Manchester’s iconic Band on the Wall has exciting expansion plans ahead, including projects to uncover the hidden music heritage of local communities - thanks to a recently granted £1.4m funding from the National Lottery.

Located on Swan Street, Band on the Wall, a self-described ‘living music library’, is one of the oldest music venues in Manchester: championing talent ever since the 19th century and celebrating equality and diversity through creativity. A recognised platform for a huge range of local and international acts over the years, this has ranged from bawdy ballads and guitar gigs to vibrant jazz, reggae and World Music. It has certainly seen some surprising things too - including a stage literally suspended on a wall, ‘scuttler gangs’, bare-knuckle boxing matches, a menagerie on the roof, and plenty more.

Band on the Wall Plans

The National Lottery funding marks the venue’s continuing success in moving towards a wider £3.5 million development project, having received Arts Council funding of £1.7 million last year. It is clear that Band on the Wall stands out as a beacon of continuing creativity and cultural contribution – especially at a time when independent music spaces appear increasingly under threat, with the UK losing 35% of its grassroots venues between 2007-2015 according to The DCMS Live Music Inquiry.

In turn, Inner City Music Limited, the charity that owns and operates the multi award-winning music venue, plans to use the funding to expand Band on the Wall into a hub for creative history, including a rich programme unveiling the musical heritage of the city’s migrant communities.

Transformation plans will see the impressive Victorian Cocozza building at the rear of the venue opened up - making more room for studio classrooms and rehearsal spaces, as well as a second 80-capacity venue. This will also provide a platform for digital displays and short films celebrating the history of the local area; part of the Bigger, Better, Stronger project – marking the impact that music has had on the development of Manchester’s diverse culture.

According to Gavin Sharp, CEO of Inner City Music:

“We are incredibly excited to be starting this new project and taking the Band on the Wall venue into its next phase of what is already a 200 year history. As custodians of this piece of Manchester’s heritage we continue to look forward to celebrating not only the history of our home venue, but also the strong and vibrant musical heritage of all of Manchester’s communities.

“Manchester is a city of migrants, whether from rural England, Ireland or across the world and as people have travelled here to work they have brought amazing culture which Mancunians have embraced. Band on the Wall represents an important part of Manchester’s aspiration to become a truly global, outward-looking city and we are incredibly pleased that this has been recognised by all the supporters and funders of the project.”

The location of the venue after all on the busy Swan Street, on the edge both of Ancoats and The Northern Quarter, means that it has attracted a multitude of musical traditions, especially from the migrant communities who have called the area home over the years. Bigger, Better, Stronger will strive to make Band on the Wall a key place to recognise and celebrate over 200 years of this musical diversity – and to encourage its continuity.  This will involve a vibrant public engagement programme; including working with local schools, the founding of a youth folk music orchestra for Manchester, South Asian dance workshops and a jazz ensemble open to all ages and abilities.

Many under-celebrated stories and hidden histories will also be opened up as Band on the Wall continues to transform. It certainly has an extensive and often turbulent past, the building on the site first licensed as the George & Dragon pub in 1803 under Elizabeth Marsh; one of the first landladies in the area. At the time Swan Street could be rather notorious, close to what was the busy crossroads of New Cross – where bread riots reportedly took place in 1812. The food riots of the times reflected the impoverishment of much of the city's population - and have also been further covered by historian Michala Hulme (Manchester Centre for Public History and Heritage at Manchester Metropolitan University) in her book Bloody British History: Manchester.

 The population of Manchester was also rapidly increasing in the early 19th century, and frequent riots and protests were fuelled by overcrowding and deprivation. Close to the George & Dragon was Smithfield Market, a packed place of trade that was inevitably noisy and dirty. Just over the road too were the Shudehill Pits; small, dank reservoirs which for some time served as a water supply– and just behind was the often slum-like housing for many of the people who worked in the nearby mills. Just after the turn of the century, there were at least 26 addresses on Swan Street: making it a dense network of homes and workplaces within just 300 yards of space. Traders such as rope makers, flour sellers and even a crafter of coffins, worked nearby.

 The nearby Angel Meadow for example, was one of the worst slums of its kind (Friedrich Engels referred to it as ‘Hell Upon Earth’), with low life expectancy and rife poverty. Desperately overcrowded by the mid-19th century, its population was estimated at between 20,000 and 30,000 people crammed within a mere 33 acres. Now a park area called ‘Angel Meadow and St Michael’s Flags’ stands on its former site; only a short walk from where Band on the Wall is now. The name ‘St Michael’s Flags’ derives from the flagstones used to cover the pauper burial ground there of the former St Michael’s Church. An estimated 40,000 bodies lie beneath. It is perhaps little wonder then, that the public mood was dark and protests such as the 1817 Blanketeers March and Peterloo Massacre of 1819 – likely involving many people from the George & Dragon’s catchment area - highlighted the public want for change, as well as the harsh measures of the local authorities.

