About the Festival

The Sowerby Bridge Rushbearing festival is one of only a few instances of this particular English tradition still being celebrated annually.

Rushbearing itself dates back several centuries to the time when church floors consisted of little more than stone flags or beaten earth and rushes were used as a winter covering. Each year, in late summer, the rotten rushes were cleared out and new ones were taken to the churches in carts. Human nature being what it is, this annual custom developed into an excuse for celebration involving revelry, music, morris dancing and much drinking of strong ales.

Over the course of the weekend, our own festival sees the progress of the Rushbearing procession around 7 towns and villages visiting many churches and local hostelries along the way. The focal point of the procession is the sixteen feet high, two-wheeled, handsomely decorated and thatched rushcart. A team of young ladies take turns to ride on top of the cart as it is pulled by sixty local men dressed in Panama hats, white shirts, black trousers and clogs. Accompanying them are a group of supporters in Edwardian dress along with some of the region's finest musicians and morris dancing teams to provide entertainment for the crowds.

As this is our 40th event, the 2016 Rushbearing will be bigger than ever with more dance teams and more entertainment!

Rushbearing History

It has long been thought that Rushbearing, the ceremonial taking of rushes to the churches for covering the floors throughout the winter, was confined to Lancashire and parts of Cheshire. It is hoped to show in this short history that a small part of West Yorkshire also enjoyed the colourful old English custom.

For centuries rushes have been used as floor covering but during the 17th century in the North West a very special festival developed, the center of which was the celebrated rushcart. Rivalry between the supporters and builders of different carts was sometimes intense and open brawls often developed no doubt induced by the large amount of beer that was inevitably consumed. This caused many of the puritanical church ministers to refuse to allow the rushbearers into the churches and it is from one such minded minister Reverend Oliver Heywood that we have our earliest reference to rushbearing locally, 1682.

the same day Isaac Farrar, sen, and 1. F. junr and one Howgate of Sowrby ordered a rushbearing there. Mr Wittar the minister opposed it, made a speech agt it in the chappel, but in spite of him they caused a man to give notice of it, gave Mr Witter angry words, abused him basely, broke open the doores the morning after, sd he should preach no more there, calld him cobler, sent to Mr Wood to preach at Rushbearing, he refused without Mr Witters consent, sent to Mr Town, he came but upon Mr Witters expressing himself agt. it, he also forbore, this is that I. F. that on thursday before went to the constable, Micael Barret, to urge him to break up our meeting at S. H. but he refused and whose son was cited for getting 2 bastards, as Mr W. told him, but he forbore reading them bec. he was fled, and tho Beverly their former clark dyed miserably in great horrour for proclaimg. the rushbearing agt Mr. Witters mind. (1)

Rushbearing in some form or other was carried out in many of the townships locally including Midgley, Triangle, Illingworth and Brighouse which we know had a rushcart and which was revived in 1865.

This year it is intended to honour the rushbearing with a rushcart, an event which has not taken place for about 70 years. The cart in question will be made of rushes and the top of it will be in the form of a beehive. Some say that it will be ornamented with silver watches. It will doubtless prove a great attraction as any of the side shows. (2)

But for a better picture of what the rushbearing involved we must start just over twenty years prior to the Brighouse revival and go to Ripponden.

References

  1. Diaries of Oliver Heywood.
  2. Halifax Courier Aug. 12th 1865.