Sussex Bonfire Council history

Reg notes this interesting read as to how and why  Sussex Bonco was set up.

Reg first went when he was HBBS Treasurer back in 1997, and has been going most years since.  Keith and Liz Beeching represented us.  Kathy used to go when she was Secretary with Jeff.   

Sue Holeman chairs Bonco has been doing a good job representing and sticking up for societies with SAG problems.  Sue found this old write-up of SBC history written by Newick Bonfire Society member, Terry, from his memory.

Inauguration of The Sussex Bonfire Council

The deregulation of the supply of Fireworks in the late 1980s was predictably followed by some tragic and well-publicised incidents (outside Sussex) involving the deaths of inexperienced and untrained members of the public.  These people had taken it upon themselves to organise firework displays using large display fireworks, which were then available for purchase by almost anyone. The unpredictable nature of individually fused, tube launched mortar shells in inexperience hands proved to be a fatal combination.

In response to these incidents, Linda Gilroy, MP for Plymouth Sutton, introduced a Bill, which had it been passed un-amended would have banned the sale of practically all fireworks to the public. The only firework displays allowed would have been those staged by manufacturers and professional display organisers. “Professional” was defined as someone who earns their living out of staging displays, irrespective of experience.  These proposals would have prevented all Bonfire Societies from mounting their own firework displays. They would have had to engage the services of a “professional” company to stage the display for them. Obviously, this would have proved both expensive, and to the Bonfire Societies, very unrewarding.

At the same time, many Bonfire Societies were also experiencing difficulties relating to public liability insurance, road closures, crowd control and behaviour and numerous other issues.

In Lewes, the BONCO was able to alleviate these problems by collectively gathering and disseminating information and formulating co-ordinated responses to these challenges, but outside Lewes and the Hastings/Battle/Robertsbridge areas there was little co-operation between societies. This was in the pre-internet era, when information could be difficult to obtain and share and each Society faced its own battles alone. Some were even suspicious of joining forces, their members fearing that their independence would be compromised.  Some members may still feel that way!  Membership of the existing East Sussex Association of Bonfire and Carnival Societies was not universal, and many hardcore Bonfire Boys considered that the Association had completely lost its way, only concerning itself with Charity Collections, Carnival Costumes and organising the annual Uckfield Bonfire Carol Service!

Senior members of the Lewes Societies could see which way the wind was blowing, and realised that if nothing was done there would likely be a serious reduction in the number of outmeetings available for them to attend and enjoy.

Representatives of the Lewes BONCO (the names of Keith Austin, David Quinn, Bert Arnold, Geoff Burrow, Peter Etherington and Pete Martin appear in my notes) therefore began to organise a series of “Liaison Meetings” to pass on information and encourage the sharing of problems, and more importantly, the means to overcome them.  A precedent for these meetings had been set by a meeting called by the BONCO at The Elephant & Castle about ten years earlier to discuss what they then perceived to be the attempted hijacking of Bonfire Night by the late “Mr. Bonfire” George Saunders for his own greater glory!

The first BONCO “East Sussex Liaison Meeting” (as it was then known) was held on 22 March 1995 at The 1066 in Battle.  The meeting was well attended by representatives from most Societies and Keith Austin first suggested the potential need for a “Sussex Bonfire Federation” to meet the growing challenges faced by the Sussex Bonfire world.

A follow-up briefing meeting was held just before the start of the 1995 Bonfire season on 23 August 1995 at the Dorset Arms in Lewes, again under the auspices of the Lewes BONCO.  At this meeting the formation of a federation was discussed again and the formidable Ivy Castle (then Chair of Battle) suggested that two informal meetings a year would suffice. This was agreed, but it left Lewes BONCO with the job of organising them.

The next meeting was held at the Dorset Arms in Lewes on 21 August 1996. Further options, such as all societies joining the National Carnival Guild (mainly for insurance purposes) were discussed, but nothing was resolved.  At some point, a suggestion was made that Lewes BONCO might be extended to include all Sussex Bonfire Societies. However, the Lewes BONCO had been constituted to co-ordinate events on the streets of Lewes on the Fifth, which had little to do with other events taking place elsewhere in the county and the idea was rejected.

By 15 January 1997, when the final “Liaison” meeting was held at The Ostrich in Robertsbridge, Linda Gilroy’s proposed legislation had become a very real threat to Sussex Bonfire and, with little outside input, Lewes BONCO were running out of patience in continuing to supply information and co-ordinate meetings.  Therefore, a decision was finally taken to form a “Sussex Bonfire Council”. Some of us at Newick (Andrew, Kevin, Mario, Roy, Pete Welfare and myself) had seen this coming and we had already decided to offer to organise and host the next meeting at The Bull Inn Newick, having cleared the proposal with landlords Howard and Marisa.  I recall that Andrew, (being Andrew) felt that it would be a Good Thing if history were to record that the Sussex Bonfire Council was founded in Newick!

With his Lewes contacts, Mario acted as go-between and arranged a brief meeting with Keith Austin to draw up an Agenda. On 19 February 1997 the inaugural meeting was chaired by Roy Brooks at a very crowded Bull Inn, Newick and the Sussex Bonfire Council was founded.  The meeting established the name, purpose, structure, membership eligibility, officers and delegates, voting arrangements and subscriptions.  An important point established was that the Council was primarily to be a forum for the exchange of information and resolution of problems. It was not intended to be any kind of governing body, nor was it to have any “Judicial” powers to resolve inter-society disputes. No officers were actually elected; that was left to the next meeting, being the first Council meeting to actually conduct business.  Rules were discussed and it was agreed that these would be drawn up, closely based upon a copy of the Lewes BONCO rules, by the Council Officers (Chair, Vice-Chair, Secretary and Treasurer) and presented for future agreement by delegates.  Complimentary sandwiches were served and a good deal of beer consumed that night.

The first proper meeting of the Sussex Bonfire Council was subsequently held at The Royal Oak, Lewes on 16 April 1997 and the inaugural officers elected.  John Goldsmith of Robertsbridge was elected Chairman, Nigel Stevens of Battle, Vice-Chair and Christine Jackman (later Armitage) of Waterloo, Secretary. Christine’s first job as secretary was to twist Terry Voice’s arm sufficiently to induce him to volunteer as Treasurer, to which position he was duly elected!

Rules were approved, a bank account was opened and business got underway. After a few early meetings held in diverse locations such as Hastings Sea Angling Association, The George, Robertsbridge and The Royal Oak, Barcombe, the Council eventually settled for its regular meetings at the centrally situated Royal Oak, Lewes; supporting all Sussex Bonfire Societies in their endeavours to maintain our County’s finest tradition.

 From my private papers, personal notes and memories (especially where names are concerned!).

With apologies for any inaccuracies (which I would be only too happy to correct),

Terry Voice.

22 January 2012.