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The rushcart ceremony, derives from Rogationtide. Parishioners would process around the parish once a year, bearing rushes. They would end up at the parish church and place the rushes on the floor of the church, to replace worn-out rushes. In modern times the ceremony is practised only in parts of northern England including Lancashire and Cumbria among others.
According to John Cutting, the earliest record of rushbearing is 1385 at Tavistock.
The custom of strewing cut vegetation on the floors of churches began at an earlier date: the plants commonly used were hay, straw or rushes and together with strewing herbs they improved the comfort for those using the church. Before the Reformation churches served for many secular as well as religious purposes and seating was not usual until the early years of the 16th century. Renewal of the floor covering was usually carried out before major festivals such as Easter and the patronal festival. Since these were among the few times in the year available for merrymaking ceremonies grew up and were handed down by tradition.
As towns grew in size, the places where rushes still grew were further and further from the church itself. Also changes in the way churches were furnished such as box pews and in the 19th century more effective heating in churches made the ceremonies redundant. The ceremonies either lapsed, or became longer and larger. The earliest depictions of rushcarts are in Rush-Bearing (1891) by Burton. One illustration shows morris dancers and a rushcart at Failsworth Pole, near Manchester, about 1820. Another, from 1821, is a painting by Alexander Wilson of an event at Long Millgate, Manchester. They now appear to be confined to the north west of England. At least 5 rushbearing ceremonies still occur in Cumbria where girls dressed in green process around the town.
The Rushcart grew into a festival held on the annual wakes week or mill holidays. There would be music, dancing and other entertainments. Each village would try to outdo the others by building a bigger or more elaborate structure with the front covered by a sheet decorated with tinsel and artificial flowers and hung with polished copper, brass and silver household items.
Behold the rush-cart, and the throng
Of lads and lasses pass along:
Now, view the nimble morris-dancers,
The blithe, fantastic, antic prancers,
Bedeck'd in gaudiest profusion,
With ribbons in a sweet confusion
Of brilliant colours, richest dyes,
Like wings of moths and butterflies-
Waving white kerchiefs in the air,
And crossing here, re-crossing there,
And up and down, and everywhere:
Springing, bounding, gaily skipping,
Deftly, briskly, no one tripping:
All young fellows, blithe and hearty,
Thirty couples in the party ...
— From The Village Festival by Droylsden poet Elijah Ridings.
The coming of the railways led to a decline in interest in Rushcarts as the local population were able to travel further afield for their annual break. The Rushcarts eventually died out in the early 20th century. There is a curious similarity between this festival and the Hindu festival of the chariot of Jagannath.
The origins of the Saddleworth Rushcart are unknown but are unlikely to be before 1800. Academics now pour scorn on any suggestion that they are pre-Christian. The Rushcart was revived in 1975 by the newly formed Saddleworth Morris Men following research by Fred Broadbent and Peter Ashworth who was fortunate enough to be able to listen to the memories of the last Rushcarts from one or two of the older members of the community. The story of the Rushcart can be found in Peter Ashworth’s book ‘Rushcarts in Saddleworth’.
It records how Harold Buckley encouraged Peter and the other Morris Men to move beyond dancing and to re-establish the Rushcart. Doubt turned into determination and a cart was found at a local farm, stangs bought from George Hill Ltd and rope arrived from a mill in Delph. As Pete says in his book, ‘I don’t think they missed it.’ The rushes were cut up at Castleshaw and with the help of old plans, books and Harold, the Rushcart was built in the traditional location of the Uppermill Rushcart, the Commercial.
The first revival rushcart was dismissed by one old-timer as ‘nowt [nothing] like a rushcart’. Nevertheless the first Rushcart for over 50 years was ready, and on the Saturday morning emerged from behind the Commercial to renew the old tradition. The 1975 audience of about two is in contrast to the hundreds that now gather in Uppermill.
Nowadays the rushes are cut during August at the foot of Pule Hill off the A62 road to Marsden and built behind the Commercial Hotel, Uppermill onto a two-wheeled cart in a slightly conical shape. It is 13 feet high and weighs 2 tons. The rushes are not tied on; they are secured by bolts of rushes at each corner that are held in place by metal rods. The cart is trimmed and decorated with heather and then on the Saturday morning the front is dressed with a banner made by a man chosen from the ranks of Saddleworth Morris Men who then sits astride the cart with only two Rowan branches to support him. He is supplied with Ale for the day in a copper kettle. The cart is then pulled around the Saddleworth villages by Morris Men from all over the UK and sometimes from abroad. There are usually 150 men on the stangs fixed to the cart by strong rope.
On Sunday the Rushcart is taken to St Chad’s Church above Uppermill where the top is dismantled and in keeping with tradition the rushes are mixed with fragrant herbs and flowers and then symbolically spread in the aisles. The Rushcart is now firmly established in a Saddleworth Calendar that includes the Whit Friday Band Contests, Beer walk and Saddleworth Folk Festival.
Each year the Saddleworth Man that has been dancing longest with the side but has not yet ridden the Cart is appointed Jockey. He names the Cart and designs and makes the front cover sheet. The name of the cart is revealed on the Saturday morning just before the Cart is pulled out. This is the ‘Roll of Honour’
France and Woodall in their A New History of Didsbury give the text of an anonymous account of the rushcart perhaps of the 1860s and entries in the churchwardens' accounts for 1733 and 1808 among other statements recorded by local people. It is uncertain when the rushbearing was ended in Didsbury, certainly not before 1870. The associated rowdyism was not thought desirable by the more sober parishioners of the time according to Alfred Burton in his Rushbearing. However Fletcher Moss's Fifty Years of Public Work includes photographs of the Didsbury rushcarts of 1882 and 1911, the last occasion. (If the dates are genuine Burton is either mistaken or it was discontinued for some years and then revived.) In the nearby township of Chorlton cum Hardy, the ceremony took place on the eve of the last Sunday in July though very little is known about how long it continued to be observed.
An account of the Fallowfield Rushcart was given by Annie C. Williamson in her book about the township (1888). It was part of the Fallowfield Wakes celebrations and often included Robin Hood and Maid Marian seated on a pile of rushes heaped upon a farm cart. The cart was accompanied by the sound of pipes, penny whistles, clogs being used to beat time on the ground, and the shouts of the people.
The Gorton rushbearing ceremony was relaunched by the Gorton Morrismen in 1980 having last been celebrated in 1874. It ceased again in 1991 but was resurrected "one last time" in 2009 to celebrate the 100th year of Gorton becoming a part of Manchester.