Discover more from Once Upon a Time in Manchester
The fall and rise of Nancy Dickybird
She was the terror of Manchester police, but Nancy Dickybird became beloved by Mancunians for her singing from the city's jail cells
Nancy Dickybird was a well known character around the streets of North Manchester.
So well known, that the landlords of the pubs in Miles Platting put out sentries to keep watch for her coming up the street.
The Manchester author Anthony Burgess wrote about Nancy in the first part of his autobiography Little Wilson and Big God.
Growing up in the district, his stepmother ran the Golden Eagle — a “boozer of Victorian amplitude, gleaming with brass”.
“There was a fearsome character known as Nancy Dickybird, whose violent approach was signalled by runners — ‘Nancy’s coming’,” he wrote.
“The main bar would clear on her entrance, and my stepmother would great her with a truncheon and knuckle dusters.
“There was an extensive armoury available for defence, including two army revolvers complete with ammunition.
“Nancy would sail into an ecstasy of foulness, urinate on the floor, and then leave.”
By her own admission, she was arrested more than 170 times and was known as “the terror” of Manchester police.
But it might not have turned out that way for one of the city’s most notorious drunkards, whose real name before she twice married was Nancy Gradwell.
As a youngster Nancy was known for her singing at the Star Music Hall where it was said she sang “the cuckoo song” with such gusto it was not easily forgotten.
“The clear young voice, the flitting to and fro as though following the call of a bird, the rapt expression of her dark eyes as she seemed to listen for the echo, all made up a subtle charm difficult to put into words,” an anonymous writer said of her talents.
It was the police who gave her the name Dickybird though on account of her singing in the cells after she was arrested.
The death of her father at a young age and easy access to alcohol in the music halls had a huge effect on Nancy.
Her first jail sentence, for 14 days, came when she drunkenly fought police after she tried to free a grandma in Moston Lane who was being arrested.
It was said that drinking and street fighting went hand in hand. “She drank, and fought, and went to prison, and drank and fought again,” one writer said.
Eventually a magistrate jailed the “irreclaimable” Nancy for three years.
Sometime later, after her release, she became homeless. Dressed in rags, soaking wet and shivering, she was found by a policeman as she tried to shelter in a doorway during a storm.
“Is it thee, Nancy?”
After giving her some cake he had in his pocket, he took her to the Salvation Army hall in Ancoats.
It was there that Nancy found a new lease of life cheered on by people in North Manchester who felt she was badly treated by police and publicans alike.
She ended up travelling the country telling people in halls about her story — and handing out copies of the Salvation Army magazine, Warcry, in the pubs in Miles Platting she had once been barred from.
She also became a “staunch friend” for women and young girls who found themselves in trouble with the law — even turning up to court to speak on their behalf.
But what Nancy will always be best remembered for was her beautiful singing that rose above the walls of the Manchester police stations.
Mary Bertenshaw, whose parents owned a lodging house, remembered being told by them during Nancy’s street fighting days: “You’ve no need to be frightened of Nancy — she won’t harm you.”
One day, Mary saw Nancy being led up the street by two police officers.
“Just out of curiosity, I went with Lily and Ivy to Willert Street Police Station to hear if she was singing, and before we got anywhere near the door, we could hear this beautiful voice.
“When I got in, I said to my mother, ‘Nancy was singing. She can sing nice’. ‘Yes, that why they call her Nancy Dickybird’, said mother.
“And she sang like that every weekend.”
Family history courses
After a lot of thought, I’m planning to offer some online family history courses.
So far, the plan is for three — tracing your criminal ancestors, mapping your ancestor’s home and finding First World War soldiers.
I may add more later on writing your family history and on tracing your Irish ancestors.
They courses will be Manchester focused and will be based on the genealogy research I’ve been doing over 30 years, including helping archaeologists find my ancestor’s house in a car park beneath the city and tracing my great-uncle’s final journey across the Somme (more on that soon).
My other idea is to offer one-to-one family history brick-wall-buster sessions on Zoom.
While there are genealogy courses out there, there aren’t any that are Manchester specific.
I’m still working out the costs and other details, but if it’s something you might be interested in, drop me an email at email@example.com.
Hope you have a great weekend!