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Step inside Victorian Manchester's wildest pubs
'We've only had five fights and a stabbing since eight o’clock. It’s been very quiet indeed,' the landlord said
In a city with a drink problem, Victorian Manchester’s pubs were the stuff of legend.
Brightly-lit, with warm fires and cheap ale, they were palaces compared with their customers’ cold, dark homes and offered a wealth of entertainment in the form of skittle alleys, rat pits and even backroom boxing rings.
Mostly, though, the drunks fought in the streets.
“We’ve only had five fights and a stabbing since eight o’clock. It’s been very quiet indeed,” one publican boasted to a passing police officer on a night when it was said the road outside resounded with midsummer screams of revelry and riot.
For many years, the Dog and Duck in Charter Street, which had pictures of boxers lining the walls, boasted the title of the worst pub in Manchester.
It was said by police to be “the house of call for the swell mob and the superior class of prigs”.
Deansgate, though, held the title of the street of shame.
Alfred Alsop, a Christian missionary, described the pubs there and their attractions.
“On entering the broad doorway, there is the altar, with its polished top, intersected with certain bright taps, connected by tubes, by which the foaming fire water is brought up from gloomy vaults.
“Behind all this is the chief priest, who by the way has a partner of large pretentions, dressed in rustling silks and glittering jewels, sweeping past with head erect.
“The best Brussels carpets, best furniture, best clothes, best food, best works of art, best everything, may be found in the inner courts of these temples.
“But, ah! Follow the deluded victims to their wretched shelters — they can hardly be called homes.
“Squalor, dirt, filth, poverty, wretchedness, curses, blows and murder is often the lot of these.”
Friedrich Engels was appalled by the excessive drinking he saw in Manchester at a time when cases of drunkenness were rising rapidly. They doubled from 1,806 in 1858 to 3,600 in 1865.
One court regular, Ellen Williams, alone had 89 convictions for being drunk, while a study at the time found 112 men and 163 women entering a single gin shop in just 40 minutes one Saturday night.
But the pubs and gin shops were not the only places where world-weary Mancunians could find a drink.
The backstreets of the city were crammed with secret, unlicensed drinking dens in houses and underground vaults away from the prying eyes of the police.
A journalist from the Manchester Courier discovered one of these dens in the slum district of Angel Meadow when he went out on patrol with two detectives.
A crowd of filthy and drunken men and women were crowded in the room being entertained by a young man with a prison crop, a week-old beard and a “villainous expanse of jaw”.
“He held a teacup full of beer in one hand and a quart jug in the other,” the journalist wrote.
With his eyes fixed on the wall, the man began to sing with serious feeling.
Oh ‘e talks just like a picture book does Inky.
At argument ‘e’s quite a furrough-bred.
Tho’ e’ deals in coule an’ coke, e’s a heducated bloke.
An’ a cove wot’s got some big fings in ‘is ‘ed.
The journalist wrote: “The only audible notice of our entrance was a unanimous request that we should pay for a gallon, but still the men contracted their brows in hatred of the detectives.”
Another infamous drinking den stood just around the corner. It was known as a “free and easy” — where customers could compete in singing and dancing.
The atmosphere in these dens could soon turn violent.
After being invited to see a “hop”, an anonymous writer described how he was taken down a passageway into a long room which was crowded and as hot as an oven.
A tall, lanky youth named Lamp Post was standing on a box furiously playing a jig on a tin whistle.
“The dancers are almost mad,” the writer said. “They jump, they shout, they rattle their feet as if they are strung on wires.”
In the commotion, a fight suddenly broke out.
Chairs were smashed over heads. A paraffin lamp was tipped over. Darkness. The writer escaped – lucky not to have been injured.
But there were darker drinking establishments even than this. Deep below ground.
Bootleggers were making illicit whiskey in makeshift rooms carved out in the clay earth beneath trap doors in cellar floors.
For a time there were estimated to be 100 of these illicit stills producing 150,000 gallons of poteen of the highest strength each year.
The Manchester and Salford Temperance Society was formed in 1851 to try to halt the scourge of alcohol.
They were quite pleased with themselves, announcing that they were soon hearing “sensible and hearty declaration from new temperance disciples”.
But, in truth, the movement had only limited success in a district where anyone standing on one particular street corner could throw a stone into the doors of eight beer houses.
A postcard from Manchester: ‘Will you come and have tea?’
Old postcards are like echoes from the past that reveal snippets from the lives of ordinary people who made a home in, or were passing through, the city.
On this card, a mystery writer is sending a note to a Miss Bollard, inviting her for tea.
She lived near the now ruined St Luke’s Church, which still stands abandoned on Cheetham Hill Road.
It appears that the sender has forgotten their planned meeting that evening and is trying to make amends.
“I forgot what arrangement we came to about tonight,” the sender writes.
“Will you come and have tea here next Sunday and I will meet you at 3 at Plymouth Grove?
“Come in Albert Square car.”
Whether Miss Bollard took that taxi cab from Albert Square and went for tea after being stood up is anybody’s guess.
Sunshine in the city
Earlier this week, as temperatures reached 28C, I took a walk in the sunshine from New Cross to Central Library.
It’s easy to forget, in the gloom of the usual Manchester rain, just how stunning the city is.
All you have to do while you’re walking along in good weather is look up to see the history that’s there.
The Victorian city remains all around us.
Hidden away in Kelvin Street, in the Northern Quarter, you can find the best surviving examples of handloom weavers’ cottages that were built as Manchester was on the cusp of the Industrial Revolution.
In Thomas Street stands the Millstone pub outside of which the great Victorian detective Jerome Caminada once lay in wait for a criminal he was hunting.
Look up as well to see if you can spot the large pineapple that sits high on the rooftop of one of the buildings in the same street.
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Take care and enjoy the last few days of summer.