History Of Chiddingfold Bonfire
It is doubtful if anyone can accurately chronicle the origins of Chiddingfold Bonfire but bonfires have been lit throughout history to mark victories and deliverance from danger – as well as being used to burn people at the stake. The Thanksgiving Act passed in January 1606, 2 months after the Gunpowder Plot, decreed that fires be lit throughout the country each year on November 5th to celebrate the foiling of the plot and the saving of King and Parliament. With the broad support of the Church, it is hard to imagine that loyal Chiddingfold did not comply!
Coopers Walking Stick Factory
As far as the earliest known history of Chiddingfold Bonfire is concerned, the received wisdom passed down by generations of village residents is that Coopers Stick Factory, the successful village based business started in the reign of Queen Victoria, at one time used to stack stick faggots as they were cut from the abundant copses that surround this area, at the North end of the green outside Hadmans. During the course of time many faggots, tied with their usual hazel wythe, became broken and the sticks brittle and therefore of no further use. They were then taken onto the village green in late Autumn where they would eventually be burned. It makes sense that this should have therefore been tied in to Bonfire Night celebrations.
That there was a link between Cooper & Sons and the bonfire is beyond question because for as long as anyone can remember (in 1929 it was quoted as being a tradition going back 70 years or more), the factory donated 1000 faggots to “face” the accumulated rubbish and later, the Chestnut sticks used to make the procession torches. The practice of giving faggots ended in the 1960s when pimp production stopped but they continued to supply Chestnut sticks until they closed when they graciously donated a final 10,000 sticks. This stock is still used to make a few of the 400 or so torches used on the night.
The most talked about incident in the history of the bonfire occurred in 1929. There had been trouble in the village in the weeks before the bonfire with several youths summoned to appear before Guildford County Bench for letting off (home made) fireworks on the public highway – they were found guilty and duly fined £2 each, a very big sum at the time.
Then on November 4 th (in those days bonfire night was always on the 5 th ), the bonfire was mysteriously set alight. Apparently, by the following morning, the only item left of the guy, amongst the smoking debris of the fire, was his trousers (the guy had depicted a policeman holding a boy by his trousers). A rumour was then put about that the local policeman (Sgt Brake) had been seen near the fire although it is well documented that he was in bed at the time.
When news of the premature blaze became known, a subscription list was sent round the village and funds were quickly raised to purchase material to rebuild the fire. The village green became a scene of much animation as wagonloads of faggots were brought – some donated by Cooper & Sons. When the schoolchildren left their lessons at noon they gathered – an excited little crowd – on the Green and watched the preparation of the new bonfire.
The Evening Scenes
The Police anticipated trouble in the evening. It was rumoured that Sgt. Brake was to be “ducked” in the village pond and apparently ropes were ready for that purpose. A crowd of over 2,000 people from Godalming, Farnham, Haslemere and neighbouring villages gathered on the green for the celebrations. Some known hooligans from the district formed part of the crowd. At first the evening progressed well, with people enjoying the event and hundreds of squibs and rockets being let off. The fire could apparently be seen for miles around. The effigy of a police officer with three stripes on his sleeve was burnt amid roars of cheering. As the evening came to end, a section of the crowd left the celebrations and assembled in the road where they hooted and booed Sgt. Brake. To calm the situation the other police officers surrounded Sgt Brake and for a while they were subjected to a fusillade of squibs and crackers which were hurled at them from all parts of the crowd. The police evidently acted with great restraint despite several of them being hit by fireworks and sustaining burns to their skin and clothing. News then came that another part of the crowd were breaking the windows of Sgt. Brake’s house in Woodside Road so the Superintendent, Sergeant and other officers, followed by a crowd of some 500 people, proceeded to his home in Woodside Road. En route hundreds of fireworks were let off and pandemonium reigned. On arrival the hostile crowd indulged in stone throwing and prominent local residents came to calm the crowd. Finally the police cleared the scene and moved the crowd back to the Green, leaving three broken windows in the Sergeant’s house and one at a neighbouring property.
