alike. The only problem these days is it’s popularity. So many people attend it is difficult to move once the procession has passed on it’s second circuit of the town. The best place to be to witness everything is on Hilder’s Cliff very early and find a spot where the bonfire can be seen through the trees.
“Rye’s Own” November 2009
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