Sounds of the City

Meantime, here in the lanes and back streets were heard the new sounds of the city, as described by a visitor in 1835:

“The footsteps of a busy crowd, the crunching wheels of machines, the shriek of steam from boilers, the regular beat of looms, the heavy rumble of carts, these are the only noises from which you can never escape in these dark, half-lit streets. You will never hear the clatter of hoofs when the rich drive back home or are out on pleasure; never the happy shouts of people enjoying themselves nor the harmonious sounds of musical instruments heralding a holiday.”19

It is an irony of the times that soon the very sounds of music and people enjoying themselves would be the objects of condemnation of the predominantly educated, upper middle-class visitors and local worthies who, often with reformist zeal, would commit their outrage to print, pitying or vilifying the working class and their habits. But the music would go on:

“The musical life of Manchester pubs was noted (and condemned) from the early 1830s; amateur and semi-professional singing in pub free-and-easies thrived throughout the Victorian period despite periods of official hostility.”20

As the Century progresses, the ever-increasing influx of people to this, the world’s first industrial society, would bring to the area their songs and their musical instruments. As is almost universal, people would use music as escape, as flags of identity, as entertainment and sometimes as vehicles of protest or seduction – or sedition. Perhaps not always harmonious, music would infiltrate many of the licensed premises that emerged in the area, catering to the new working class, traders, dealers, hawkers and travellers.

Instruments and songs

Singing was the most common musical entertainment in the pubs and streets of the area, and, though there are several accounts of bands playing, clues to their instrumentation are hard to find. But there are references to: fiddles, banjos, tambourines, accordions, bones, flutes, whistles and to German bands with clarinets. After around 1830, the piano – sometimes combined with fiddle and harmonium – increasingly was the instrument of choice in Manchester pubs, usually as an accompaniment to singing.

We may never know for sure but it seems likely that the George & Dragon was one of these pubs where informal music sessions took place in the first half of the 19th Century. It was at a centre of an evolving popular sub-culture, of musical production and conspicuous consumption: the changing culture of the city street and the pub. This was a new battleground, of ‘risk and excitement’, of good and evil, with alcohol frequently perceived as the latter and music fluctuating between the two.

Sing-songs – ‘probably the karaoke of its day’- took place in local pubs, and ‘in the 1830s landlords set aside back rooms in their pubs for what were termed saloon concerts’21. Some of the pub nights and venues were advertised as ‘free-and-easies’, a term that would have a lengthy future life, and signified an informal approach to participant entertainment, that to some would suggest the loosening of morals.

The George & Dragon’s newly acquired vaults in Oak Street on the site of the existing middle section of the main venue of Band on the Wall, approximately between the dance floor and pillar behind the sound desk – would have many uses in the decades ahead, perhaps also as the pub back room for informal music and entertainments. Certainly the market attracted itinerant musicians and entertainers:

At this time Swan Street was a bustling area with a well-established fruit and vegetable market at Smithfield, nearby textile factories, a Methodist Chapel and stage coaches running to Ashton-under-Lyne and Royton from the Lower Turks Head in Shudehill. Market pubs are well known for their musical connections and many writers of the time refer to buskers and musicians around the market’ – Holmshaw, 2000

Sing-songs in pubs could on occasion turn nasty, none nastier than the incident at the Death of Nelson, Oldham Road (later The Nelson), less than 500 yards from the George & Dragon, described by historian, the late Neil Richardson:

‘The “Death of Nelson” was a popular patriotic ballad and the singing of another such song was the cause of a murder at the pub in June 1830. A dresser called Marshall, who worked in a Jersey Street cotton mill, was singing to a full taproom when three customers took offence at the anti-Catholic sentiments. Marshall was knocked down and a man called Trayner jumped on him and killed him.’22

Some religious or political content was often included in the pub songs of the day but the material available to singers would soon cover almost every conceivable topic, thanks in part to busy micro-industries close to the George & Dragon.


19Alexis de Tocqueville, French-born writer, historian & politician, who visited Manchester in 1835. The extract is from his ‘Oeuvres Completes’.

20Philemon Eva, ’Popular Song and Social Identity in the Victorian City’, PhD thesis, Manchester University 1997, p 14

21Spinning the Web, The Story of the Cotton Industry: Music Hall & Theatre.

22Neil Richardson, ‘The Old Pubs of Ancoats’