31 October 1903

By Aaron Miller
No. II – Rushbearing and Bullbaiting

I will now give a description of two of the principal pastimes incident to wakes times, namely bullbaiting and rushbearing, both of which I had an exceptional opportunity of knowing the modus operandi. First as to bullbaiting.

The bull was baited on the bottom green, about half-way between Oldham-street and Water-street, and behind the Botany pump. My uncle lived in the nearest house and in close proximity to where the bull was baited. At the back of the house was a one-storey loom shop, on the roof of which I could easily get by going through the bedroom window, and from the ridge of the loom shop climb on to the roof of the house. Then getting myself ensconced against the chimney I could see all that transpired in the bull ring.

There was a stump about the thickness of a man’s body, and a hole through the stump for the rope to go through. The stump was let into the ground about three feet, and well pummelled round to prevent the bull from drawing it. When this was done the rope, which would be about a dozen feet long, and an inch or an inch and a quarter in diameter, was passed through the hole, and attached to a collar round the bull’s neck.

The men with their dogs would arrange themselves in a line against Chapman’s reservoir wall, in Water-street, each man having his dog in a slip. By this time a great crowd of people would be collected, and several rough men armed with sticks, who had been picked for that purpose, would proceed to clear the ring, by applying their sticks vigorously to the legs of bystanders, until they were well out of the bull’s range.

There was also a man appointed as bellart, whose duty it was to see that only one dog was slipped at one time, one dog one bull being the motto. When all was arranged the first man in the line slipped his dog at the bull, and if it pinned the bull by the nose it was said to have won; but if the bull caught the dog with his horns, which was more often the case, he would toss it almost as high as a house, and the dog would probably be killed or so badly maimed that he would be of no further use. Sometimes the bull would break the rope; then the ring would not need much clearing, as the bull generally did the clearing business for himself.

The prize was a leather dog-collar with brass mountings. The bull was baited three days in succession and then killed, and the beef sold at a low price to any one who would buy it. Bullbaiting was abolished by Act of Parliament about the year 1837 or 1839. I am not quite sure of the year. It was a barbarous custom, and appealed to the lowest instincts of the people.

Rushbearing was a pleasant pastime, but it was greatly spoiled by the drunkenness which was engendered through the dancers being treated with too much drink at the public houses where the rushcarts stopped, and where the dancers gave performances of their skill in dancing.

The dancers would begin training about six weeks before the wakes, so that the young men who had never danced before could get perfected in their knowledge of dancing by being trained among the older men, who had perhaps danced for years. There would be from sixteen to twenty couples as it took four dancers to complete a sett. Whilst they were training they would perambulate the streets two or three nights a week, with Dan HAWKYARD, a blind fiddler, and Tom SMITH, a fifer, at their head playing the Morris dance tunes.

I cannot describe the tunes, but it was a pretty sight to watch their performances. The first dance was what was called forwards. The conductor of the dancers always called the dance, and the orders he gave every one must obey on pain of being dismissed. Each dancer was provided with two large white pocket handkerchiefs with different colours of ribbons.

The dancers would arrange themselves in single file on each side of the roadway about a yard distance behind each other, and on the call of forwards by the conductor they would march on to the tune that was being played by the fiddler and fife, swinging their arms and handkerchiefs round, and at certain parts of the tune throwing their hands high over their heads. This part of the dance must be performed with the greatest precision, every handkerchief going up at once, or it would spoil the effect. Indeed every movement in the various dances must be learned to perfection, and all movement made at one time.

The forward movement would be continued until the dancers came in front of a public house, when the conductor would cry “Halt!” Then immediately he would call out Cross Morris. Then each dancer would cross over to the other side of the road, passing their partner in the middle, and performing their various evolutions with the greatest precision.

When this dance had proceeded long enough, the conductor would call out “Nancy Dawson next time o’er.” The dancers would immediately form themselves into fours, and cross over from corner to corner, diagonally exchanging places with each other and dancing to the tune of “Nancy Dawson.” When this dance was ended the conductor would call out “Forwards!” and they would dance away in the same manner as before.

Their wives and sweethearts were as enthusiastic as themselves. For several weeks before the wakes, the young women would be busy going among their relatives and friends, borrowing coral and amber necklaces and broaches to adorn their sweethearts during the wakes, each one visiting vying with the other which could make the best display.

The young women would be busy on the Saturday before the Wakes Sunday stitching spangles and ribbons to the trousers of the dancers, most of whom would have six or eight links of beads round their necks beginning with small ones and finishing up with large ones down to the waist. They wore fine linen shirts, and danced in their shirt sleeves. The ornaments of some of them would cost pounds.

There were also four garlands made to adorn the horses and rushcart. There were always three horses to draw the cart, and upon each horse was a handsome cover or hilling. The one of the leading horse was made of white silk, covered with spangles, stitched on by hand in patterns, nicely designed. There must have been hundreds of spangles. It would cost over thirty pounds, and it was made by the young women of Hurst Brook in their spare time.

