At the start of the 1860s, the trading outlook for the George & Dragon appeared bright, as there were several favourable factors: the Smithfield Market had extended directly behind the pub and was thriving, with its new Market Hall, built on Swan Street in 1857/58; the population of the catchment area had grown almost exponentially — Ancoats alone had over 50,000 residents, far greater than the population of either Burnley, Bury, Blackburn, Wigan or Rochdale; 52and many of the local workers enjoyed increased leisure time following the introduction of the 60-hour working week, resulting from the Ten Hours Bill of 1847.
But soon there would be
‘a great national calamity, the like whereof in modern times has never been witnessed in this favoured land… a calamity which, though shared by the nation at large, falls more peculiarly and with the heaviest weight upon this hitherto prosperous and wealthy district ‘ — Earl of Derby, 1863,53 between his second and third term as Prime Minister.
This was the Cotton Famine (1861-1865). The supply of raw cotton on which Lancashire’s mills depended was cut off – a consequence of the American Civil War and the blockade of the southern ports by the Federal navy. By 1862, 60% of Lancashire’s cotton workers were out of work. 54
‘Many operatives, their savings exhausted, were forced to apply for charitable handouts or for relief from the despised poor law system. Such hardships, however, they endured calmly because they believed in the noble cause for which Lincoln was fighting, the freeing of the slaves of the southern plantation owners’. 54
The cotton crisis was the theme of a number of songs and poems of the day, not always reflecting the calm endurance of the workers. This is a verse from ‘Th’Shurat* Weaver’s Song’ by Samuel Laycock (1826-1893) written in the kind of Lancashire dialect that commonly would be heard in Swan Street and area, where many of the residents were from rural Lancashire. According to the British Library, Lancashire dialect is one of the oldest, if not the oldest, form of spoken English in the world and developed from Anglo- Saxon. It featured in just a small proportion of the songs of the day.
Oh, dear! iv yon Yankees could only just see,
Heaw they’re clemmin’ an’ starvin’ poor weavers loike me,
Aw think they’d soon settle their bother, an’ strive,
To send us some cotton to keep us alive.
*Shurat – inferior cotton from India
In their struggle to keep alive, hundreds of unemployed workers and families came to the streets of Manchester to sing, a more acceptable form of begging. 55
The cotton famine must have adversely affected trade at the George & Dragon and many other businesses in the area, but the impact would have been less severe than in many other parts of Lancashire. The reasons included the considerable diversity of the local economy: in 1863, Swan Street, now with 70 addresses, had no fewer than 29 different trades, services, shops and manufacturers,56 few of which were dependent on the textile industry; even in Ancoats, with its massive cotton mills, the majority of workers were not employed in the mills. And, generally, in the Manchester mills, ‘finer yarns were spun, a line little affected by the crisis’.57
If some kind of recovery were required for the local economy of Swan Street, the street was geared for it. The George & Dragon, and many shops in the street, together offered local inhabitants much of their day-to-day needs. There were grocers, fishmongers, chemists, a cheesemonger, confectioner and pawnbroker, among many others. But increasingly it was the trade from the market folk and visitors to the market — the public, the traders and dealers — that kept the businesses afloat, and sometimes flourishing, even when buffeted by periodic recessions.
A visitor to the street in 1881 wrote:
‘from its general appearance and nature of its traffic Swan Street might have been built for the special convenience of Shudehill Market. The publics, the eating-houses, the shoe shops all seem suited to the special requirements of that great emporium…’51
The market also brought vitality, fun and entertainment to the area. The Shudehill/Smithfield Market area would frequently be the busiest place in Manchester. A visitor to the market in April 1870 described ‘the sea of faces, the owners of which swarm in thousands, crushing, pushing, elbowing and swaying to and fro, whilst the general din proclaims that something is going on which is engrossing the minds of fifteen to twenty thousand men and women….’
‘On a Saturday night Shudehill was “alive with animation, and amid a blaze of gas all [was] life and bustle.” It had all the fun of the fair with sideshows and street entertainers galore’.58