Sussex is famed for its impressive celebration of Guy Fawkes in a season which runs from August to Mid-November! Wrapped into this so called Sussex Bonfire season is Edenbridge – which is in Kent! However, this and just over the border Hawkhurst, are the only two Kent commemorations worthy of inclusion in this cannon…Many Kent villages and towns have bonfires and fireworks. None by this village go all out with processions and giant effigies as does Edenbridge.
Edenbridge has been commemorating for many centuries this unsuccessful attack on democracy. Records in the 18th century record:
“Paid for guarding the bridge at Gunpowder Treason 10/”
Why? For many years it was the aim of those organising the event to light the bonfire in the centre of the main bridge into the town! An expensive business all around – especially for the authorities who paid £3 15s 2d was spent on liquor for the guards in 1709. Clearly this method did not stop the riotous aspects for by 1886 there is a record of:
“lighted barrels with turpentine balls”
being rolled down the town. However, as such dangerous behaviours were causing out and out conflict and the curtailing of such commemorations, Edenbridge formalised their procedures in 1928, forming like others a Bonfire Society…their first event attracted 700 people and made 25s. Basically all that has changed over those years is the numbers of attendees and the money raised. A report in 1946 by a John Pudney in The Illustrated called BIG BANG AT EDENBRIDGE notes:
“If all the three thousand inhabitants of a township in the county of Kent were to emerge from their homes waving lighted torches upon a November evening, it would be considered quite a party. But I have to report, better than this. In the midst of our autumnal austerity there is to be a great outburst of light: and happiness which will shine throughout the weald of Kent. Ten thousand torches, made of tow wrapped upon the ends of stakes and dipped in waste oil are to flare for fifteen minutes each in the enterprising township of Edenbridge on the evening of November 5.”
What has changed is unity. Back in 1946 as noted:
“The township is divided into three rival sections: Marlpit Hill, Church Street and Lingfield Road. Each of these sections works, in the friendliness of deadly rivalry, to produce the most fancy and colourful procession.”
Now only one procession travels through the town. I arrived a few minutes beforehand just as the crowds were building up and lining the road through the town from the bridge to the main road which passed around. There was a tangible feeling of excitement in the air, children hang onto railings swinging their glowing swords, adults peered down the road…could they hear something. There was a slight muffled sound of a band which could be hear ahead in the gloom, but soon a glow…a glow which became brighter and brighter…the flaming torches were coming our way. Soon they were hear headed suitably or ironically enough by a fire engine. Behind could be seen the Gunpowder Bishop and his assembled priests, who chanted “what shall we do to him?”…”burn him”. Just behind him were large walking effigies of Guy Fawkes, local Catholic although rather an innocent in the whole affair, Anne Boleyn (headless with her head tucked under her arm) and probably at the time, the biggest culprit Pope Paul IV. According to Tony Foxworthy’s Customs in Kent these were on spikes but they certainly looked more impressive as walking giant puppets. Behind Cowboys and Native Americans and then there were the familiar Bonfire boys in their black and red ‘smuggler’s” attire also carrying torches. It was pleasing to see a number of other teams joining especially as some such as Ifield do not have their own processions so nice to see them included, then some Mexican day of the dead characters. Then came the themed floats – children’s TV and games old and new – to which we saw Pacman, Endoman, Ghostbusters and some rather incredible Alice in Wonderland characters, Cheshire Cat, Playing cards etc…the parade passing by with much noise and cheering on its way to the fireworks field.
What strikes you is that compared to other Bonfire processions, this is very clearly a community event. Especially children, indeed the majority of floats contained cheering children who were clearly loving every minute. Even the local Catholic school used to get involved. An account by Jon Mitchell amusingly recalls:
“One of my funny memories came a couple of years later, when I asked dear Reverend Mother Barnes of St Andrews Convent whether she thought it would be appropriate for the convent school (now sadly closed) to enter a float in the procession. After all, bonfire is about celebrating the failure of the Catholic plot of 1605 to blow up Parliament and all the Protestants within it. She had a very broad mind, a sense of humour and thought it would be good for the School. Our first float at St Andrews celebrated the opening of the new Dartford Crossing in 1991.
