The Street Scene

The Street Scene

In the early years of the 20th century, the George and Dragon remained at a nexus of human activity and endeavour, within an intensely populous area that also attracted visitors from throughout the city and beyond. Directly behind the pub was the massive, bustling Smithfield Market where in 1909 over 370 traders were listed:(1)fruit, vegetable, fish, meat and potato salesmen; many more assistants were employed; and hundreds of customers visited daily. Immediately to the south-east, were the great textile mills, works and foundries of Ancoats, aside row upon row of basic terraced dwellings, including many occupied by impoverished Italians, (2) giving rise to the colloquial name ‘Little Italy’. And to the north and east, was the area that became known as ‘Irish Town’ following ‘the great tidal wave of Irish arrivals in the last decades of the 19th Century’. (3)

The pub in these years could not be confused with genteel:

The George and Dragon at the corner of Swan Street and Oak Street, if it could speak, could tell some hair-raising tales. It had a reputation for being a rough ‘dive’ and I understand they had ‘chuckers out’ – big chaps who could adequately deal with trouble-makers’. (4)

At the turn of the century Manchester was ‘no longer primarily an industrial town but now a market for a vast number of different goods manufactured in surrounding Lancashire’. But the city was still ‘swathed in a perpetual thundercloud, a noxious vapour of industrial haze’.(5)

The People and Places

The smoke-blackened buildings of Swan Street were numerous and productive given the short length of the street: no fewer than 61 different shops, warehouses, trades and professions were listed in 1911.(6) They included: 3 banks, 4 estate agents, 3 physicians (one also a surgeon), a tax collector, solicitor Edward Heath*, auctioneers & valuers, the offices of the Amalgamated Union of Operative Bakers & Confectioners, and a Christadelphian Church meeting room. The Clothes Market, at The Mackie Mayor building, 30 yards from the George & Dragon, housed a toll collector and 21 clothes dealers.

*This is probably the son of Edward Heath, attorney/solicitor who from the 1830s is recorded at various addresses in the street, including at 27 Swan Street from 1836 to – 1843, sharing the property with a corn or flour dealer. The address was later part of Band on the Wall.

Visitors to Swan Street not only had the opportunity to get legal advice, but also could buy: fish, fruit, groceries, shoes and boots, leather goods, belt and braces, an umbrella, photographic material, a suit, a hat, sweets, stationery, tobacco, a saddle, curtains, jewelry, agricultural implements, ironmongery and, with a choice of two manufacturers over the road in Swan Buildings, a piano, from F Weber, of Berlin, or Cullum & Best, of London. And, of course, get a drink.

The Pubs

Though the George & Dragon was known to attract market workers and hawkers, no doubt the daily visitors, the workers and residents in the street helped keep the tills ringing at the pub. But there was stiff competition. In Swan Street alone, there were four other pubs, all but one still in business in 2019. Two were just yards away in the same block: the adjacent Burton Arms – former names included ‘The Tam O’ Shanter’ and ‘The John O’Groats’ (perhaps a Scottish enclave?) – and The Smithfield Tavern, that used to share its space with a fishmonger, on the corner with Coop Street. Across in Ancoats by 1920 there were no fewer than 160 pubs. (7)

The only Swan Street public house that did not survive the 20th century was the Rising Sun, on the Rochdale Road corner. It boasted a grand Concert Room but its reputation was far from grand. Ancoats resident Mick Burke gave a colourful account from those early years: (8)

‘a notorious place… a pub that never shut – you could have a night’s kip in there if you didn’t mind the rats running under the forms and all over the place. The old-fashioned hawkers drank every penny they earned and their wives would come down to the market on a Monday morning. I’d say, ‘I haven’t seen him,’ and the wife would shriek, ‘The bastard, I’ll kill him! I’ve never seen him all weekend! The kids is there! They’ve had nowt to eat!’ He’d been in the Rising Sun all weekend, supping. I’d go in and say, ‘Your wife’s outside with a big knife,’ and he’d get nervous and ask, ‘Where is she? Where is she?’

Sounds of the Street

More constant than the shrieks of desperate wives or the cries of hung-over hawkers, were the clip-clop and clatter of dozens of horses and carts that served the Market and dominated the sounds of the street. The main access for these carts was via Oak Street, at the side of the George & Dragon. Further equine-driven sounds also came from the horse-drawn drays supplying the numerous pubs, and those going to and from the many shops, merchants, warehouses and manufacturers in the street.

