Rye has a long history in the Guy Fawkes celebrations, but the tradition behind it goes back further than the time of Guy Fawkes’ attempt to blow up the Houses of Parliament in 1605.
Much research has taken place to establish the origin of this almost pagan rite, and many theories have been put forward. One recalls the Danes and their funeral rites of casting off a burning boat bearing the mortal remains of a Viking. Many factors regarding this possible origin, however, do not match up with the Rye ceremony; but it has been discovered that, whenever a boat was captured from the Danes, it was the practice of the Ryers to haul the vessel through the streets and finally burn it on the cliffs, as a warning to other marauders at sea. This is a more likely theory of the origin, but does not quite explain why ‘Rye burns its boats.’
By far the most likely start of the custom occurred during the late 14th century when Rye, almost surrounded by water, was one of our major ports, responsible for supplying and manning a large part of the fleets. Only 30 miles of water separated the town from the age-old enemy, France. Sorties and reprisals were frequent, and the French invaded the town a number of times, pillaging and firing property wherever they went.
Rye – surrounded by the sea from three sides and a heavy stone wall on the other – was ransacked and burned to the ground by the French several times in this period, mainly because she was a member of the Cinque Ports Fleet. It was quite possible that when the townsfolk of Rye were outnumbered by the French, Ryers would set fire to their own vessels rather than risk them being captured. This early record of the ‘scorched earth policy’ was the most probable forerunner of ‘Rye Burns Its Boats’, and is summed up in the following rhyme:-
In 1377, we’re told :
The French attacked us Young and old;
Pillage and plunder their vile intent.
Rye was razed where e’er they went.
Ryers, angry but distraught.
Rather than have their vessels caught.
Set them alight by their own hand
And watched them burning, off the Strand,
Flames engulfing, higher, higher,
The gallant vessels’ funeral pyre.
In Rye today, there lingers on
This proud act of those long gone.
Yearly, Rye, aglow with name.
As another vessel adds its name
To the gallant list that’s gone before.
Of those proud boats of days of yore.
Flames engulfing, higher, higher
The gallant vessel’s funeral pyre.
And with the embers Rye remembers
Jubilant, a thousand throats
Ring out the cry: RYE BURNS ITS BOATS.
Today, the sea has left Rye high and dry, having receded some two miles; only the River Rother remains to allow the fishermen and their boats access to the sea. It is, indeed, a peaceful scene that the ancient town looks down upon today, but what turbulence it must have seen in the past – the crash of cannons, the smell of powder, and the all-enveloping flame and smoke.
In the 18th Century, the boat burning continued – although without any threat from the French. For one night a year a reign of terror swept through the town. If there was a shortage of worn out boats for the boat burning, the men of the town would supplement the supply with boats moored at The Strand! One story tells of a gentleman from Icklesham who, whilst cheering the successive groups of men dragging blazing ships through the town, noticed that one very fine yacht had a very familiar look about it. He realised too late, that he had been cheering the destruction of his own boat!
They were probably deterred by the fact that in 1875 the Head Constable, Parker Butcher, attempted to stop the procession and was hurled into a burning boat, top hat and all, and was only rescued with some difficulty. The sequel to this was that he developed chronic inflammation of the brain and died on 09 October 1876.
This astonishing act, although roundly condemned in the town at the time, was no isolated incident. A century ago, the night of ‘The Fifth’ was an occasion if the respectable towns people to stay indoors and barricade their houses. Bonfire night signalled mob rule with bonfire boys taking over the town and doing exactly as they liked.
In 1876 over a score of specials were enlisted and strategically placed, to protect property from fire, rather than to prevent the proceedings. In 1884 however Superintendent Bourne and the aged PC Henley, together with a force of specials, did prevent the mob from taking a boat from G & T Smith’s shipyard in Rock Channel. For their efforts Bourne was knocked out, while Henley’s helmet was battered in. The Corporation later adopted the expedient of drafting in extra police in place of the specials. They too were unsuccessful and some failed to remain sober and were dismissed.
By the 1880s the town was notorious throughout Sussex for being unable to control ‘the annual demonstration by the roughs of Rye’ In one year a crowd of 400 gathered in Military Road, armed with swords, cutlasses, bludgeons as well as casks of tar and oil which they had pilfered previously and hidden on the outskirts of Rye. They moved off through Landgate and High Street, led by Rye Town Band. Suddenly caught in a torrential downpour, the banners and band were dispensed with, ‘and the mob then had possession of the town. Several boats, freighted with blazing tar and barrels, were hauled through the street, the flames lapping the housetops in several narrow thoroughfares.’
Traditionally, it was a time for settling old scores and there were several cases of unpopular officials and shopkeepers being tarred and feathered, or for the people to have their boats seized by the bonfire boys and burned.
These vessels had been stolen while their owners were treated with derision. A High Street solicitor, Mr Hales, had hidden his boat behind his premises well in advance, and when the gang arrived to requisition it, he, ‘mollified them with a subscription.’ That’s what he thought! He reckoned without the lack of scruples of the Bonfire Boys, for they mustered later and in ‘a most unfair, dishonest and ungenerous spirit,’ consigned his boat to the flames. The depredations continued unopposed despite the enrolment of 25 special constables the previous week. It is as well perhaps, that their modern successors have substituted torchers and collecting tins for bludgeons and cutlasses!
The tradition was carried on well into the 19th Century, but was kept well within the law (sometimes). The celebrations of the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s were memorable for their Grand Processions, with decorated floats and lorries transformed into all manner of weird and wonderful creations including the ‘Dragon of Rye’ beloved of all Ryers, and a source of wonderment to visitors.
Originally the brain-child of local engineer Francis Bellhouse in the early 1950s, the Dragon has headed the procession for many years. Of immense proportions, the beast is operated from inside the chest. The operator sits on a specially-constructed seat, the movement of which gives the dragon up, down and sideways motion. A control – panel and electrical device actuate the eye-lids, open the mouth to emit deep-throated roars, and blow three-foot flames through the nostrils. By the flares of hundreds of torches, and with special built-in lighting effects, the ‘Dragon of Rye’ is certainly an awe-inspiring sight.
Requests for his appearance at carnivals and charity shows in the 1960s were overwhelming. He has appeared in pantomimes, advertised a film, and even been ‘guest of honour’ at a press ball.
Just out of interest, the word bonfire is not – as popularly supposed – a combination of the French Bon and the English Fire, to mean a good fire, but from the Old English Bone-Fire – the name of the conflagration on which witches were burned at the stake..
A Poor Man’s Rye 1847-1930 – Peter Ewart
A New History of Rye – Leopold Amon Vidler
Rye A Short History – Kenneth Clark
The Eagle November 1960 – William Carey