Then at 10pm, following the closing of the public houses, they began stoning Botley House situated on the Green and home to a local JP. The street lamp at the corner of the green was smashed along with some windows in Mr. Jackson house and greenhouse. Finally the local doctor, attending Mrs. Luck the wife of the postmaster who was very ill, appealed to the crowd to go home. This, combined with the onset of rain at 11.50PM, encouraged the crowds to disperse.
The Riot Act
A few days later the village was the scene of a remarkable police action. It was feared at Police Headquarters that there would be a disturbance involving another attempt at ducking Sgt. Brake and the police response took everyone by surprise with some 250 officers from all over Surrey arriving in specially requisitioned lorries and motor coaches to keep the peace. The village pubs were told to close and a JP was on hand to read the Riot Act should it be necessary – it wasn’t; the evening passed peacefully and the pubs were allowed to open at 8pm. There was an ordinary meeting of the Parish Council that night but when asked in the meeting if he knew why the police
were present in such large number the Chairman, Mr. Jackson of Botley House, could offer no explanation. It is possible of course that the very presence of the police in the village stopped whatever nefarious plans there might have been from being put into action.
Sgt Brake continued to live happily in Chiddingfold for some months before taking up a promotion elsewhere at the rank of Inspector. According to his son, Mr. C.S. Brake, before he died Sgt. Brake confided in him the name of the real culprit who had burned down the fire and it was one of the youths who had been prosecuted and fined.
According to the Surrey Times the events of 1929 recalled the scenes from 1887 when an effigy of the village constable was burnt and a crowd of 200 men smashed the windows and tiles of the policeman’s house. A Sgt. Bundy was injured in the ribs by a brick and the constable was later removed from the village.
The Bonfire in recent years
From 1930 the event was run by a committee of local inhabitants from round the green and a procession was introduced starting at the Winterton Arms. It included many in fancy dress with decorated floats and was led by torches. To prevent further problems an organised firework display was arranged from the roof of Boxalls Men’s outfitters and a Wine Merchants store (now Treacle’s Tea Room & Boots Chemists).
The processions were soon enhanced by the attendance of many local fire brigades, including Chiddingfold’s own, which in 1929 had become motorised. Fire engines came from Godalming, Grayshott and Hindhead, Cranleigh and sometimes two from Haslemere with even on some occasions an appliance from Guildford. Such processions continued until the outbreak of the Second World War but after that the visiting engines never returned. The Chiddingfold Brigade continued to make an appearance until it was disbanded in 1960.
After the war the original committee of the Bonfire Association had somewhat lost its impetus and the continuity became disjointed. In an attempt to revive the event several residents around the green got together and took over the event mainly at their own expense. This did not prove overly successful and at a meeting it was decided to abandon the event. As a result, a new committee was formed largely from the Chiddingfold School Parent Teacher Association – still a good source of volunteers for the Bonfire Committee.
In 1954 the starting point of the procession was moved to the village hall.
In 1992 the police insisted that the A283 be closed during the event so Woodside Road & Coxcombe Lane were designated to carry the diverted traffic and the current route from the school to the pond and around the forge was born. A park and ride scheme from Witley station was introduced, subsequently extended in 1996 to include
the South of the village by using the Golf Club car park and, a few years later, Ramster. Subsequently it now runs from Witley Station only.
The first post-war firework display cost £10 (about £700 today).
Before 1961 the bonfire was always lit on November 5th but from that year onwards the event was moved to the nearest Saturday. Ironically, also in 1961, the bonfire was prematurely lit: a sadly anti-social act repeated in 1966, 2005 and 2006.
Footnote: the description of the events of 1929 are based on articles that appeared in the Surrey Times on 9 th November 1929 and letters in the Surrey Advertiser on 2 nd November 1990.
The bonfire committee have traditionally been called upon to construct and light celebratory beacons on the village green.
- 2018 - A Beacon for the 100th Anniversary of the end of WW1
- 2016 - A Beacon for the Queen’s 90th Birthday
- 2012 - A Beacon for the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee
- 2002 - A Beacon for the Queen’s Golden Jubilee
- 1977 - A Beacon for the Queen’s Silver Jubilee
- 1953 - The Queen’s Coronation
- 1945 - A Beacon for VE & VJ Day (this was included in the film “The Years Between” which was released in 1946
Harold Mullard our President recalls the earliest known Beacon was for George V’s Silver Jubilee in 1935