Until the mid-nineteenth century, most Cumbrian homes would have been lit by rush lights, not candles
For many ordinary people, tallow candles, let alone beeswax candles, were far too expensive. Instead, every August, the families went to where they could find the common rush (juncus effusus), gathering enough to last the winter – perhaps 2-300. They would gather the fattest they could find, 18" to 2'6" long. Taking them home, the children, or others with nimble fingers, would peel most of the outer ‘bark’ away, leaving the pith exposed. Mother would then dip the rushes in hot mutton fat, lifting them out and dipping them in again several times, until they were the right thickness. They would then be hung up until needed.
As the nights drew in, a rush light would be taken from the bundle and placed between the nippers of a rush-light holder, at an angle of about 45 degrees. In this position, it would burn for up to two hours, and it was the job of the youngest child to move the rush up as it burned down, ensuring that it didn’t go out. Two or at most three would see you through the longest winter evening.
Rush light holders can be seen today in the main rooms at Swarthmoor Hall, for example.
Edwin Waugh, in Rambles in the Lake Country and its Borders (Manchester, 1864) (p.144), repeats what he was told by John Tyson, of Cockley Beck, high up in the Duddon valley.
‘He said they made their own candles out of the pith of rushes dipped in mutton fat. They made as many in two days as lasted the whole year. These rush dips are not much thicker than a strong knitting needle and gave a dreary light to people accustomed to gas. But they seemed to think the light was very good; beside, they went to bed soon o’nights. An iron clip, something like a pair of curling tongs, hung from the ceiling by a string, and in this clip the rushlight was stuck slant, and shifted as it burned away’
Text and photo by Bill Shannon