We are told that the history of ‘Bonfire’ in Rye goes back BEFORE the time of Guy Fawkes. Legend has it that the burning boat ceremony was first held in the town shortly after the men of Rye and Winchelsea raided the French town at St. Peter’s Port and retrieved the church bells that had been stolen in the French raid of the previous year. In the course of their revengeful rape and pillage they also pulled French boats out of the water and paraded them blazing through the streets. This event is still remembered in the traditional dragging of a burning boat in the Guy Fawkes procession.
The Dragon of Rye was the brainchild of Gerry Bellhouse who owned the garage beside Monkbretton Bridge. The Dragon, an amazing feat of engineering, was built at the garage and hit the streets around 1949. It was sensational, breathing fire in spurts more than five foot long. It was improved the following year by adding a cave coming out of the side of Rye. It soon became a hit and top prizewinner in Carnivals and Bonfire processions throughout the area.
The photograph of the Dragon of Rye at the head of this article has never previously been published. It was taken by one of Rye’s greatest artists, David Sharp, and was kindly loaned by Ben Sharp.
The picture below is a 1948 tableau presented by members of the Bonfire Society. Spiv’s Paradise was a topical subject for the time. Bobby Edwards, sixth from the left was involved in many Bonfire Society skits. Can you recognise any of the other Spivs?
Todays torchlight processions are in some ways different from those of the 1945-75 events. Then the procession was made up of 20 – 30 tableau, four or five marching bands, children in fancy dress, a ‘Bloater Boat’, Burning Boat and cascades of ‘bangers’ let off in the streets.
These days the excitement of the night is retained but in a less dangerous form. There are numerous marching groups in fancy dress from other Bonfire Societies carrying flaming torches, drum bands, dancing groups and some floats. There is a new ‘Dragon of Rye’ not quite so fearsome as his predecessor, in fact he has got the nickname of ‘Jolly Green Dragon’, but he is, none the less, a marvellous attraction and a credit to those who have built him.
Many old pictures and programmes were given to “Rye’s Own” by Freda Chapman, has anyone got copies of the period 1954 -1975? Or photographs, even newspaper reports? Any would be most welcome.
“Rye’s Own” November 2002
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