A brief history of Chiddingfold Bonfire
By Richard Hogsflesh
It is doubtful if anyone can accurately chronicle the origins of Chiddingfold Bonfire but it probably began not as a Guy Fawkes celebration but as a completely different tradition related much more to the history of the village.
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. What better time to do this than the beginning of November before the onset on winter and the start of the new season’s copse cutting? No doubt at some point someone suggested linking this to the Guy Fawkes night celebrations and so began a long tradition on the village green.
Although Coopers Stick Factory finally closed down in the 1990’s its connection with the bonfire continues through the parting gift to the Bonfire Association of approximately 10,000 chestnut sticks for use as torches in the annual procession to light the fire.
A local event
The bonfire celebrations remained very much a local village event right up to the end of the 1920’s. Fireworks were much more difficult to obtain and those that were let off tended to be hand made by local youths. This was of course a dangerous practice and no doubt led in 1929 to the village policeman, Sergeant Brake, having to arrest several high spirited schoolboys for letting off their home made fireworks in the street. When brought to court Mr. Jackson of Botley House, then the local magistrate, fined each of them the large sum of £2 to make an example of them and dissuade others from following suit.
The Riot Act
Mysteriously the bonfire being built at the time was then prematurely set on fire and local villagers threw bricks and stones through the windows of Botley House and the sergeant’s home. The bonfire was then rebuilt and the event proceeded as originally planned, despite the fact that many police were drafted into the village to prevent further riots and the Riot Act was read at the local pubs – The Swan and The Winterton Arms. This is the last recorded reading of the Act anywhere in this country and apparently there was a non existent audience to listen save for one small boy and the attending police.
In the 1930’s the event was run by a number 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. These 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 Chiddingofld 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 and the successful run of post war bonfires was begun.
Today the event attracts 8-10,000 people and is held on the Saturday nearest to November 5th.