Fireworks and Bonfires on the Market Hill
Enough was enough. Could it have been an illegal rave or a breach of Covid-19 regulations? No. The year was 1866 and the dreaded date of November the 9th had come round yet again. Traditionally, Sudburians chose to celebrate the failed Gunpowder Plot of 1605 on a different day to most other places. On November the 5th there was generally no public indication, (beyond an occasional squib or two), that ‘gunpowder, treason and plot’ were remembered in Sudbury.
Fireworks were reserved for November the 9th, on which day, from early to late, the town was continually shaken by explosions of various kinds.
The 9th of November was always used for the election of the new Mayor. Alongside the more formal celebrations organised by the Corporation after the election – the speeches and the banquet – was a fringe event that often resembled more of a riot in the mid-Victorian period than a combination of Guy Fawkes celebrations and a welcome to the new Mayor.
That so many old buildings around the Market Hill survive today is quite surprising considering the behaviour on ‘Mayor’s Day’. It was a riot in all but name that was allowed to carry on with the full support of the Corporation. A certain element of the population, (mainly young men), from Sudbury and nearby villages such as Cornard and Melford, took every possible opportunity to celebrate the failure of the Gunpowder Plot and the election of the Mayor in a manner which would have led to their prosecution by the law on any other day of the year.
Imagine an excited and yelling crowd of 2,000 people on the Market Hill; a furious bonfire composed of sugar-hogsheads, (casks), and tar barrels with flames reaching as high as some of the houses; a pyrotechnic display of rockets, roman candles, squibs and diabolical crackers and the firing of pistols and home-made cannons. Think of people rolling or carrying burning barrels of tar through the streets not to mention large pieces of sacking dipped in oil, set alight, and bandied about with no regard to health and safety. Picture the sheer volume of sparks blown about in all directions and the potential risk of involving Sudbury in a universal conflagration.
It was generally only heavy rain which stopped the proceedings early. (This was always a good thing as there was no adequate supply of water on the Market Hill in case of fire.)
The celebrations would begin in the early evening of November the 9th at a time when the business of the Town was still being conducted and divine service at St. Peter’s Church was underway. With the firing of the bonfire, it became very difficult for anyone to cross the Market Hill safely as respectable people were insulted and annoyed. Fireworks and flour were thrown in people’s faces and women were deliberately targeted with crackers aimed under their long skirts and petticoats. Drivers had to make a long detour to avoid terrifying and losing control of their horses.
November the 9th, 1866 provides us with a typical example of ‘Mayor’s Day’ in Sudbury. It took place on a Friday in honour of the newly-elected Mayor, W.R. Bevan, Esq. The Suffolk and Essex Free Press reported that, in addition to “the usual firing of squibs and crackers, rockets, firing of pistols, cannon &c”
- Girls clothes were set on fire
- Several windows were broken
- A rocket was thrown through one of the windows of St. Peter’s Church whilst the service was proceeding
- The paint was burnt on the fronts of some of the houses
- In one instance a blazing cracker was projected through a first-floor window, narrowly escaping setting fire to the house
- A barrel containing several gallons of cazeline oil, (a form of petrol-derived lighting oil), was set alight and a flaming stream ran across the Hill into which the youngsters endeavoured to push one another
In 1874, the town was particularly disorderly on the 9th of November. A good deal of flour was thrown about: the better the suit a person wore the more it became the object of attack with flour bags. People were shoved off the pavements and bundled up against the shutters of shops. One poor man, (Stephen Sergeant), was so viciously assaulted by Charles Wright that he lost the sight of one eye and had to have it surgically removed.
Victorian Sudburians finally decided that although it was expected that there would be some fun on ‘Mayor’s Day’, discharges of fireworks or of bonfires as well as the letting off cannons and pistols in public thoroughfares were offences against the law. It would be better for the Borough to have their annual ‘tar barrel’ and fireworks in an open space or field so that those who enjoyed such things could go, and those more peacefully disposed could stay away.
It was time to move the celebrations to a more suitable spot on The Croft. (This had been tried before in 1859 but the small amount of annoyance caused in this location encouraged the revellers to return to the Market Hill in the 1860’s. )
By the 1885, the celebrations were no longer spontaneous and dangerous and had become a respectable institution that involved many different organisations in Sudbury, including, (very sensibly), the Fire Brigade. With hatchets and helmets at the ready, they processed from ‘The Anchor Yard’ in Friars Street to the Croft in a torch-light procession of over 200 people. Music was provided by the Sudbury Drum and Fife band and coloured lights were burnt at different parts of the route. A large bonfire was kindled on The Croft but the greatest order prevailed and there was no accident of any kind amongst several thousand spectators.
(Unfortunately, in 1886, young Percy Inkson, aged 15, an apprentice at ‘The Free Press’, had a nasty burn on the skin of his left palm from a large squib going off in his hand.)
(The evening of November the 9th, 2020, was very quiet and very wet in Sudbury. There were a few fireworks to be heard earlier in the evening but no ghosts were seen tar-barrelling through the streets or firing rockets at the windows of St. Peter’s Church. )
Elections for Sudbury’s new Mayor no longer take place in November but in May.
Research from contemporary accounts in local newspapers such as ‘The Suffolk and Essex Free Press’, ‘Bury and Norwich Post’ and ‘Essex Standard’.