The procession will leave from Whitworth Museum, North Street, Whitworth, at 1.00pm. Featuring numerous traditional morris dance troupes (including the famous Britannia Coconutters and the Whitworth Morris Men), the Rushcart procession will travel north up the main road (Market Street), arriving at The Riverside at approximately 1.20pm. The procession will be led by the Rushcart itself.
From 1.15pm until 4.30pm, the car park of The Riverside will be cordoned off for stalls, entertainments, and performances from the various morris dancing troupes including the Whitworth Rushcart Men and the Britannia Coconutters, plus the Whitworth Vale and Healey Youth Band. St Bartholomew’s Church will be providing traditional hot food, and the Riverside bar will be open for liquid refreshments, including real ale named ‘Grogan’s Delight’ in memory of the late Jimmy Grogan, Honorary Townsman of Whitworth. There will also be an Arts and Craft Fair, featuring a variety of artisan stalls in the Riverside main hall. There will also be rides, facepainting and other entertainments.
A Potted History of the Whitworth Rushcart and Morris Men
Rush Bearing - what is it all about?
The strewing of rushes in houses and churches, to provide added warmth to the earthen and flagged floors, largely died out in the early 1800s. They were replaced only occasionally, with little thought given to cleanliness. Sometimes the house rushes were changed regularly, but more often they could be left for years:
"As to the floors, they are usually made of clay, covered with rushes that grow in the fens, which are so slightly removed now and then that the lower part remains sometimes for twenty years together, and in it a collection of filthyness not to be named" (Erasmus, at the time of Henry VIII)
From William the Conqueror to Elizabeth the First, palace floors were covered by rushes. In churches, seats weren’t provided until the fifteenth century, wooden floors were rare, kneeling was very uncomfortable and since only the gentry could afford cushions, rushes were used as a floor covering. It is in this context that a custom arose for the replacement of rushes strewn on church floors. In Lancashire the rush replacement developed alongside the wakes religious celebrations or the feast of dedication of the church, becoming a festival and an excuse for singing, drinking and dancing - and fighting. A parish party!
The Whitworth Rushcart
Whitworth is one of only four Rushcart celebrations still taking place regularly in the UK, all of them within close proximity: the others are held in Sowerby Bridge, Littleborough and Saddleworth. Whitworth, however, is the only one to use heather, not rushes.
The two wheeled ‘rushcart’ was (and continues to be) made in the week preceding the procession. Originally, the framework was built on a wagon, thatched with rushes and decorated with heather from local hills. Placed on the front of the cart was a large pair of horns and a well polished copper kettle. In the centre of the rushcart was a space where a man with a blackened face was imprisoned during the procession. The cart was led by a horse, and a man walked in front with a large whip. On the evening before the procession, once the cart had been built, a celebration and bonfire was held on the moor close to where the rushes had been gathered.
Nowadays, heather is still collected from local hills and the Rushcart is decorated in the days leading up to the event. The cart is pulled by men, not a horse (although this only stopped fairly recently), and there is no longer a man with a blackened face imprisoned within it!
The Whitworth Morris Dancers present the unique ‘Whitworth Dance’ and are seen as the bringers of luck to the Rushbearing Festival in the valley. Folklore shrouds the true origins of the Morris Dance in Whitworth; one theory is that Cornishmen brought the dances to Whitworth whilst working in the quarries. There is also mystery surrounding the sixteenth century French tune for the Morisques in Arbeau, rumoured to have influenced the themes of the Whitworth Morris Dance.
The Whitworth Morris Men were attached to the Parish Church (St Bartholomew’s); until recently, the last time they danced was in 1910 when a Rushcart procession was held to raise money for a new set of bells. Associated with the Morris Dancers were the Whitworth Nutters (not to be confused with the Bacup Coconutters), and both teams performed in the 1910 ceremony. The dress of the Morris team was a cloth cap, with red, white and blue ribbons around the circumference, white shirts, a velvet waistcoat, trousers and clogs with bells attached.
For more information on the Rushcart, visit Whitworth Historical Society and Museum. With grateful thanks to Mike Burgess (www.whitworthvalley.com) and Mark Ambrose.