Alas the bonfire is no longer with us. The last one took place on November 6th, 1924. In charge of proceedings was Edwin Scribbens who had been a ‘bonfire boy’ for sixty one years. Harry Burge led a procession of bonfire boys around the stack of material, each holding a lighted taper. And then at the appointed hour, the tapers were applied and, with a huge whoosh and a rocketing flame, the last Cornhill bonfire had been lit. The following year Trinidadian Asphalt was laid on the roads around the town centre. Whilst this made travel much easier, it was unfortunately a material which would burn quite well especially beneath bonfires! By now, however, the carnival procession was sufficiently well established that it had become the centre of focus and survived to go from strength to strength.
Whilst the bonfire lasted until 1924, there were attempts to kill it off much earlier. During the 1870s the number of visitors to Bridgwater had swelled considerably, the railway network allowing spectators to arrive from Weston, Bristol, Taunton and Glastonbury. In 1880, by which time the crowds were now quite considerable, there was an incident when the bonfire was still blazing an hour after midnight and a large supply of burning material still lay behind the railings of the Cornhill dome waiting to be added to the fire. Several hundred revellers were still enjoying the evening when the newly-formed fire brigade were called in to extinguish the fire.
This was not well received. Fighting broke out. An axe was taken from the back of one of the fire-pumps and used to chop one of the two hoses. The other was turned onto the firemen themselves. Captain George Ricks, in charge of the fire crew, was at the scene with the Town Crier, Jack Fackrell. The presence of the town crier indicates the serious nature of the occasion since it was the town crier’s responsibility to read the Riot Act should matters get out of hand. Meanwhile, Captain Ricks saw how one of his firemen, James Ware, had been physically attacked by the angry crowd. Ware escaped and hid in the Town Crier’s house in Clare Street. There the crowd threw missiles at the windows and tried to break down the door despite the police guard. Ware managed to escape again and this time was chased by a crowd of some two hundred and fifty people, to his house on Dampiet Street where the missile throwing was repeated and his windows broken. Totally outnumbered, the police had been powerless to intervene. By 3.00 a.m. life had returned to normal.
The incident had highlighted the passion around carnival and demonstrated how difficult it would be to impose any change. Part of the problem for the authorities was that the event was a spontaneous affair lacking in organisation. There was no one to whom the authorities could discuss better arrangements. The following year, the first carnival committee was formed and through the 1880s a banner was carried aloft at the head of the procession declaring “Loyalty, Fraternity, Jollity.” That original committee was formed under the leadership of Captain W. J. Ford, JP, a former army officer and the manager of the local bank, described as a fine specimen of the old English gentleman with a long beard and black velvet jacket. The result was the first organised procession. All the participants had been notified in advance to gather at the railway station. There Captain Ford and his band organised the procession which paraded through the town to the Cornhill, Penel Orlieu, St Mary Street, George Street and back to the Cornhill and the site of the bonfire. The spectators loved it. The performers dispersed, returned to their headquarters in the various pubs, only to return later with their squibs and coshes to continue the spectacle. The night had been an outstanding success and its importance in the history of Somerset carnivals cannot be exaggerated.
Text Copyright © 2008 Roger Evans