After that came a succession of floats and walking parties including the Election of Bill Clinton (with Leslie Dix dressed as the Statue of Liberty 20 feet up in the air), The Phantom of the Opera, Starlight Express (it was amazing to watch parents scrabble to be in the team and learn to roller skate just so that they could take part in the procession), and Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.”
Today schools, scouts and many local firms get involved in the colourful procession.
One hell of a Guy
The huge congregation poured into the field..the grounds of which were muddy to say the least. We all waited facing the gloom and in some distance could be seen faintly the effigy of Guy Fawkes and his companion. Edenbridge is justly famous for producing the country’s largest Guy a two dimensional wooden caricature. However it is the companion as which has become the main reason why Edenbridge’s commemoration has become world famous..and yes I mean world famous..as it was reported in all the national and many international websites and papers as far as Japan. There might have been a bigger reason for the coverage this year. These have ranged from Jacque Chiraq in 1997, Gordon Brown in 2000 and Blair in 2004. However, previous ‘victims’ have generally been parochial – such as soon to be forgotten Katie Hopkins – in 2015 it was FIFA president Seth Blatter.
Pray for fine weather?
Every bonfire organisers scans the local weather for a promising, hoping and praying for no rain or strong winds. In 2015 the weather was quite mild. But of course there is another prayer – the bonfire prayer. The account from 1946 reads:
“Here beside the bonfire, ‘the Bishop,’ Harry Oliver; who in calmer times paints houses, delivers the traditional set-piece address, which goes like this:
“We are assembled here tonight to try the arch-traitor, Guy Fawkes – a renegade Yorkshireman, soldier of fortune, who fought for Continental, overlords, who paid him the biggest remuneration, regardless of religion, breed or political faith. In 1605 he was eventually commissioned by Lord Percy and Catesby, chief conspirators in the Gun Powder Plot, brought back to the country and ordered to blow up the King and Parliament.
“A message was, however, sent by one of the conspirators, a double crosser, to a peer of Parliament when this dirty deed would be perpetrated – on receipt of this message the cellars were caused to be searched, with the result that the dastardly plot was frustrated.
“Guy Fawkes was arrested and, in the face of all these facts. I ask you. girls and boys-shall this traitor die?” (Response):” Yes!” “What shall we do with him?” (Response): “Burn him!”
This is the climax, dedicated to the evil memory of a gentleman \undoubtedly brave, and by many accounts honest, who desired to blow up the very substance of English liberty.”
As we waited for 8 pm the allotted time for the fireworks, the Bishop with his congregation eerily carrying their flaming torches marched across the field to an illuminate area and more importantly a microphone to read the so called ‘prayer’. In 1946 the account records:
“Every time the Edenbridge “Bonfire Boys,” as they delight to call themselves, meet together they conclude their proceedings with a solemn recitation of the Bonfire Prayers, These prayers are a bit of that stubborn Old English magic, whose purpose’ is almost forgotten, whose exhortation is almost irrelevant, but whose words somehow stick upon the young tongues of our children, even in these atomic times, when barrels of gunpowder would seem to be almost an old-fashioned remedy.”
Yet 60 years later they hadn’t changed and despite some of the audience being unaware of the words and even in one case criticising the historical accuracy of it, the main parts were still gleefully recited:
“Remember, remember the 5th of November The Gunpowder, Treason and Plot, I see no reason why gunpowder treason Should ever be forgot. Guy Fawkes, Guy Fawkes, ’twas his intent To blow up the King and Parliament Three score barrels of power below Poor old England to overthrow, By God’s providence he was catched With dark lantern and burning match Just about to light the prime Caught him in the nick of time. Holla Boys, Holla Boys, ring boys ring, Holla Boys, Holla Boys,God save the King.”
At the very moment as the crowd cried ‘holla holla boys holla’ there was an almighty bang and Guy’s face was blown off. Then began one of the most impressive and loud firework displays I had ever heard. After about half an hour of bombarding..silence descended and a voice could be heard over the speakers introducing their next victim – Seth Blatter…at this point he was lit up and the ‘Bishop’ cried out ‘what shall we do with him?” “Burn him!”…then there was another enormous explosion and Seth lost his head! This heralded even more fireworks! Soon the large flurry of sound and light ended and the town’s commemoration of this event 400 years ago ended for another year.