Stories from the book, 'The Police in Lewes.' Part 13

Lewes Rouser or Squib 1907
© Copyright Lewes Bonfire Celebrations
1950s Boys building a bonfire
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Chalk cliffs at Cuilfail Tunnel
Sussex Express
Old Police Station
Copyright © 2010 The Lewes Coalition
© Copyright Lewes Bonfire Celebrations
Frederick Ward joined the East Sussex Constabulary on .....and was later appointed as the first Detective Constable in the force, working from West Street Police Station in Lewes. Ward rose through the ranks to be a Superintendent and retired in .This caricature by the late Keir Angel, was one of a number of police officers which were created for a Police Ball in the Town Hall, Lewes. Date unknown.

These stories have been extracted from a very nice little book called ‘The Police in Lewes.’ It covers the period from the late 1940’s through to the 1970’s. It has been written well and makes for a very easy read, being able to pick it up for just a few minutes and not lose the gist of the dozen of very interesting stories. It has been compiled by Peter Stoner.

The 5th November – Bonfire Night.

Bonfire night is exceptional ‘big’ in Lewes as it is the largest celebration in this country. Lots of policeman have to be drafted in to help control the huge crowds that descend on Lewes every 5th November.

On or about the 1st of September each year the previous year’s Bonfire Celebration file is resurrected from the files and dusted off and any account taken of any notes that may have come from the previous year’s de-brief. In the 1950’s and 60’s it was necessary to obtain the additional strengths required from most other stations throughout the East Sussex Force. Memoranda’s were sent out from the Superintendent at Lewes to his sub-divisions as well as other divisions in the Force. The total strength that was required remained constant for many years and the same faces from other of the sub- divisions would appear each year. The strength required for this one night was in the region of about 100 policemen, plus some officers in plain clothes.

Banana Bill

Officers were wanted for the 5th November early as the celebrations always started at 6am with Mr. Penfold senior, who was known as ‘Banana Bill’. He was a very prominent member of Cliffe Society, and he ignited what was called ‘A Lewes Rouser,’ at the top of Cuifail. The explosion was so powerful that it reverberated and echoed over the whole town for several seconds, although it probably felt a long longer. This obviously awakened most of the Lewes residents. Everybody knew then that the Bonfire Night had started.

Goodness knows what explosive was used, it was a closely guarded secret, but it was certainly extremely powerful. Some say there was a licence obtained to let it off while other’s very much doubted it.

‘The Lewes Rouser or Squib which was a home made firework about 6? long with a thickness of a marker pen, the Lewes Rouser had a very unpredictable nature and basically it would shoot along the ground in many different directions and climbing  up walls emitting fiery sparks before going bang, but in what direction it was anyone’s guess. The Lewes Rouser or Squib was banned by the authorities in 1904 and by the bonfire society’s in the 50s that’s not to say they were not seen any more!, in fact I have seen several variations fairly recently.

‘The Lewes Rouser was unpredictable in manufacture as well, with many tales of front doors being blown of its hinges in little 2 up / 2 down town houses where a rouser has blown up whilst drying out in a cast iron pan on top of the fire stove ! . The Lewes Rouser was  also used at times to help clear out many a chimney in big posh houses and buildings. 

© Copyright Lewes Bonfire Celebrations

Eventually, action was taken under the Explosives Act to stop this practice. Some thought it a shame to stop it but the majority were happy about it being stopped. Mr. Penfold continued in the Society for many years but finally he found that his legs could no longer carry him and he was then wheeled around the town in his invalid chair at the head of the Cliffe Procession.

Satellite stations

A number of satellite police stations were set up in various parts of Lewes. These were situated at The Riverside Centre Railway Lane and at St. Anne’s Church room in Spital Road. These two satellite stations carried the responsibility for the outer reaches of the Borough, whilst West Street police station catered for the town centre. Each of these three centres had a strength of 30 officers, and a facility for tea and light refreshments were made available. However, the official break was taken at West Street Police Station. There, after the closure of the canteen service in the early 1970’s the station ‘emergency’ feeding unit provided such meals such as bangers and chips with mushy peas. Prior to this when the canteen was in operation the canteen staff was headed by Mrs. Prince, with ‘Jessie’ and Constable Chris Boot’s wife, Liz. They made a wonderful team and gave an excellent service, they were real motherly types. There was a first aid post at each of the satellite stations run by the St. John Ambulance Brigade. There were enough minor injuries to keep the first aid posts pretty busy.

