In 601 AD Pope Gregory I wrote a letter to the Gregorian mission sent to England to convert the Anglo-Saxons from their native paganism to Christianity.
‘The temples of the idols in that nation ought not to be destroyed…. Let holy water be made, and sprinkled in the said temples; For since those temples are built, it is requisite that they be converted from the worship of the devils … The nation, not seeing those temples destroyed, may remove error from their hearts, … because they are wont to sacrifice many oxen in honour of the devils, let them celebrate a religious and solemn festival, not slaughtering the beasts for devils, but to be consumed by themselves, to the praise of God …
So every church was consecrated and was given the name of a patron saint and either the day of its consecration or the saint’s feast day became the church’s festival.. The night of prayer was called a vigil, eve or, due to the late hour, wake – from the Old English ‘waecan’. Each village had a wake with quasi-religious celebrations such as rushbearing followed by church services, then sports, games, dancing … and drinking.
During this time the floors of most churches and dwellings consisted of compacted earth, and rushes (usually the ‘common rush’) or other herbs and grasses were strewn over them to provide a sweet smelling, renewable covering for insulation from the cold during the hard winter months. The rushes were taken to the church on a ‘sledge’ but this method gave way to placing the rushes in a cart and built up in the shape of a haystack. The rushes would eventually be spread on the trodden earth or clay floor of their houses, often mixed with fragrant herbs and wild flowers, to insulate them.
Rushcarts were originally pulled by horses but in Delph one of the horses bolted and killed the rider. So the dancers pulled it … 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. This 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. 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. 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, often, the local Morris side. The Uppermill Rushcart became known as the Longwood Thump.
Even so, Rushcarts eventually died out in the early twentieth century. The growth of the railways enabled people to travel further away for their holidays, leaving very few people behind to continue the Rushcart festival.