Especially Rowsers, the local name for what is generally known as a ‘banger’.
Bonfire celebrations in the town go back far further than November 5th 1605, the date of the Guy Fawkes plot to blow up parliament.
The ringing of bells and the throwing of Rowsers were first used to celebrate the death of Queen Mary in 1558.
Bloody Mary had burned 17 martyrs at the stake in Lewes, so the rejoicing at her passing was celebrated with more excitement than most other towns in her realm.
So with such a strong Bonfire tradition, it might have been expected that the end of the First World War in 1918 would be celebrated with at least as much zeal as for Mary.
The end of the First World War was greeted with great relief, but the loss of life had taken away hundreds of thousands of lives, several hundred of them from the rather small community of Lewes.
The names on the War Memorial, at which prayers are said on Bonfire Night, and memorials in dozens of churches attests to the fact that for a small town, the loss of life from families in Lewes was substantial.
Many of the dead were Bonfire Society members and with their ranks decimated, creating the spectacle in 1919 was nigh impossible.
Cliffe Society did reform in 1919, but with such damage to its support, closed down again until 1922.
But it wasn’t only the loss of life that stopped Bonfire in its tracks. It was also the threat of the death penalty hanging over the heads of anyone who lit a bonfire or threw a rouser.
The Defence of the Realm Act was brought into force in 1914. Its intent was to protect the country from anyone deliberately aiding the enemy but also safeguarding the nation from new forms of waging war such as aerial bombardment.
Attack from the air was almost unknown prior to this war and the government struggled to legislate how to deal with air attacks and zeppelin raids.
So for much of the legislation’s existence, those defying the Act, therefore the law, could be shot. Citizens could face the firing squad for lighting bonfires and letting off fireworks.
That just about covered everything to do with Bonfire celebrations, which called for torch light parades, fireworks, and of course bonfires.
Bonfire was not celebrated in Lewes during the war years from 1914 to 1918, and although the records show that no one was actually executed in Lewes, no one either was able to do any of those things with impunity.
Once as a reporter in Vancouver I was happily plugging away at my usual grind of daily stories, when a young lawyer popped his head into the press room. I was the only journalist there searching for tales, with all the tenderness of a new-born lamb.
The lawyer invited me to cover a story in one of the court rooms without especially telling me that a surprise was in store.
The legal beagle opened his statement by calling for the death penalty. Gasps flew around the courtroom. The Trudeau government had put a five-year moratorium on hanging and here was an application to do just that.
It appeared the government had failed to put an extension on the legislation and the death penalty was in force again.
Well it appeared the British government of 1919 failed to do something similar and the much-despised Defence Act still carried the death penalty.
One young soldier, returning from abroad was unaware of this law and let off a rowser in the street. He duly appeared before magistrates and was found guilty. The country held its collective breath to see what the penalty might be, and there had been a number of firing squad deaths during the war.
In the particular, the young man’s excuse that he had been away at war and didn’t know he was breaking the law was partially accepted and he got away with a modest fine.
But the failure to repeal the Defence of the Realm Act cast a long shadow over Bonfire celebrations.
Cliffe dared to reform but as noted, closed down again because of the fear of the firing squad. The court’s gentle approach to the only case to come before it was no reason, it argued that any bonfire activity should come under the microscope and its member lined up and shot. Not really. The law was still in place but regrouping for any of the Bonfire Societies was not an easy matter.
So it was a glum Lewes that saw post war activity heavily restricted.
There were some bright spots in the immediate aftermath of the Armistice.
A huge fireworks display was held in Eastbourne and a small celebratory parade without fireworks was undertaken by Lewes Bonfire Boys.
The South Street Bonfire group upheld the ‘Enemy of Bonfire’ tradition by marching with an effigy of the German who supposedly executed nurse Edith Cavell, shot by the Germans for allegedly spying.
But generally, the activities which take place in today’s High Street were suspended until 1922 and later.
But what of Christmas during and after the war.
Many stories abound about the troops at the Front playing football with German soldiers. The British High Command tried to stop soldiers singing carols, fraternising with the enemy, putting up fir trees and even collecting their dead on Christmas Day. Troops ignored them, but the Generals clamped down on any talk of these events, fearing soldiers would be reluctant to shoot someone they had just had plum pudding with.
But it became clear after the war that the fighting men had indeed taken up the spirit of Christmas and fraternised with the enemy.
Lewes had large numbers of soldiers billeted in the town and provided some of the army’s ‘Santa Claus in Khaki’ postmen. These soldiers did their best to ensure care packages and Christmas parcels got through to the men on the front line.
Along with many small-town residents, people sent food, clothing, cigarettes and tobacco along with ‘Footballs, harmonicas, books, cigarettes and even Christmas puddings.’ Princess Mary, daughter of George V, made sure that every soldier received a metal case of cigarettes.
Families with sons in France in turn received Christmas cards made from a hard biscuit, a soldier’s uniform, shell casings and other bits of debris left lying around.
But great sadness also took place and the end of the year 1916 was dubbed ‘The Day Sussex Died’. A German offensive decimated the ranks of The Royal Sussex Regiment with almost 400 men dead, and more than 1000 wounded in a single day.
A witness described how men were trapped in ditches as shells rained down on them.
Military hospitals were not a bad place to be though. Nurses and staff made extra efforts to brighten Christmas Day, singing carols, providing food tid bits and generally trying to cheer the soldiers who were patients.
Those men from Lewes who gave their lives in the Great War were a varied lot. A labourer at the gas works, a grocer’s van attendant and a printer’s compositor at Baxter’s Print Works. There was also the son of a famous racehorse trainer, a carter at the soap factory and a timber merchant’s clerk who was a brilliant billiard player and cricketer.
The dead gave a broad spectrum of Lewes working men who went off to war and never came back.
Oddly, rationing in the first world war didn’t kick in until 1917 and although food stuffs were becoming increasingly difficult to get, a middle-income family were able to eat well at Christmas. The menu of one feast included, olives with anchovies, Hors-d’oeuvres, Clear Ox-tail Soup, Oyster Souffle, Roast Turkey, Chestnut Stuffing, Boiled Ham, Plum Pudding, Mince Pies, Orange Jelly, Olives with Anchovies, Dessert, Coffee and Liqueurs.
A look at the Sussex Daily News for December 31st, 1918 is surprisingly ordinary, as life returned to calm in the County Town of East Sussex. It details a children’s ball, held by a leading member of Lewes society, while looking at the future of Ireland, the repatriation of the American Army and what the King was doing on that day.
Normality for society at large seems to have returned quite quickly after the end of hostilities, but for the Bonfire Societies it was a long wait of three years or more before they got going again and rowsers, legally or illegally could again be tossed around with gay abandon on the streets of Lewes.