The overall Radio Control was from the control centre which was set up in the basement of the Parade room at West Street Police Station and contact was initially maintained through a number of back-pack radio operators who were stationed at various strategic points in the town. However, as the years went by and the system of radio became more sophisticated most personnel were issued with the normal two-piece radio sets, which were in general use at that time.

Did light and throw

Arrests for minor firework throwing were legion; the offence of ‘did light and throw’ catered for dozens of offenders most of the years. There are two officers who spring to mind here when thinking of these particular offences. One was PC ‘Peter Croucher’ who regularly provided the jailors with a stream of customers, the other one was Constable ‘Nicky Jelf.’. On one particular very memorable evening, broke PC Croucher’s second haul and came in with, if the memory is reliable, some eleven prisoners. It was reckoned he didn’t have to leave Fisher Street. There was another event that concerned ‘Nicky Jelf and the 5th November celebrations and was the year that someone stole the Cliff’ Society special banner, which read, ‘No Popery,’ from Cliffe High Street.

No Popery

As will be well known this particular banner creates a bit of friction in the town, but despite a number of appeals and campaigns to recover it, it failed to turn up. It regularly appeared at the beginning of November each year. When this particular theft was reported to the police there was more a sense of relief than anything else and was heard on many occasions the words ‘Thank goodness for that.’ However, it was ‘Nicky Jelf’ that sprang into action and after some very diligent enquiries in the Cuilfail area returned to the police station with the ‘offending (or not, depending on people’s views), the banner and an accompanying offender. The banner was re-erected and each year continues to be displayed. It of course, continues to cause a little unrest with the various religious factions in the town. (Some say’ good old Nicky?)

PC Bert Collins

PC Bert Collins was the ‘day’ driver on another 5th November occasion. On this day he related his tale of the journey from work to his home at Malling. This was in the days when officers had to wear uniforms to and fro work. It was also before ‘Willey’s bridge was built. The only way home to Malling for Bert was up Malling Hill. Having negotiating large crowds in the town he emerged into Malling Street and mounted his pedal cycle for the journey up Malling Hill. Before he had gone very far, he encountered Cliffe Bonfire procession returning down Malling hill from their Bonfire and firework display at Malling Down. As they drew level with him, Bert was grabbed, complete with pedal-cycle, which he was, still astide, and he was then carried shoulder high at the front of the procession, back into the town. When they got to the centre of the town he was released. His time he managed to make it back and up the Malling Hill and home at last.

When the story was related on the next day, Bert was asked what he did about it. ‘Do about what’ he retorted, ‘what would you have done then?’ I did nothing, I let them carry me – I didn’t have much option did I! It must have been quite a sight for the hundreds of onlookers, and obviously quite an experience for Bert.

PC Terry Smart

On another occasion Brian Belton recalls the year when PC Terry Smart was in difficulties at the bonfire at the top of Mill Lane. The police station’s Morris 1000 was sent to assist him. This particular car was fairly unique in having 2-tones horns fitted to assist passage through the Cliffe. The car entered that street, with two-tones on, it was just as Cliffe Society’s procession was leaving it and going towards Malling Street. Having negotiated the bulk of the procession the car came up to the lead marching band. The two-tone horns coincided perfectly with the ‘Oom-Pah’ of the euphonium and the bass trombone at the back! It was some time before a member of the public managed to catch the attention of any of the band members, but then the euphonium player was pushed forcibly out of the way by the trombonist using the instrument’s slider – much to the player’s surprise. Having watched a band so effectively driven to confusion and in disarray, it took the Morris 1000 car driver some little effort to concentrate on his driving after that.

Freddie Ward

In the 1950’s the Divisional Superintendent made regular visits during the evening of the ‘5th;’ to all parts of the town to ensure’ that things were going according to plan.’ Freddie Ward was always an impressive sight with his waxed moustache and large, but very trim figure. It was often said that he wore a corset to keep him looking trim. Freddie was one of those characters that you meet probably just once in a lifetime.

Written by David Rowland with grateful thanks to the book ‘The Police in Lewes.’


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