Sussex Bonfire Societies

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Members of the Lewes Borough Bonfire Society on Bonfire Night in Lewes, Sussex.

The Sussex Bonfire Societies are responsible for the series of bonfire festivals concentrated on central and eastern Sussex, with further festivals in parts of Surrey and Kent from September to November each year.

The celebrations mark both Guy Fawkes Night and the burning of 17 Protestant martyrs in Lewes's High Street from 1555 to 1557, during the reign of Mary Tudor.


The Sussex Bonfire tradition began in times when farm workers had little or no wages during the autumn and winter months. At the time it was common for workers to go house to house asking the residents for food, money or, if lucky, alcohol. Essentially it was begging, which was a criminal offence. To avoid repercussions (as many of these home owners were landlords or employers) it was customary to either dress up in costume or to use charcoal or scorched cork to blacken their faces. This way the revellers were free to cause mischief and mayhem without fear of punishment. These nights of revelry date back much further (including the Luddite/loom-breaking period), in history than Guy Fawkes and it was much later that the existing pagan traditions were appropriated for Christian and political aims.

In the 19th century Mark Antony Lower, an anti-Catholic propagandist and schoolmaster from Lewes,[1] inaugurated the cult of the Sussex martyrs after the publication of his 1851 book The Sussex Martyrs to recall the dire actions of Catholicism in Sussex.[2] Lower was aided by an etching by James Henry Hurdis of Richard Woodman and nine others being burnt.[3] This led to the creation of local Bonfire Societies who commemorated these events. For example, seven separate societies[4] organise events in the town of Lewes. On Fifth of November, the town hosts six separate bonfires.

Whereas Guy Fawkes's night in most parts of Great Britain is traditionally commemorated at large public fireworks displays or small family bonfires, towns in Sussex and Kent hold huge gala events with fires, parades and festivals. The tradition has remained strong for more than a century becoming the highlight of the year for many towns and villages in the Weald. The Bonfire Societies use the events to collect money for local charities.


The logistical set up required for the events often starts as early as February. This has led the Societies to pool resources and work together on each other's bonfires. This creates associated processions, with large festivals like Lewes and Hastings going on late into the night. Due to the size and number of events and mutual collaboration, it became impractical to hold all the bonfires on the traditional Fifth of November. This resulted in the "bonfire season" to be extended over ten weeks through September, October and November.

The first Sussex Bonfire Societies' event starts with the Uckfield Carnival on the first Saturday of September and concludes with Hawkhurst and Barcombe festivals on the third Saturday of November.

The Mayfield bonfire celebrations commemorate two of the Lewes Martyrs who were from the village and four more martyrs that were executed in the village, on a site opposite the current Colkins Mill Church in Station Road, on 24 September 1556. A stone monument to the Martyrs stands in the church's grounds. Mayfield's torchlit procession and carnival takes place on the Saturday nearest to 24 September.

Societies and processions can be broadly grouped into two main categories Carnival and Bonfire. Typically and not exclusively certain characteristics apply to each group. Carnival societies are generally much more family-oriented evenings where people turn out to have fun and make merry with music and laughter. Bonfire Societies are often the less family-oriented evenings typically with more drinking and debauchment occurring. However with ever increasing restrictions by Sussex Police this is reduced.

List of Bonfire Societies[edit]

Members of the Cliffe Bonfire Society drag burning tar barrels through the streets of Lewes as part of their Bonfire Night celebrations.

Defunct Bonfire Societies[edit]

See also[edit]


  • Dimmock, Matthew; Quinn, Paul; Hadfield, Andrew (2013). Art, Literature and Religion in Early Modern Sussex. Ashgate Publishing. ISBN 978-1472405227.


  1. ^ "East Sussex". The Keep. Retrieved 9 January 2017.
  2. ^ Dimmock, Quinn & Hadfield 2013, p. 200
  3. ^ Christopher Whittick, ‘Hurdis, James Henry (1800–1857)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, Sept 2004; online edn, Jan 2008 accessed 6 Nov 2009
  4. ^ a b c d e f g h, accessed November 2009
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  14. ^ "Bexhill Bonfire Society Facebook page". Bexhill Bonfire Society Facebook page.
  15. ^ "". Retrieved 2016-09-23.
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  17. ^ Chailey Bonfire Society (2013-01-27). "". Retrieved 2013-11-11.
  18. ^ "". Retrieved 2013-11-11.
  19. ^ [1] Archived September 30, 2011, at the Wayback Machine
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  22. ^ [3] Archived April 4, 2005, at the Wayback Machine
  23. ^ "". Retrieved 2013-11-11.
  24. ^ "". 2013-10-26. Retrieved 2013-11-11.
  25. ^ "". Retrieved 2013-11-11.
  26. ^ "Hastings Borough Bonfire Society". Retrieved 6 November 2016.
  27. ^ "". Retrieved 2013-11-11.
  28. ^ [4] Archived December 10, 2005, at the Wayback Machine
  29. ^ "Robin Hood Bonfire Society, Icklesham". 2000-11-05. Retrieved 2013-11-11.
  30. ^ "". Retrieved 2013-11-11.
  31. ^ "Littlehampton Bonfire Society". Retrieved 3 February 2014.
  32. ^ "Mayfield Bonfire Society". Retrieved 6 November 2016.
  33. ^ "". Retrieved 3 March 2017. External link in |publisher=, |title= (help)
  34. ^ "Newick Bonfire Society". Newick Bonfire Society. Retrieved 2013-11-11.
  35. ^ "". Retrieved 2017-11-19.
  36. ^ "". Retrieved 2013-11-11.
  37. ^ "". 2013-07-31. Retrieved 2013-11-11.
  38. ^ Seaford Bonfire Society. "". Retrieved 6 November 2014.
  39. ^ "". Retrieved 2013-11-11.
  40. ^ "Welcome to the South Heighton Bonfire Society". Retrieved 2013-11-11.
  41. ^ "". Retrieved 2013-11-11.

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