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1881: How Cuckfield celebrated 'Guy Fawkes Night'

Updated: Nov 23, 2020

Throughout our country, Bonfire Night 2020 will be a subdued affair. Public firework celebrations have all been cancelled due to social distancing rules: Cuckfield’s traditional and hugely successful ‘Fireworks to Music’ Event, which raises many thousands of pounds for local charities has been postponed and the rule against social gatherings of more than six mean garden parties are also set to be smaller.

Hopefully all will be back to normal at Cuckfield Park in November 2021, but in the absence of spectacle this year, here is a retrospective glance at typical Cuckfield ‘Guy Fawkes’ Night revelry in the 19th century.




'Monday evening—the night set apart for the observance this annual saturnalia broke dull, damp, foggy, and weird, over the ancient town, as business was suspended, shops closed, and the sound of stray crackers, and the sharp crack of distant squibs, betokened the arrival of the annual carnival.

It was night which must have amply satisfied the most ardent of the bonfire boys, for the elements were very considerate, and, if the eccentric clerk of the weather was duly impressed with the “importance” of bonfire celebrations in Sussex, he assumed an aspect accordingly, put on his best behaviour, and arrayed himself in proper “muggy’’ garb; for all of which the various representatives of periods past, present, and future, in the shape of the bonfire braves of Cuckfield, must have felt extremely obliged, and devoutly thankful.

Half-past six saw most of the “celebrants” in battle array, at the front head-quarters, the Talbot Hotel, after a little preliminary canter round the town, to herald the grand event, and to remind the Cuckfieldians of their historical and patriotic obligations. And here was a medley assortment of characters and representatives to the number of 100 or thereabouts, besides a number of “non-professionals,” who were not supposed to be members of the sacred circle of the “boys.”

'Bonfire Boys' on the march

Here were gentlemen dressed in the costumes of Charles I. period—cavaliers and roundheads, gentlemen of the time of George II. and III., “gentlemen” of the period with girls of the ditto, picturesque Red Riding Hood, sleepy old ladies in their night costume, armed with a torch, poking about as if searching for a needle in haystack, or else for the man in the moon; an individual with the head of a superannuated lion gracefully posed on his own, and a tail gracefully sticking out of his back, a military looking brave, with a headpiece which was not a bad imitation of King Humbert of Italy—the luxurious moustache forming a most “taking" feature.

Then were there was the Sussex labourer, the ditto farmer, Britannia, — in the shape of a very graceful helmeted “girl,” indescribables, and idiots, in fact all and every character, from your imposing dragoon to your sulphureous imps, were most faithfully represented, with the exception of a parson, and that useful class of the community was unrepresented - simply a slight omission no doubt. So much for the characters, and having imbibed a little inspiration, procession No. 1 started about seven o’clock, the No. 1 aforesaid being a comparatively simple affair to the glorious tableaux which was to follow.

The motley army, already described, started from the hotel, headed by the St. John’s Common brass band, with the usual concomitants of such processions, amid volley of squibs, crackers, and other fireworks. The Ship Inn at the extreme north of the town having been reached, a short stay was made, when the return march was effected, the centre of the fiery column being agreeably relieved by the presence and performances of a juvenile rough band.

Head-quarters being again reached, “inspiration” was again sought, and then came the “fancy dress ball” in the front of the hotel, when the carnival reached its most enthusiastic height. A large space having been cleared, the “ladies and gentlemen” having posed themselves in dancing array, and the band having struck up the “Laughing polka” (in which the vocal chorus “Keep it up, keep it up,” was now and again introduced) the kaleidoscopic dance began—and also finished—in about hour.

Another adjournment to the mess room during which two or three of participants endeavoured to do the entertainment on the platform —and then came the final scene—and one that might almost called artistic, if that word could describe the elaborate display.

But there, a simple reporter’s descriptive power “ain’t in it.” What tongue could expatiate upon, or pen describe, or pencil depict, the wonderful sea-piece in the centre of the final procession, with Neptune seated on a nautical car, surrounded by sailor boys, dolphins, and Brobdignagian red herrings. Language fails when we attempt to describe the “hero of the hour,” Charles Stewart Parnell, which formed the second figure in the tableaux, manfully standing on an infernal machine, labelled “dynamite,” and carrying the portfolio of the Land League in his palsied hand, borne on the shoulders of four stalwart guys.

This mighty column, with its tar barrels, torches, sulphureous flambeaux, its handsome cavaliers, bye-gone gentlemen, and fiery dancing devils, then advanced—this noble 100 - with crackers to the left of them, squibs to the right of them, fire in front of them, tar barrels behind them, volleying and thundering—first Ockenden-lane, by way of South-street, then, augmented by the hundreds that lined the streets, up the old fashioned High-street, the band playing popular airs all the while, to the place of execution, the Rose and Crown field. Arrived there, a large bonfire was in readiness,

Charles Stewart Parnell (1846 –1891)

Agitator Parnell imposingly planted on the top, and the gloomy pile fired, till Parnell soon yielded to the scorching element, meekly bowed his head or his hat, we forget which—and gave up the ghost, amid the cheers, yells, and shrieks of the enthusiastic populace. Fireworks from the west of the field concluded the display, and Cuckfield and his wife went home to bed shortly after 11'.

Charles Stewart Parnell (27 June 1846 – 6 October 1891) was an Irish nationalist politician who served as Leader of the Home Rule League from 1880 to 1882. He served as a member of parliament (MP) from 1875 to 1891. - (wikipedia)

Effigies, fires and fireworks have been the order of the evening for many-a-year it seems.


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