Tuesday, 10 July 2018

Of rush carts and "the sodden mass of intemperance," Fallowfield in 1830

I have been re-reading Sketches of Fallowfield by Mrs C. Williamson which she published in 1888.

It began as a series of lectures about the Fallowfield that was almost beyond living memory.

It is a wonderful description of the immediate rural past and like all good local history books is not afraid to stray into the neighbouring townships.

Above; Old Hall Lane , 1926

It is one of a number of accounts which tried to capture what life had been like fifty years earlier.  In the same way our own Thomas Ellwood had set about at almost the same time to record the Chorlton of the early 19th century, while his near neighbour J.T. Slugg had done much the same for Manchester.**

What all had in common was that they drew on the recollections of people who had grown up in the first half of the century and in turn could pull on the collective memories of friends and families stretching back into the late 18th century.

So for Thomas Ellwood “the greater portion of the information I have obtained [was] from that interesting individual ‘the oldest inhabitant’ and many  pleasant evenings have been spent in gathering facts from this source.”  While for Annie Williamson it was her husband and his “own picturesque reminiscences [who] knew whom to ask for all else and how to ask them.” As well as “Mr Burrows, the oldest living man in the village, whose clear recitals of what has been were invaluable.”

Her account like so many of the period starts with the “great and good” and there are chapters on Barlow Hall and the Barlow’s, Hough End, Platt Hall and Birch Hall. But there is also much here about the life of the farmers, labourers, and weavers, and much that might dispel that over nostalgic view of rural life.
In an age before piped water, it was the lot of many to collect their water from a well, pump or pond, so the women of Lady Barn visited the nearby hay field which “had a pool at its lowest end, where the village folk came with buckets of water to clean their houses, this being as yet the only supply of any but rain and spring water.”

And there are the local traditions like the rush cart which carried rushes which would be spread on the floor of the church and was at the core of the Wakes festivities.  “Rush bearing originally took place when the rushes were ripe, and in this part of England was accompanied by such processions, dances and decoration.”

The rushes would be “built on a farmer’s flat cart, decorated with garlands, branches of oak, ribbons, flags, tinsel, everything that ingenuity and bad taste could devise, and often completed by a Robin Good and Maid Marian, who, more grotesque than all else seated on the top of the rushes.  This rush cart, which had been built on a piece of spare ground near Burton Road, Withington was drawn by twenty or thirty young men, also festooned and garlanded and harnessed in pairs.  These youths were the heroes of the day, and as they passed were quick enough to catch the eyes of the prettiest girls.”

And there was a carnival atmosphere as befitted one of the high points of the year, and so, “the cart was accompanied by men also carrying banners, sometimes of enormous size, by pipers and drummers and bell ringers.  The noise was deafening as the motley crowd slowly entered the village.  Pipers played the well-known Rush Dance, clogs, which then everyone wore, beat time; children’s penny whistles accompanied; and the shouts of all the people drowned or tried to do so the medley of sound.”

It is a vivid description whose strength comes from the fact that it was a firsthand account, but amidst all the detail I sense a slight hint of disapproval, as if there was too much shouting and “medley of sound” and too many “young heroes” catching the eyes of the prettiest girls”

All of which is given a way a little later when Mrs Williams records the arrival in turn  of “a Wesleyan Chapel and Sunday School, a Church Sunday and Day School, and a Working Men’s Club, combined to lighten the sodden mass of intemperance this place had become , and, the leaven once introduced must spread.”

Ah well in the midst of factual reporting creeps moral opinion.

Later; the weavers of Burnage, and the punishments awaiting apple stealers.

Pictures; Old Hall Lane Fallowfield, November 1924, City Engineers, m77453, courtesy of Manchester Libraries, Information and Archives, Manchester City Council, and map of Fallowfield in 1818 from Sketches of Fallowfield and Surrounding Manors, Past and Present

* Williamson Mrs C., Sketches of Fallowfield and Surrounding Manors, Past and Present 1888
**Ellwood, History of Chorlton-cum-Hardy, 1885-86, South Manchester Gazette, Slugg, J.T., Reminiscences of Manchester, 1881

You can find out more about Rusholme and Fallowfield’s history at http://www.rfcf.org.uk/archives/directory/rusholme-and-fallowfield-civic-society

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