Bonfire Nights in the 19th Century

Bonfire Nights in the 19th Century

Nights of Terror:

The commemoration of Guy Fawkes’ abortive attempt in 1605 to blow up the Parliament buildings with the King, Lords and Commons in them, has persisted for so long that it deserves to rank among the historic features of the town, although the date on which it was first celebrated is not known with certainty. The methods and extent of the festivities to-day do not bear any comparison with the ‘glorious fifth’ of the latter half of the 19th century, when boats laden with lighted tar barrels were dragged through the narrow streets.

In fact, from the late 1840′s until the mid 1880′s, the 5th of November celebrations were ‘a time of terror’ among numbers of the inhabitants. The subsidence of terror is remarked on by contemporary commentators. Here is an example:

Time is said to work and it would be strange if to such a night of disorder, there was to be no end. A change appears to have come o’er the scene, and there is little to report of the proceedings on the night of Tuesday last [November 5th, 1889]. Whilst the town has not filled up . . . to the extent of Hastings in its daring smuggling propensities, in which the law has set at defiance, it has the notoriety that, once a year, the roughs in hundreds have openly defied the powers that be and challenged them to stay their hand in their diabolical work of destroying all moveable, inflammable property anywhere in the neighbourhood.

The adventures of some who once joined in the reckless sport is, nevertheless, somewhat interesting, as they relate to the incident which gave them a name for daring among their fellows. These characters no more feared the officers of the law on that night, however strong they might be, than the famous ‘ Death and Glory Boys’ in their military prowess cared about facing a foreign foe.

The incident of the Gunpowder Plot, when Guy Fawkes and his confreres were so providentially discovered ere the work of anarchy had arrived at a successful issue, has been well preserved, but that, we are inclined to believe, was little thought of by them. In the removal of many, and the decrease of some, great changes have naturally been effected, and there are not a few who have of late seen the folly of such boisterious conduct, or, through advancing years are sobered down by the stern realities of life, for it must be remembered that it is among those more distinguished as ‘hobbledehoys’ that these games have been carried out.

The work of the evening generally commenced with a gorgeous street procession, in which were numbers arrayed in the most grotesque and ludicrous attire conceivable. Had matters stayed there, there would have been little to chronicle : but it was the after proceedings. . . .

We well remember the night when Superintendent Butcher was felled to the ground with a loaded bludgeon and taken away insensible (which blow, without doubt, shortened his life). On the same night the only police constable we then had (now Superintendent Bourne) was tripped up, and had to go home with a sprained ankle, so that for the rest of the night the town was at the mercy of these desperadoes.”

Disgraceful conduct was shown to the late Mr Payne by the mob. As he was anxious to save his boat, he boarded it, and kept watch. He was thrown over the side into the mud by the roughs, and badly used, and that cannot be eradicated from the memory of those who witnessed the occurance. Finding that it was impossible to remove the craft, it was burnt at the water’s edge.”

Attempts at reform: Failed!

Several attempts have been made to organise, so that the stealing of boats, etc, should be dispensed with, and the celebrations carried out in an orderly manner.

In 1879 an organised Society was formed, and on the 5th there was a splended procession: but some refused to join, and consequently the ‘originals’ carried on the old game. About ten o’clock the two processions encountered each other in Cinque Ports Street, and the ‘originals’ being the stronger of the two parties, the tug upon which the boat of the others was being drawn was seized. For a time a melee seemed to be imminent, clubs being freely used.

This was the night on which the famous-model of the polysphemic ship, invented by the Rev C.M.Ramus, and valued at £40, was stolen from a meadow near the Rectory in Iden, and carried triumphantly to Rye, where it was quickly destroyed. In 1880 a boat at the Fishmarket, serving the purpose as a hut, in which a man known as Punch Moore resided, was destroyed, and the man, resisting, experienced some rough handling from the mob.

Another man secured his boat by sinking it, to save it from the flames. In this year Mr J.C.Hoad a shipbuilder, was struck by the desperadoes because he remonstrated with them for taking his timber tug. A blow rendered him insensible and gave him a scalp wound. Not until nearly five o’clock next morning was the town quieted.

