ENJOYING a revival in recent years, the bonfire societies had their heyday in the 1880s and 1890s, and for a while there were 10 separate entities in Hastings and St Leonards, each of which had its own procession on November 5.
In his new book Lives and Times of Kindred Spirits The Bonfire Societies of Hastings and St Leonards, Tony Streeter examines their history.
Tony, who works for Anchor Trust, a care home provider, as well as being a music promoter, event organiser and author among other things, said that his fascination with all things bonfire began when as a small child he was taken to his first bonfire at Jarvis Brook, near his home in Crowborough.
“It created a massive image in my head, I can still recall it quite vividly,” he said.
He has been a member of Hastings Borough Bonfire Society since 1996, and this book has been two-and-a-half years in the making.
“No other book has ever gone into the detail I have,” he said. “It’s an absolutely amazing history and I have covered so much that was not just about the bonfire. What I wanted to do was create a book that gave a flavour of Hastings.”
In the nineteenth century accidents with effigies were commonplace, as they fell from carts, or were thrown off, as horses bolted. Several effigies caught fire during the procession, and fireworks were let off in bars, filling them with sparks and smoke.
In 1884 the Hastings Observer was concerned about ladies’ dresses catching fire, a theme it would return to fifty years later, in 1934, advising then that if a dress caught fire, the lady ought to be laid horizontally and wrapped in a rug.
In the immediate post-war years the bonfire procession headed for the bathing pool at Bulverhythe, where in 1948 Biddy The Tubman gave a display, and children who had bought an advance ticket were each given a firework and allowed to ignite it from the top terrace.
In 1949 petrol was lighted on the surface of the swimming pool and Curly Lawrence in only his bathing shorts jumped into the flames from the top diving board.
These are just some of the events related to the bonfire societies and their members, contained within Kindred Spirits.
Tony is clear that this is by no means a quick summary of what Bonfire is all about, instead it is as far as he is aware the most in-depth examination of the Hastings and St Leonards bonfire societies that exists.
There is already a follow-up book in the pipeline, one with Hollington Bonfire at its heart, but focusing on the people themselves rather than the actual event.
Tony is keen to identify and if possible speak to some of the people in the photos included here.
He can be contacted by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone on 07929 327051.
Kindred Spirits is on sale at Albion Books, in George Street; Hastings Museums; Hastings History House, in Courthouse Street, and The Fishermen’s Museum, in Rock-a-Nore Road.