After the decadence of rushcarts through the advent of railways and people preferring to spend their holidays at the various watering places, this hilling got into the possession of Mrs Sally HILTON, the wife of the conductor of the dancers. Mrs HILTON had done a great deal of the work herself. She showed me the hilling a good many years ago, and it was then quite yellow with age and exposure to the weather. She kept it as long as she lived, and she never had any children. I think it would pass to her nephew, the late Mr James HILTON, of Longshuts House, Hurst. Perhaps his son, Dr HILTON, can tell what has become of it.

The best garland was always fixed upon the leading horse’s head, and a young man on the horse’s back to keep it steady. The second best upon the second horses, the third upon the shaft horse, and the fourth upon the rushcart. There was a great work of art in making the garlands, and four men were selected to make them, each one getting his own assistants, and be being responsible for his own garland. The garland makers in my time were my uncle, Andrew CLOUGH, John SIDDALL, Samuel LEECH, and Robert MILLS.

Judges were appointed to place the garlands in their order of merit according to their quality, Andrew CLOUGH generally being first, Jno SIDDALL second, Samuel LEECH third, and Robert MILLS fourth. I remember one occasion, and only one, when John SIDDALL’s garland was first, but it was generally hard to judge between the two

The garland makers would begin to prepare their artificial flowers, etc, three months before the Wakes, and when everything was prepared they would get a framework of wood made to the size and shape they required, which would be from four to five feet high and about three feet wide. Upon this superstructure they would begin to build their garlands, every flower and leaf being artificial and so natural and well made that it was difficult to tell they were artificial a short distance away.

Every rose and rosebud was built up by single leaves made from different shades of tissue paper, cut the proper shape and size with scissors. Of course, they could put a number of sheets of tissue paper together, and so cut them quicker and in different sizes, but every leaf had to be pasted on separately until the full flower was formed, also the opening buds. The flowers were fixed on stems made of fine wire, which could be bent any shape and fastened anywhere.

Dahlias were built up in the same manner, also flowers of every kind. The framework could not be seen as it was completely covered by the mass of flowers, tastefully arranged in sprays and festoons. The best garlands generally cost about ten pounds each or over.

The building of the rushcart also required great skill to make it uniform and nicely balanced, and very few men could build one satisfactorily. The best rushcart builder for miles around Ashton was Mr Jonathan CHARLESWORTH, of Hurst Knowl, and he was in great request at nearly all the Wakes in the parish to make their rushcarts.

The rushes were made into what were termed bottles; that is a bundle of short rushes would be compressed together as tightly as possible, and tied round with string to keep them together, the ends cut and levelled up so as to present and even surface on the outside of the cart. The bottles would be about eight or ten inches in diameter. These rushes could be obtained from the pits in the neighbourhood.

But in addition to the bottles there were a rather large quantity of long rushes required, similar to those for bottoming chairs, which were used for what were termed binders, and were worked into the rushcart in a longitudinal direction from the front to back to bind the whole together, the long rushes projecting about three of four inches further than the bottles and cleanly cut and levelled the same as the others. The binding rushes could not be obtained long enough any nearer than Fidlers Green, several miles on the Yorkshire side of Woodhead.

As there were no railways in that direction at that time, batches of young would start late on Saturday afternoon and walk to Fidlers Green, stopping at Salternbrook for three or four hours until the break of day, when they would proceed to gather rushes. When they had gathered as many as they could carry they trudged back again with their loads upon their backs, landing in Hurst on the Sunday night. I just mention this to show with what an ardent spirit the whole thing was carried through.

When everything was prepared the builder began to build the cart. He first began by building a straight upright stick of hazel or other wood that would answer the same purpose. The sticks were fastened one at each corner of the cart and as high as the rushes were intended to go. The bottles were then built in the cart in a solid mass, and as close together as they could be packed, the second layer breaking the joints of the first layer, the binding rushes being laid as the work proceeded.

The sides of the cart were slightly bulged out with a curve from the front, and gradually brought back to the same width again at the back, and tapering up from the side of the cart at the bottom to half the size at the top. When the building was completed the ends of the binders were stuffed full of dahlias of various colours from the bottom of the cart to the top and at all four corners.

The front and back face of the cart were covered with a strong white cloth, to which was attached, well fastened on, silver plate, borrowed for the occasion from Mr BARROW, the owner and occupier of the Pitt and Nelson Hotel in Ashton, at that time.

The rushcart was generally made in front of the Cheshire Cheese Inn in St Mary-street, and from whence the procession started. When the procession had formed up then those who were chosen for whip crackers took their places on each side of the dancers and rushcart. Then amidst the constant cracking of whips and the huzzas of the spectators the dancers gaily tripped away to the Morris dance tune.

(To be continued)

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