In 1881, Mr Crowhurst’s boat and Mr Millsom’s casks were taken; and in the following year, 1882, Mr Hayle’s pleasure boat removed to his back premises in the High Street, for safety, was deliberately taken and burnt, in spite of all pleading to the contrary. The County Police at the Chemical Works, in 1884, will have cause to recollect that date, owing to the powerful attack made on that place by the lawless gang.

That night was a memorable one. Several stolen barrels had that year been discovered and removed before the night, and the roughs were somewhat exasperated, and so they, with a determined spirit broke down a boat, which formed a lodge at Messrs Smith’s Shipyard, and carried it off triumphantly. The Crusader’s boat [the steam tug’s dinghy] they next intended to have, but Superintendent Bourne and P.C. Hanley, with a plucky staff of specials, prevented it being taken, for which act the Superintendent sustained several violent blows and was rendered insensible, whilst Henley’s helmet was battered in.

The next year the boat was actually taken and destroyed, and five suspected of taking part were brought before the Recorder, but dismissed.

Mr J.C.Vidler’s pleasure boat was taken from a lodge in Ferry Road. But as the Police would not allow the guilty ones to pass over the bridge, a fire party destroyed it, and it was thrown over the bridge into the Tillingham.

 Calmer Nights:

Since 1885 trouble has been on the decline, and nothing very serious has taken place. On Tuesday evening last, partially disguised, they marched through the streets, the old banners again being used, and several lighted tar barrels illuminated the scene. A number of extra police were on duty in place of special constables, as in former years, but no interference was made by them although the yelling and hooting of the youths which formed the procession was very great, and it was easily to be seen that the demonstration was very weak as compared with former years.

Only one boat was burned, and that, we understand, had been purchased. It had been dragged from the Fishmarket, across the Salts, to Bridge Place, where it was lighted, and very quickly drawn through the streets, the party at times running through the narrow thoroughfares at a dangerous pace. A little before midnight, a barrel, containing a quantity of tar was stolen after some violent but ineffectual resistance by the owner, Mr Watts, from his premises in Church Square (and we hear prosecution is likely to follow); it was taken as far as the Post Office, where it allowed to burn out. There was an amount of horse play, rotten eggs being some plentiful, and banter with a certain of the PCs whose conduct was certainly not to its credit. Three members of the force who remained deserve praise for the cool way in which they carried out their duties. Shortly after midnight Supt. Tobutt asked that the hose of the Brigade who were on duty in case of emergency should be used to quench the remains of the fire in front of the Post Office, and after trouble in obtaining water it was extinguished and the doings of the Fifth were at an end.

Such high goings on have now disappeared. To day, under the auspices of the Bonfire Boys, the Fifth is so far as is humanly possible an orderly and well-organised, full of merriment but utterly devoid of its former terror.

Cliff Bloomfield contributed these supplementary notes

The tugs referred to were used to carry logs to and from the saw pits; they consisted of a pair of large wooden wagons and a fulcrum also served as a draw bar.

I remember my Grandparents referring to the night when Rye was alight. In fact a gang entered the yard and set on fire a fishing smack named The Rye lying in a berth. The site became the Winchelsea Yacht Centre.

The Chemical Works of those days refined products from coal that arrived via the Harbour branch line. Tar and pitch had many uses, coating timber buildings, making surfaces etc.

My Grandmother used a simple little verse for skipping :

Old Punch Moore and two or three more,
Went down the river on the dunkin door,
The dunkin door began to crack
So old Punch M said we better get back.

Punch Moore, as we discovered, lived in a shack with an upturned boat for a roof at Fishmarket. This method of roofing a shed shelter was not uncommon.


Researched by ‘Rya’ (Kenneth Clark) and published in Rye ‘s Own, September 1999

For more history, anecdotes and a gallery concerning Rye Bonfire Nights go to   Rye and District Bonfire SocietyFeatured photo from

First posted in Rye Streets, Rye Town History on 9th December 2013
Last updated: 20th April 2017
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