Another sound, arguably more musical, came from buskers and — made by Italians in Ancoats — barrel organs. The operators would ‘walk the streets of Manchester and surrounding districts playing their barrel organs and hurdy gurdies, some with monkeys in red waistcoats and hats, and a few with dancing bears’. The makers of the barrel organs were  Domenico Antonelli who had his organ factory in Great Ancoats Street, and Simon Robino, a craftsman and musician who ‘studied at the Marseilles College of Music and, though none but his family knew, he was a composer, too. Every day his waltzes were heard in the streets of Britain. But he never sought to have them published’. (9)

More sounds would emanate from the local pubs, most of which had pianos. Often the audiences could be noisier than the music or other entertainment. Though not specific to Manchester, the following is indicative of the tradition of noisy audience participation in the late 19th and early 20th century:

‘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’. (10)

Into these early years of the 20th century, other sounds would have emanated from homes in the street, as late 19th century technology became commercially available: first the phonograph, with its cylinder system, then the disc-based gramophone. A ‘phonograph expert’ is listed in 1911 next-door to The Rising Sun at the north end of the street. By1920, there were 80 recording companies in Britain, and also from that date radio broadcasting coverage grew extensively. Among the music hits of the period were: (11)

  • Bill Bailey Won’t You Please Come Home (1902) by Hughie Cannon
  • How’d you Like to Spoon with Me (1905) Jerome Kern’s first hit
  • Alexander’s Ragtime Band (1911) by Irving Berlin
  • It’s a Long Way to Tipperary*(1912) by Jack Judge & Harry Williams
  • If you were The Only Girl in the World (1916) by Nat Ayer & Clifford Grey
  • Don’t Dilly Dally on the Way (1919) by Fred W Leigh & Charles Collins

*The Tipperary song was also the most popular at sing-alongs at the pub in the 1940s, according to Mrs Anne Garner, nee Tyson, born at Band on the Wall in 1941.

The Licensees

During the years 1900 to 1936, there was a series of six licence holders at the George & Dragon. Firstly, John Harold McKenna ended his licence tenure in 1910, having held it since 1893. He was one of the two McKenna brothers, of B & J McKenna Ltd that owned the brewery and portfolio of pubs sold to Walker & Homfray in 1905. He was never a live-in licensee. For many years the McKennas had placed managers in their pubs. In the first years of the century, their manager at the George & Dragon was 37- year-old Irish-born Michael Kelly who lived there with four barmen, aged 17 to 22, one cook (49) and a domestic servant (21) – all but one born in Ireland. (12)

The first licensee that new owners Walker & Homfray placed at the George & Dragon was Patrick Morley who previously was employed by the McKennas as manager at The Balloon public house on Rochdale Road. His 12-year stint covered all the years of WW1 and four years each side. He handed over to Thomas O’Donoghue in 1922 whose tenure lasted barely 18 months before the licence was transferred to Beatrice O’Donoghue, probably his widow. Less than three years later, the licensee was Luke Mooney, perhaps a relative of Bridget Mooney who, more than half a century earlier was publican at the Wellington Inn, Rochdale Road (13) – a classic public house built by the McKennas and now named The Marble Arch.



1 Slater’s Directory of Manchester & Salford 1909
2 Estimated 2000 Italians living in Ancoats by 1914 – Paul de Felici, ‘Italians in Manchester 1841-1939’
3 Michael D Higgins, President of Ireland, address at University of Manchester, November 2012

4 Frank Pritchard ‘My Manchester’, Neil Richardson, 1986
5 Manchester Evening News, 6 November 2013
6 Slater’s Directory of Manchester & Salford, 1911
7 ‘The Old Pubs of Ancoats’, Neil Richardson, 1987
8 ‘Ancoats Lad: The Recollections of Mick Burke’, Neil Richardson, 1985.!(Mick Burke, b 1898 in Ancoats of Irish parents. d. 1986, aged 88)
9 ‘Ancoats: Little Italy’, Anthony Rea
10 ‘The Story of Music Hall’, Victoria & Albert Museum website
11 ‘Chronicle of the Twentieth Century’, Longmans
12 1901 Census
13 Slater’s Directory of Manchester & Salford, 1877/78