The 19th century saw a tremendous surge in the popularity of broadside ballads,23 a term that might suggest an esoteric collection of folk-songs. This could hardly be further from the truth: these ‘broadsides’ were at the very heart of the street and pub culture of the day.
‘The best-selling works of English literature early in the nineteenth century were written not by such famous authors as Wordsworth or Byron or Austen or Scott, but by anonymous hacks, who often worked under time pressure at the counter of a local pub. There they wrote ballads, songs, and “news” reports that were sold on the streets to the urban poor, by impoverished hawkers, for a penny a sheet… The most sensational street ballads sold hundreds of thousands of copies.’ 24
Manchester was a national centre for the production of these popular song-sheets, and the George & Dragon could not have been closer to three of the four main clusters of Manchester broadside printing in the 19th century — at Shudehill Market, Angel Meadow and Ancoats, including the ‘Cheap Song Mart’ in the Shudehill/Smithfield Market, c 1839-1850. 25
These cheap printed sheets included:
‘older rural songs (and their modern imitations), stage songs, minstrel songs from America, drawing room ballads and increasingly in the 1860s and 1870s, music hall songs…’26
The broadsides were story-songs, often about current events, issues and developments:
‘a royal visit, a local boxing match, the census, the high price of meat, the invention of the bicycle and anything else – could be quickly written, adapted to a well-known tune, put into the press and out into the street.’ 27
Occasionally these broadside sheets included musical notation or just the name of the melody, occasionally a hymn, to which the verses were to be sung, but much more often gave no guidance as to the tune, leaving it up to the interpreter to make his or her choice – or improvise.
The songs sung in the George & Dragon, and the other market pubs, would often have reflected the national and regional backgrounds and traditions of the inhabitants. In 1841, around half of the residents of Swan Street were born in Manchester or other parts of Lancashire, while about one in four was born in other English counties, and around one in five was Irish-born 28. There were many families with children – under-18s comprised about one-third of the street’s population. We can speculate that the pubs surrounding the Smithfield Market might include little enclaves of imported culture, from the rural parts of England and Ireland, and in the daytime numerous dialects could be heard from the groups of children playing (and often begging) in the streets and alleys.
The Irish presence was particularly strong nearby in the densely populated and deprived areas of Ancoats and Angel Meadow, the latter often referred to as ‘Irish Town’, where by 1851 50.4% of the recorded population were born in Ireland or were the offspring of two Irish-born parents, and ‘with Irish and non-Irish each concentrated in distinct areas’. 29 The same census showed a similar proportion of Irish in Ancoats: an estimated 44.6% of all two-parent families and 55.6% of single parent families.
As the Irish-born population steadily increased in Manchester, Irish voices and tunes became part of the local song culture. 30
In addition to being an outlet for their songs, the pubs of the area may have played a practical role for the newly-arrived Irish migrants, most of whom were impoverished and desperate to find work and a roof over their heads.
“One of the most useful venues for the exchange of information about accommodation and work was the public house which, as well as selling drink, must have played a significant part in the social and cultural life of Manchester’s Irish as it did in Liverpool and London”29
One broadside from this era, written in premises on Oldham Road, suggests that lodging-house keepers touted for business at railway stations:
Slap Up Lodgings
When first to town I came, and at the railway landed,
By a fat old dame a card to me was handed,
Says she I’d have you know, my name is Mrs Podgings,
I live down this row, and I let out slap up lodgings.31
The second half of the 19th century saw the rise of published, notated sheet music, heralding the emergence of the popular music industry, and of the ‘longsheets’ that included several songs and, being much better value for money, would also signal the decline of the broadside trade. Often these longsheets would be a mix of English and Irish songs.
Locals of the George & Dragon did not have far to go to obtain the new song sheets: they were sold at Abel Heywood’s shop, along the road at 58 Oldham Street. There, in addition to items musical, were publications radical. Mr Heywood was a leading Chartist and published many of the movement’s documents, including the Northern Star and various sectarian pamphlets, as well as ‘cheap works most favoured by the poorer reading classes’.32 Supplying booksellers throughout the country, Mr Heywood (1810-1893) built up a substantial business, at times using his wealth to bail out Chartists, such as the Irish-born leader of the movement Feargus O’Connor. He also immersed himself in local politics, going on to two terms as Mayor of Manchester.
We don’t know if the Chartists, seeking suffrage reforms, met at the George & Dragon, though this seems probable, given that a number of nearby locations have been confirmed as meeting places: the Griffin Inn, Great Ancoats Street;33 the Sherwood Inn and the Fustian Cutters Hall, both in Tib Street.34.
Closer still was the open meeting place of New Cross, where ‘the poison of discontent could flow freely, where wrongs were proclaimed and remedies suggested and hopes entertained of their realisation’35.