Rushbearing is a traditional English festival, which has taken place in villages from medieval times (Husken, 1996). Originally, it is thought that the tradition was for rushes to be strewn on the floors of houses, churches and other buildings to keep the floor clean, the space fragrant and to help insulate the building in the winter months. The process of gathering and presenting rushes to the local church became a point of celebration in the local calendar and the idea of a “festival” to mark this point was revived in the 19th Century, mostly in Northern English villages and towns.
The tradition evolved such that hospitality was provided to those who came bearing the rushes and to celebrate together (Husken, 1996). This element of reciprocity is particularly important for us to continue in Littleborough; we make sure our Rushbearers, the dance and music sides who come to join us to celebrate, along with our festival volunteers are recognised for their efforts in the form of food and drink.
As the tradition continued, Rushbearing became an opportunity for a village to represent itself; the Rushbearing started to include a procession, accompanied by music and dance, particularly Morris dance (Wilson, Dutton, & Findlay, 2003). Rushcarts became a focal point of the process in some areas and ever more beautifully decorated Rushcarts, accompanied by music and dance, paraded through local villages during their local Wakes (Fowler, 2003) and holidays. Naturally, villages felt a sense of competition relating to Rushbearing festivals and Rochdale borough was famous for being able to bring together a comparatively large number of Rushcarts form the surrounding villages for their local festival (Kay-Shuttleworth, 1860). Rather than compete, these days we are proud merely to celebrate our place, sitting alongside our friends from other areas and to celebrate and share in their Rushbearing. You will find links to other Rushbearing festivals (at the side of this page??)
Although it was traditional for women to be involved in the gathering and carrying of rushes, as Rushcarts became part of the festivities, it appears that women became less involved. The area around Littleborough was one of the earliest to have recordings of women pulling Rushcarts (Observer, 1859); another tradition we are proud of; all our folk dance and music sides are mixed, and people of all ages, genders and abilities take part.
Rushcarts. The focal point of many Rushbearing festivals is a cart, piled with rushes and beautifully decorated. Ropes, fore and aft, enable the cart to be moved by a group of people holding ‘stangs’ (poles) which are attached to the rope at intervals (Wilkinson, 1872). Our Rushchart was revived in 1991 and includes banners and decoration representing the dance sides and groups who have helped to sustain this tradition over the years. We also decorate the cart with shiny objects, which were integral in recordings of local Rushcarts; thought to reflect away evil (Helm, 1954). The cart is crowned with a Rowan tree, which is thought to be both a protective and celebratory symbol.
Rushbearers. Our Rushcart is pulled by the performers and supporters of the festival. The organisation of the Rushbearing Festival is led by Littleborough Events and Associations Forum (LEAF). Littleborough’s voluntary folk arts organisation, Oakenhoof are responsible for the cart, dance and music elements of the festival. Oakenhoof are an all-age, all-ability side who learn and perform clog, North-west Morris and Rapper dance.
In addition to the Rushbearers, it was recorded that in the festivals in Rochdale and the surrounding villages, a strange ‘female’ character was to be seen. This character also had links with local Pace Egg and Mumming plays. This character, known as Dirty Bet or Dirty Molly, swept the street clear for the dancers (Helm, 1954). We have our own, rather whimsical and enigmatic Molly, who can be seen here and there and now and then at local festivals. Be careful if you spot our Molly; she has been known to sweep people off their feet! Our Molly is a kindly and generous character, who will sweep away any evil or bad feeling to leave us free to celebrate. Molly always has her besom to hand and has also been known to marry local people living “over the brush,” by performing an “over the broom” ceremony.
Oakenhoof would like to take this opportunity to extend our sincere thanks to LEAF, along with the sides who have looked after Littleborough Rushbearing these past years; Rochdale Morris and Thieving Magpies. Not only have they done a sterling job in continuing this important tradition, but they have provided vital assistance to both LEAF and Oakenhoof during the transfer of responsibility. Our aim for the Littleborough Rushbearing Festival is to retain and celebrates our heritage whilst providing access to summertime festivities that are accessible and fun for everyone.
If you want to find out more about Rushbearing traditions, there is a great overview of Rushbearing and the Rushcart Tradition in the Rochdale Borough. All the sources are available through our local studies centre.
Fowler, A. (2003). Lancashire Cotton Operatives and Work, 1900 - 1950.
Helm, A. T. (1954). The Rushcart and the North-West Morris. Manchester.
Husken, W. N. (1996). Rushbearing: a forgotten British Custom. English Parish Drama.
Kay-Shuttleworth, J. P. (1860). Scarsdale; or, Life on the Lancashire and Yorkshire Border thirty years ago. Smith, Elder and Co. .
Observer, R. (1859). Report about the Smallbridge Rushcart. Rochdale Observer.
Wilkinson, H. &. (1872). Rochdale Rushbearing.
Wilson, R., Dutton, R., & Findlay, A. (2003). Region, religion and patronage: Lancastrian Shakespeare. Manchester: Manchester University Press.