Bonfire Night memories growing up in Hastings

Today is November 5 and tonight is Bonfire Night.

Friday, 5th November 2021, 1:18 pm
Vintage fireworks SUS-210511-131140001

Today is November 5 and tonight is Bonfire Night.

Growing up in Hastings I have fond memories of the backyard firework displays.

American imposed Halloween and Trick or Treat wasn’t a thing then, everything revolved around fireworks, a bonfire and building a Guy.

From mid October, local shops on the West Hill, where I lived, would stock boxes of all sizes of Brocks and Standard fireworks, packed with gaudily coloured tubes, cones and squares possessed of beguiling names such as Pit of Serpents, Vesuvius and Screaming Banshee. I was fascinated by sky rockets with their long wooden sticks. Then there were the Catherine Wheels that you nailed to a shed door and hoped wouldn’t come flying off.

I was transfixed by the short, but mesmerising, cascades of Roman candles with names like Golden Rain or Silver Snow, but it was always the fireworks with loud bangs or high-pitched screeching whistles that excited me the most.

The older lads would buy packets of short red bangers and let them off around the streets.

Back then, the custom of Penny For the Guy had not quite expired and I remember scrounging old clothes to make a Guy which I proudly displayed on a street corner close to my house. I do, though, recall one old lady striding past and muttering - “It’s nothing but glorified begging!”

I could not have known that years later I would be tearing through the streets of the Old Town pulling behind me a noisy metal half-barrel on wheels which had flames leaping high from it’s shallow sides.

I was Captain of Firecarts for the first ten years after the Hastings Bonfire tradition flamed back into life as a result of Keith Leech being persuaded to resurrect it by Battel Bonfire Boye John Beeching - Keith didn’t take much persuading as I recall.

Pulling firecarts was already second nature to me, as by then I had experienced many years on the carts with the Black Bogies at Battle Bonfire. The carts were created by a local blacksmith and had a three wheel layout that fish-tailed wildly as you pulled it behind you.

Firecarts always bring up the rear of the procession and the task of the crew is to scoop up the tarred heads or burned down sticks of torches that have fallen in the street during the procession. Many were still alight so you were literally handling balls of flame. Sturdy leather gloves were essential.

The job increased in intensity as torches burned out more rapidly toward the end of the procession route as it neared the fire site.

Today the town’s celebrations are under the banner of Hastings Borough Bonfire Society, but year’s back, before my time, there were a number of different rival societies representing areas of Hastings and St Leonards such as Hollington, Bohemia and Halton. There were fewer regulations and rules back then. Health and safety wasn’t a thing, and, from the odd accounts I have come across, they were pretty wild events. I am sure there are some people still around that have memories of those and I would love to hear them.

Saturday is Battle Bonfire - a tradition is the town that goes back hundreds of years. Bonfire societies from all over Sussex, including the Hastings and Rother socieites, will be taking part in the specatcle which sees a huge bonfire on the Abbey Green and a firework display over the Abbey.

All the money raised on the night by bonfire societies goes to local charities and good causes, and that is surely worth a little more that a Penny for the Guy.