John Rowles and the Battle of Tar Tub

“When the night of the fires was a spontaneous outburst of protest, a chance for the underdogs of society to have a bark and a bite, any opposition by authority to fires and fireworks on the streets only seemed to increase the determination of the ‘boys’ to have bigger and better ones”

Night of the Fires – Bonfire in Sussex’ Bridgid Chapman 1994

On Tuesday 4th November 1817 a public notice was issued at Brighton prohibiting the celebration of the anniversary of the gunpowder plot with fireworks or illuminations. Ignoring this edict a group of – mostly – boys gathered on the Old Steine on November 5th and began to celebrate, fireworks and all. Mr John Williams – the High Constable in command of the Headboroughs or Peace officers attempted to take the offenders into custody and skirmishes continued until 9pm when the mob produced a lighted tar barrel. Battle raged around the barrel, which was eventually captured and extinguished by the Peace Officers.

Rather than dissipating resistance, the capture of the barrel further enflamed the mob, who launched an attack on the home of the High Constable in Castle Square. The Riot Act was read and the infantry summoned. Troops advanced on the Steine with bayonets fixed. John Rowles – a Peace Officer under the command of Williams – came to be stabbed by the soldiers and later died of his injuries. He was buried at St Nicholas, and his headstone read;

Sacred to the memory of John Rowles, who, in discharging his duties as a Peace Officer of this Town was unfortunately killed by a wound from a bayonet on 5th November 1817 aged 40 years.

The civil power was blamed for summoning the military, and the inquest into the death of Rowles found High Constable Williams guilty as an accessory to ‘wilful murder’ He was later found ‘not guilty’ at the Horsham Assizes who felt that Williams had acted with prudence, coolness and discretion”. It is noted however that Williams “prudence” was not repeated and the infantry was not invited to future years festivities however rowdy they became. The incident was lampooned in the satirical poem “Battle of Tar Tub” which was popular at the time but is now – unfortunately – lost from memory.

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3 Responses to John Rowles and the Battle of Tar Tub

  1. quedula says:

    I believe an attempt to start a Brighton Bonfire Society was made in the last century, possibly the 1920’s, but was sternly discouraged by the authorities and nothing came of it. I have been unable to find any reference to it in any local histories and haven’t had time to scour press archives. If revived today it would have the benefit of relieving pressure on Lewes, but perhaps Brighton already has enough events of this nature.

  2. Christine A Gibson says:

    John Williams the High Constable was my g/g/g/ Grandfather. His son George came to South Australia and became a lawyer.

    I am still looking for mor information of John Williams if anyone has any .

  3. mortiquarian says:

    Thank you Christine. It seems that John Williams was never put before a jury, as the prosecution withdrew its evidence as it emerged that the coroner was unable to identify the bayonet wound as the cause of death. I have forwarded you a copy of a newspaper report covering the trial should it be of interst to you. For more information about John Williams and his time in Brighto, have you tried the MyBrighton&Hove community website? (See ‘Funerary & Local Links’ to the right of this page.)


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