The origins of the Rushcart are uncertain but one school of thought is that the practice is pre-Christian.
The custom of carrying rushes to church has grown into a festival in many parts of the country but in the South Pennines, a more elaborate method grew. The rushes were originally taken to church on a sledge but this method gave way to placing the rushes in a cart built up in the shape of a haystack.
The rushes would be spread on the trodden earth or clay floor of the church, often mixed with fragrant herbs and wild flowers, to insulate the congregation from the cold during the hard winter months.
The practice was discontinued at St.Chad's, Uppermill following a visit from Bishop Law in February 1821 who, upon seeing rushes ten to fifteen inches deep, told the Church-warden that the church wasn't fit to stable his horse. St.Chad's was re-built with a stone floor in 1844. The Rushcarts continued to call at the church but the rushes were sold to the landlord of the Church Inn as animal bedding.
The Rushcart grew into a festival which was held on the annual "Wakes" or mill holiday which often coincided with the feast of the saint to whom the local Parish Church is dedicated. Every village or hamlet would build a Rushcart and each would try to out-do the neighbouring villages 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.
The procession was drawn, by hauling on poles or "stangs" fixed to the cart by strong ropes and was accompanied by music and, very often, the local Morris side. The Uppermill Rushcart became known as the Longwood Thump.
The coming of the railways led to a decline in the interest in Rushcarts as the local population were able to travel farther afield for their annual break and the number of rushcarts dwindled.
It was in Uppermill that the Rushcart had it's final fling. The 1889 Rushcart was so badly built that it fell to pieces but the landlord of the Commercial Inn formed a committee to oversee the building of the 1890 Rushcart and employed a sailor named Tweedale to carry out the task. Even so, Rushcarts eventually died out in the early twentieth century.
In 1974/75, Peter Ashworth researched the tradition of rush-bearing in Saddleworth and was fortunate to be able to listen to memories of the last Rushcarts from one or two of the older members of the community. With the information obtained, Saddleworth Morris Men revived the Rushcarts as an annual festival in 1975 to become the first of many in the area.
The rushes are taken from the surrounding moors (with the blessing of the National Trust) and built onto a two-wheeled cart in a slightly conical shape thirteen feet high weighing about two tons (if it doesn't rain). 'Feathers' at each corner are formed from bolts or bundles of rushes each about four inches in diameter held in place by metal rods. The bulk of the cart is built from loose rushes; they are not tied on. When completed, the whole structure is trimmed to give a smooth appearance on each side.
Two Rowan branches are fixed to the top and, on Saturday morning, the front is dressed with a decorated banner. A man chosen from the ranks of Saddleworth Morris Men sits astride the Rushcart for the day, supplied with ale in a copper kettle.
The Rushcart is then pulled through the villages of Saddleworth by morris men invited from all over Britain and, sometimes, from overseas. 150 men pull on the "stangs" fixed to strong rope which, in turn, is fixed to the cart.
On Sunday, the Rushcart is taken to St. Chad's Church, Uppermill, where the top is dismantled and the rushes are mixed with fragrant herbs and flowers and then symbolically spread in the aisles. After the service there is an afternoon's entertainment with displays of English male traditional dance, musicianship, gurning (face-pulling), clog-stepping, a competition to find the worst singer and weather permitting, a Saddleworth wrestling competition (open to Morris men only).
The Saddleworth "Longwood Thump" Rushcart is held annually on the second weekend following the 12th of August. In forth-coming years the actual dates will be:
Further information is available from the Tourist Information Office, Saddleworth Museum, Uppermill. Or via our contacts page.
Last modified: 04/12