Soft rush (Juncus effusus) will be familiar to many hill-goers. This unassuming, clump-forming plant is frequently overlooked and often actively avoided, growing as it does in wet places. However this wasn’t always the case: The word ‘rush’ stems from the much earlier ‘rezg’, meaning to plait, braid or weave and hints at the plant’s usefulness over many centuries. The stiff, cylindrical stems have been used for all kinds of basketwork, woven into chair seats and used to cover the stone floors of houses, providing basic insulation from the cold.
Perhaps the best known use of the soft rush is as a rudimentary form of candle, known as a rushlight. The stems contain a spongy pith which, when soaked in animal fat, can be burned to produce a gentle light, similar to that of a more traditional candle. The existence of rushlights in one form or another can be traced back to ancient Egypt and they remained a popular means of lighting across the UK for several centuries. Being very cheap (or free) to produce, the rushlight was often the only form of artificial lighting available to poorer households at a time when wax or tallow (rendered animal fat) candles were expensive. This earned the rushlight the nickname ‘poor man’s candle’. Being exempt from the candle tax of 1709 (which also outlawed the making of candles in the home unless licensed), rushlight use became much more widespread during the 18th Century. They were still in common use in rural communities across the UK until the turn of the 20th Century, enjoying a brief resurgence during WWII.
Rushes were collected in late summer, when at their tallest and fattest, then left to soak in water to soften the bond between pith and skin. The skin was then peeled away to leave a useable length of pith, often one to two feet long. A thin strip of skin would be left attached to provide some rigidity. Bunches of rush peeled in this way would then by hung up to dry.
Fat dripping from meat cooked over an open fire was collected in an elongated pan called a grisset. The peeled, dried rushes would be drawn through the grisset to absorb the fat before being left to harden, thus creating the rushlight. A rushlight holder, sometimes nothing more than a notched piece of wood, was then employed to hold the fat impregnated rush in a suitable position to be burnt.
Throughout the 18th Century rushlight holders became more elaborate, often created by local blacksmiths or craftsmen. A typical period holder could be either table or floor mounted, of forged or wrought construction and would usually stand on a tripod or simple wooden base. The rush would be held in a rushnip; a pliers-like clamp that was held shut under the weight of a counterbalance incorporated into the handle, often either a decorative scroll or functional candle holder. The rush would be clamped at an angle of 45 degrees to provide the best compromise of light output vs. burn time, with the lit end protruding from the rushnip by approximately 2 inches. It was usually a child’s job to ‘fix the rush’, ensuring it was regularly fed through the rushnip as it burnt down. The burn time and light output from a rushlight varied greatly, dependent upon both rush size and type of fat used; mutton was generally favoured over beef, with pig fat reputedly the worst due to the terrible smell when burning! Anything from 10 to 30 minutes burn from a 30cm rush seems about the norm.
“Burning the candle at both ends”
This is a phrase commonly attributed to the practice of lighting both ends of a rushlight, to create more light, but for a much shorter period of time. When originally coined in the 18th Century, the phrase meant ‘to be wasteful’ and the suggestion of lighting both ends at once does imply a reckless waste. However, in that respect, the phrase should probably be taken more literally, given the value of candles at the time.
The phrase was first defined in the Dictionarium Britannicum of 1730: “The Candle burns at both Ends. Said when Husband and Wife are both Spendthrifts.”
The rushlight holder pictured was commissioned by me from Rowan Taylor, Shropshire based Conservation & Heritage Blacksmith and rushlight holder maker extraordinaire. See the following links for more examples of Rowan‘s work and the processes involved in forging a holder:
My rushlights were made from Snowdonia’s finest soft rush and beef suet, following a similar method to that described above.