Violent origins of Rye’s burning boats


The tradition behind Rye’s bonfire night goes back even further than 1605 and Guido Fawkes’ attempt to blow up the Houses of Parliament. Much research has been done to establish the origin of this almost pagan rite and many theories 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 tradition 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”. Perhaps 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 with a heavy stone wall at the other – was ransacked and burnt to the ground by the French several times, mainly because the town was a member of the Cinque Ports Fleet. It was quite possible that when the townsfolk of Rye were outnumbered by the French they would set fire to their own vessels rather than risk their 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 flame,
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, but what turbulence it must have seen in the past: the crash of cannon, 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 each year a reign of terror swept the town. If there was a shortage of worn-out boats for the burning, the supply would be supplemented with boats moored at The Strand. One story tells of a gentleman from Icklesham who, while cheering the successive groups of men dragging blazing boats through the town, noticed that one very fine yacht had a familiar look about it. He realised, too late, that he had been cheering the destruction of his own boat!

The townsfolk 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 rescued only with some difficulty. The sequel to this was that he developed chronic inflammation of the brain and died the following year. This gruesome act, although roundly condemned in the town at the time, was no isolated incident. Only a century ago, the night of  “The Fifth” was an occasion for the respectable inhabitants 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 more than a score of special constables 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. In the scuffle, Bourne was knocked out, while Henley’s helmet was battered in. In later years, extra police were drafted in 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”. One year a crowd of 400 gathered in Military Road armed with swords, cutlasses and bludgeons as well as casks of tar and oil that they had pilfered previously and hidden on the outskirts of the town. They moved off up Landgate and down the 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 having their boats seized by the bonfire boys and burnt. 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 mob, for they mustered later and in “a most unfair, dishonest and ungenerous spirit”, consigned his boat to the flames. It is as well perhaps, that their modern successors have substituted carefully controlled torches 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). By the 20th century, the celebrations 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”. Originally the brain-child of local engineer Francis Bellhouse in the early1950s, the Dragon has continued to head the procession. 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 activate 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 its appearance at carnivals and charity shows in the 1960s were overwhelming. It appeared in pantomimes, has advertised a film and has 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”, meaning a good fire, but from the Old English Bone-Fire – the name of the conflagration on which witches were burnt 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

Neale East is Captain Communication of Rye Bonfire Society. Photo: Tony Nunn

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