The custom of rush-bearing, once widespread in north-west England in the 18th and 19th Centuries, was a religious festival in which rushes were gathered to cover the floor of local churches in preparation for the wet winter months ahead, typically on the date of the festival of the saint to whom the parish church was dedicated. The rushes would be elaborately thatched on a wagon dubbed the rush-cart which then processed through the district distributing rushes to the churches, accompanied by various festivities. Although the tradition largely died out in the early 20th Century, it has been revived in a number of towns in recent years, including Sowerby Bridge from 1977 onwards, where it is now performed on the first weekend in September.
Brighouse rush-bearing occurred on the first Saturday after the second Thursday in August and the celebrations traditionally lasted for four days, with maypoles, folk-dancing and probably a great deal of drunkenness. Curiously, the ceremony is known to have taken place long before a church was built in Brighouse (St. Martin’s was not constructed until 1831), yet there is no record of rush-bearing at Lightcliffe, Coley, Rastrick, Hartshead or Southowram, where churches did exist prior to this date. Given that there was no church to be dedicated to any particular saint, it is also unclear exactly how the remarkably precise date was arrived at. Nor is the exact purpose of the rush-cart obvious in the absence of a church, so it may be that Brighouse folk simply adopted the idea from neighbouring communities in Calderdale as an excuse to have a big party.
The original rush-bearing festival in Brighouse had died out by the middle of the 18th Century. However, a fair on the associated dates continued to be held in Swan Field, which lay alongside the still extant Black Swan pub. The feast would attract such an influx of gipsies, fortune-tellers and peddlers that by 1855 it had outgrown Swan Field and was moved to the Black Bull cricket field. Now all manner of attractions began to appear, including Hudson’s Waxworks, Claver’s Marionette Theatre, Wilde’s Australian Troupe and Calvert’s Exhibition of Automata. Meanwhile, in 1865 a rush-cart was built again for the first time in seventy years and paraded around the town led by a man wielding a five-foot long whip. Despite this brief revival, however, rush-bearing in the town seems to have died out again shortly afterwards.
The fair usually began on a Thursday and lasted four days until Thump Sunday, a name which apparently derived from the notion that it was permissible on this day to thump somebody who entered a pub and refused to pay for his drink. People from across the district would descend upon the town with the railway company estimating some three-thousand passengers alighted at Brighouse on Thump Sunday in 1859. The railway would also organise an outing by local Sunday school groups. Another Thump Sunday custom was the consumption of Thump Pudding, a dessert similar to plum pudding or Christmas cake which was consumed with custard.
As the years went on the fair began to extend beyond Thump Sunday into the following week, paving the way for Rush Week, the traditional “Wakes Week” in Brighouse which would take place on the Monday and Tuesday after Thump Sunday. Wakes Weeks were established in the 1880s when parliamentary legislation guaranteed mill workers two days holiday and so all businesses in the district closed. The tradition was not officially adopted in Brighouse until 1908. Thump Sunday had became known as the day on which people would set off for seaside holidays and horns would sound at dawn to rouse those embarking on such journeys. However, by the 1960s Rush Week had all but died out as workers were guaranteed more holiday time across the year and local firms fell into the ownership of outside companies who did not recognise the tradition.
The custom of rush-bearing in general is thought to have developed in the late Middle Ages. Whilst it is not recorded until the Elizabethan Reformation, it was clearly already well-established by that time. In 1571, the Archbishop of York condemned the practice as irreligious and it was outlawed by local Justices of the Peace, with two spinsters in Lancashire prosecuted for “carrying garlanded rushes” in 1590. In 1617, however, King James I gave the custom his personal blessing and was expressly legalised in the “Declaration of Sports”. Inevitably, the tradition was again banned by the Puritan Westminster Assembly of Divinites following the Civil Wars of the 1640s but the prohibition lapsed in 1660 and so it continued. However, even at its 18th and 19th Century zenith, the festival was frowned upon by the social elite, who disapproved of the attendant debauchery.