Re-birth of Newick Bonfire Society – A Definitive Account

By Roland Reynolds (1999)

In 1935 Harry (Young Crump) Fuller and my father decided to have a combined bonfire for John (Younger Crump) and myself in his garden that abutted onto the Bull yard. Several fellows came out of the Bull and Oak bars to join in the fun and an idea took root that it might be possible to re-establish the Bonfire Society that had become defunct prior to 1914.

In 1936 a group of enthusiasts built a fire in the Bull Field (what’s now the Health Centre end of Marbles Road) and a notice appeared outside our cottage, opposite the Oak, worded along the lines: “Everybody’s Bonfire. Procession starts from here 6.30pm Nov 5th. Fire and fireworks in Bull Field”. At 6.30 precisely my father wheeled out a guy on one of Fuller’s builder’s trolleys. A few dozen torches, made from old sacks and soaked in paraffin, were handed-out and we marched off, with my father playing ‘Sussex by the Sea’ on a mouth organ. The procession went round the pump and back to the Bull Field. The landlord of the Bull, a Mr Periman, put on a very good firework display and gave every child a new penny.

A Society was formed shortly after this event and on Nov 5th 1937 our first proper celebrations took place, with fancy dress processions, several hundred torches made from plumbers tow, the banner we still carry and Brighton Tramways Band. The fire and fireworks were in Bannister’s field next to the telephone exchange in Goldbridge Road. The Perimans had connections with the London theatre and our lieutenants looked fine as Peninsular War soldiers.

In 1938 the fire was built in the old cricket field. It was, possibly, the largest we’ve ever had, standing well over 30ft high and composed mainly of gorse cut from Fletching common. I clearly remember how fiercely it burnt and the appearance of the white-hot stems after the initial blaze.

In 1945 we resumed activities with a Victory celebration bonfire on the last Saturday in September. The fire was built in the playing field (and continued to be held there until 1949). Plumber’s tow was unobtainable and the torches were made from flax, which was exceedingly coarse to the hands and infested with fleas. Effigies of Hitler and a Japanese character, purporting to be Tojo, but looking more like the Mikado, were consigned to the flames. Fireworks were unobtainable (legitimately) so we livened up proceeding with ‘thunder flashes’, obtained from local military camps and bangers manufactured from blasting-powder, supplied by Osborn’s the local wood merchants.

In 1946 we introduced 5-point torches, soon to be copied by other societies. The first ones were held together with telephone wire and I distinctly recall an early example collapsing on to the Marshall’s (Charlie Wood’s) head. 1947 was notorious as our greatest folly:- marching to the Kings Head and back!!

In 1948 we found the tar-barrel trolley that had been used prior to 1914 and I remember Harold Osborn and my father, like a pair of schoolboys, hauling the blazing barrel down the High Street.

In 1950, November 5th fell on a Sunday. Until this time we had stubbornly held to the view that Bonfire Day was Nov 5th and therefore always clashed with the Lewes celebrations. In 1950 we arranged with the Cliffe to support them on the Saturday while they would come to Newick on the Monday. Since then we’ve usually held our celebrations on the Saturday before November 5th and been guaranteed support from other societies.

For this and the next two years the bonfire was built in the Paygate House field. Our first set piece was constructed in 1951 It featured the BRM (British Racing Motor) notorious at the time for not finishing races. The suggested caption was caption was ‘Wun’t be Druv’. The pyrotechnicians, though, preferred ‘Get out and get under’. I leave it to readers to decide which was the most appropriate. We introduced the blazing ‘N.B.S’ insignia in 1952. This was a real sensation and early attempts by other societies to copy afforded us considerable amusement. We first built the fire on the Green in 1953.

Until at least the mid 1950s fireworks were cheap, bangers, e.g. Standard’s Little Demons, costing (0.2p) in the 1940s rising to 1d by about 1956. The display rockets we used cost the equivalent of and 22p each! So it was possible to put on quite a good display for about 50. Osborns supplied torch sticks, cut to size, at a nominal price, and torches continued to be made from plumbers’ tow until some time in the 1960s.

Throwing fireworks into the crowd was always condemned as criminally stupid, but bombarding the platform during Bonfire Prayers was positively encouraged. Over these years firework cases comprised the major part of the litter to be cleared-up. Much preferable to fish and chip wrappers and broken plastic.

This account has concentrated on the technical and organizational aspects of our Society’s development, and the atmosphere of past times. Obviously a very large number of individuals (and families) have loyally supported and made contributions to the Society over the years;- from the fun of torch making, bonfire building and set-piece making to the hard work of Secretaryship, fund raising, collecting etc. These people are not forgotten but space available prohibits everybody being mentioned;- and God help me if I mentioned one and overlooked another.

So I conclude with the fervent wish that Bonfire Boys and Girls will continue to enjoy the fun of bonfiring together and feel that the work and frustrations are worthwhile.

Size Matters

Newick Bonfire Night 1999. At nine o’clock, the towering web of steel that had puzzled villagers for a week, erupts in a spiral cascade of coloured fire as, standing 86ft in diameter, the world’s biggest ever Catherine Wheel propels Newick in to the Record Books. The existing world record was broken by 23ft, an achievement made possible through the determination of Society engineers, the patience and perseverance of Stuart Gillham and his scaffolders, and by Baroness Cumberledge allowing us to site part of the structure on her lawn!

Big ideas catch on fast; “Big Wheels” are multiplying everywhere. In London, the pyrotechnic dawn of the new millennium took place under the gaze of the “London Eye”, and more recently, Sydney, Johannesburg, Toronto and Boston were reported to be planning similar attractions. But Newick can still take pride in it’s own world record because, as a celebration of the events recalled by the Bonfire Prayers, you saw it here first!