Pubs with Music

The Rise and Fall (…and Rise Again) of Pubs with Music

In parallel with the rise in the number of beerhouses, by 1866 there was a big increase in the number of pubs and beerhouses with musical entertainment in Manchester: from 35 premises in 1844 to 158 in 1866. 38

Street singers and musicians would perform in pubs, as would out of work professionals or amateurs attempting to establish themselves.39 Some of the street performers even may have been driven into the pubs by the police: the Manchester Police Regulations handbook of 1844 advised the local bobbies that a fine of up to 40 shillings (a considerable sum at this time) could be imposed by the magistrates if street musicians or singers refused to go away on request. (Courtesy Greater Manchester Police Museum, Newton Street, Northern Quarter, Manchester).

Whatever the catalysts, the rapid growth of the city, with its mix of migrants, had fostered a musical life centred on the pub and the broadside trade.40It was a trend that had to be purged. Voices of concern, on both moral and aesthetic grounds, were raised.

Singers and musicians, whose techniques were developed in the street, against the sonic backdrop of the industrial city, were not merely singing and playing: they were ‘banging’, ‘grinding’, ‘roaring’, ‘jarring’, ‘screaming’, ‘bawling out’ etc…

Writers likened them to animals: a hermit frog, croaking in the gutter or (in a Deansgate pub): ‘a series of prolonged howls or groans, unanimous as the bleatings from a sheep pen’41

Sounds from pub entertainments and street singers were roundly condemned in some of the local Press; identified as particular culprit locations were the immediate environs of the George & Dragon: the Smithfield Market, Oldham Road, Ancoats and Oldham Street that on a Sunday night was ‘given up to the carnival revels of Manchester’s vagabonds’, with loud music from its pubs mixing with street singing.42

The concern with loud noise and the sound quality of the performers often gave way to, indeed may have veiled, deeper moral objections as music and drunkenness were seen as partners. ‘Drunkenness and the regulation of pubs, singing saloons and music halls became a recurring subject of Select Committee enquiry. An evil in itself, drink was felt to be at the root of the violence, disorder and the”intemperate indulgence” that characterised urban popular leisure…’43

Music, the Select Committee was told, could be the first stage in the moral degradation of women. They were ‘tempted’ into public houses by music, ‘plied’ with drink, and seduced, becoming prostitutes as a consequence, one witness averred.44

Also under moral suspicion were some of the songs sung in the pubs and in the street. Many were loaded with double entendre and frequently the content was man-woman relations, often comic, sometimes sentimental, frequently bawdy. Occasionally a song would claim, even advertise, much of the city centre as a naughty playground where the ‘whole public space becomes a socially and sexually charged arena, vaguely resonant of excitement and risk, with the singer as its all-knowing guide’. Such a song was the popular broadside, ‘The Streets of Manchester’, printed by Thomas Pearson, of Angel Meadow, probably in 1865, and which made specific references to the area close to the George & Dragon: the Shudehill Market and ‘the informal pub entertainments amongst the mills and houses of Oldham Road and Ancoats’. 45

The big purge followed the 1869 Wine and Beerhouse Act that placed all drinks licenses under the control of the local magistrates who then asked Manchester’s Chief Constable to prepare a list of ‘disorderly’ beerhouses, and those frequented by thieves, prostitutes or ‘persons of bad character’.46As a result, in the first year alone, 300 licenses were refused.

Pubs that put on musical entertainments formed a high proportion of the ‘disorderly’ houses. The number of pubs providing music was reduced from 157 to 104 in two years; by 1877 there were only 88 such pubs. Pubs which were used for dancing as well as music came under particular pressure: in 1865 there were 48 pubs where dancing went on; by the mid 1870s there was only one’.47

Additional curbs on the licensing of premises, including reducing opening hours, and creating the offence of being drunk in public (still in force today), were introduced by the Licensing Act of 1872. It was bitterly opposed, and was ‘singled out in broadsides and music hall songs as a measure particularly aimed at the pleasures of working men’:48

Old Bruce* has been trying to make us Teetotallers
And rob the hard working man of his half-pint of beer!
If the rich can have clubs and drink at their pleasure
Why should their supporters be robbed of their share

* Henry Bruce – Home Secretary who introduced the 1872 act

The brewers also were unhappy with the Act that they perceived as undermining their profitability. ‘Manchester brewers reacted to an over-zealous Bench by forming the Manchester Brewers’ Central Association to protect their outlets by giving legal assistance to the beerhouse keepers.’49 Despite this measure, the number of licensed outlets continued to decline, but within a few years the resilient informal music scene of the city’s pubs had bounced back:

Number of Manchester pubs with music entertainments licenses:

1877 – 88
1885 – 340
1892 – 512

(Criminal & misc returns of the Manchester Police, 1877-1900,)50

It is not clear how this increase was achieved. The growing political influence and economic power of the emerging big breweries may have been contributing factors; perhaps the magistrates also discovered that music did not create disorderly pubs. And musicians and performers are not readily kept down.


38Ibid, P Eva, p 45; Criminal and Miscellaneous statistical returns of the Manchester police, 1843-1900;

39Ibid, P Eva, p49

40Ibid, P Eva, p23

41Ibid, P Eva, p87; D Jerrold, The Ballad Singer; also Shadow, 23 April 1870

42‘Oldham Street on a Sunday night’, Freelance publication, 6 August 1870, p 253;Ibid, P Eva p 43

43Ibid, P Eva, p69/70

44Select Committee on public houses PP1854, p334

45Ibid, P Eva, p32

46Manchester City Council Watch Committee Minutes, Vol 8(1869-1871) pp 58-9; Ibid, P Eva p52/3

47Ibid, P Eva p 52/3; Criminal and Misc. statistical returns of the Manchester police, 1869 p iv; 1870 p xi.

48Ibid, P Eva, p374

49Neil Richardson, Introduction to ‘Manchester Breweries of Times Gone By,’ by Alan Gall, 1980

50Ibid, P Eva, p59; Criminal & misc returns of the Manchester Police, 1877-1900