Music Halls

At the close of the 19th century, Manchester had become a centre for music and of the evolution of the modern professional musician. In addition to the performing opportunities offered by the informal sessions in pubs like the George & Dragon, there were saloons and supper rooms but these could be rowdy places:

‘The taverns, saloons and supper rooms would have been noisy and difficult places in which to perform. The audiences chatted throughout the acts and could be very unruly often throwing things at the performers – bottles, old boots, even a dead cat. Industrial towns favoured hurling iron rivets.’65

Growing out of tavern entertainment, music halls became a focus of popular entertainment in the second half of the 19th century but the trend started much earlier:

‘As early as the 1830s a large number of publican entrepreneurs built concert rooms in their pubs, and these became more numerous in succeeding decades. Their expansion was so rapid that the temperance movement, always strong in Manchester, viewed the process with alarm’.66

One of these pubs with a ‘music hall’ was the Rising Sun at the north end of Swan Street, just 200 yards from the George & Dragon. In addition to many of these small concert rooms, by the 1860s, there were several much larger establishments, ‘such as Burton’s People’s Concert Hall, the Alexandra, the Victoria and the London, each of which sat upwards of 1500 people and subordinated the sale of alcohol to the provision of entertainment’. Commonly, as in the Alexandra, the classes were segregated into separate seating areas.66

A wide range of topics would provide the subjects of music hall songs and some of the songs no doubt would migrate to sing-songs in the pubs. Among those performed in Manchester in 1878 were those with topical, if less than thrilling, subjects, such as:

  • The Manchester Town Hall Waltz,
  • The Manchester Royal Exchange Gallop

(both by William J Young)

Presumably a good time was had by all when these songs were sung!

Figure 12 – Cover of ‘Town Hall Waltz’ by William J Young & ‘The Manchester Ship Canal’ by RH Kay, 1883

Somewhat racier topics would be more common: many ‘relied on the double entendre and performers could make seemingly innocent expressions very ‘blue’ with a simple wink or wriggle’.67 Patriotic songs were also popular, such as ‘Oh What a Happy Land is England’, by Charles Godfrey, 1887

‘Songs about leisure activities were popular and drinking was the one activity in which all levels of society could partake…. People sat around tables drinking and eating; it wasn’t until the 1890’s that auditoriums were set up with rows of seats and food and drink was provided outside the auditorium in restaurants and bars’.67

Accompaniment to the music acts was provided by small orchestras, and in Manchester, and elsewhere, music halls were ‘bringing plentiful work for the growing number of people trying to make a living through music’.68


65V&A Museum website, The Story of Music Hall www.vam.ac.uk/page/m/music-hall/

66Chris Waters, ‘Manchester Morality and London Capital: The Battle over the Palace of Varieties’, from ‘Music Hall, The Business of Pleasure’, ed. Peter Bailey

67British Library Online Gallery, Victorian popular music www.bl.uk/onlinegallery/onlineex/vicpopmus

68Musicians’ Union website www.musiciansunion.org.uk/about-us/