During the 19th century, it was the McKenna family who would have a considerable influence on the development of the George & Dragon itself. The McKennas were Irish entrepreneurs and brewers who would go on to create a ‘pub portfolio’ of sorts in Manchester. For example in 1838, it was the Irish-born Bernard McKenna who became the publican of The Briton’s Protection in Manchester – not the pub close to the Bridgewater Hall many people may know today, but a premises on Oldham Road very close to the George & Dragon. This Briton’s Protection no longer exists: in fact, a huge Wing Yip Chinese supermarket now stands on part of the former site.

However, the McKenna family went on to take over a number of pubs in the area using The Briton’s Protection as a starting point, including the George & Dragon by 1856.  This could be considered a brave venture given the notorious reputation of the area at the time. During the early 1830s there were a number of nearby confrontations between Orangemen – as an influx of Irish immigration had contributed to Manchester being one of key centres of the Orange Order in England – and local Irish Catholics.

The George & Dragon continued to have its license in McKenna hands well into the 20th century, as following the death of the senior Bernard McKenna in 1847, it was his sons Bernard junior and John, who would form the partnership B&J McKenna, and go on to acquire more pubs. Although Bernard McKenna junior would go onto have the license from 1856, he never lived at the George & Dragon– instead he chose a cottage close to the mysterious Boggart Hole Clough in Blackley, within the Booth Hall grounds. His son would later take on the pub’s license from 1893-1910, and a range of licensees then followed this.

In difficult times, public houses served as places of escapism – and not just through the alcohol they offered. The George & Dragon would have likely been a hub of entertainment during the industrial era. It is believed, for example, that between where the dance floor and sound desk are now located in Band on the Wall – this was potentially an area where informal entertainment took place during the early pub days. Broadside ballads were a popular form of such entertainment; songs written typically written and performed in local dialect. The single-sheet lyrics would typically involve weird and wonderful anecdotes, themes including love, drinking songs and current events. The popularity was so much so, that the song sheets were sold close by to the George & Dragon, in what was Abel Heywood’s shop at 58 Oldham Street. The equivalent of a ‘cheap song shop’ even opened up at Smithfield Market.

Manchester Street Scene

The love for ballads and street songs was further influenced by the diversity in the area, with Swan Street being close to industrial areas that attracted a range of migrant communities. Immigration and a moving workforce after all contributed significantly to the Industrial Revolution of the area and its diverse culture. Angel Meadow, for example, was often referenced as ‘Irish Town’ – with more than half of its population by 1851 either born in Ireland or the offspring of Irish parents. Many of these Irish families had moved to escape the Great Famine affecting their country, and brought their traditional music and instruments with them, adding to a growing musical vibrancy. This was significantly shaped too by the growing Italian community in neighbouring Ancoats – which itself became nicknamed ‘Little Italy’. The area saw a number of Italian migrants arrive, especially in the latter half of the 19th century, as many moved from rural Italian villages struggling for work, to find employment in the industrialising cities of England. Ancoats had a number of catholic churches, which the Italian communities often settled around. Yet it was not just the community that these Italian immigrants contributed to, but again, the growing music culture: it was estimated that nearly a third of all Italian migrants were musicians of some form. From traditional music and song, to more experimental instrumentation, Ancoats and the area around Swan Street became a teeming place of international talent.

It is perhaps little wonder then, that the George & Dragon was a busy local, and because it was seen to serve the nearby Smithfield Market, it had extended opening hours – leading to more demand for entertainment in the evenings. Yet despite the busyness outside, this did not always mean for easy trading at the George & Dragon. The Beer Act of 1830 was having an ongoing impact. This was a measure designed to dissuade people from drinking spirits such as gin (spirits at the time were associated with the degradation of the working classes – consider William Hogarth’s iconic representation of this in his 1851 print ‘Gin Lane’), and instead allowed nearly anyone to manufacture, sell and drink large amounts of beer. As beers and ales were often weaker than spirits, plus supported local agriculture industries such as barley-growing, these drinks were perhaps deemed a better alternative. This led to a boom in beerhouses – places that could only sell beer and cider. Dangerous competition then, for the more traditional public houses such as The George & Dragon, with beerhouses outnumbering pubs by four to one in Manchester by 1867.

Drinking culture was increasingly prominent, especially in impoverished areas during the industrial revolution. Crime rates were also high, with knife-crime and gangs being particular problems. Often consisting of local boys, these gangs were known as ‘scuttlers’ – connected with robbery and violence, targeted towards the public as well as rival gangs. Close to the George & Dragon, two notorious gangs of ‘scuttlers’ were based: the ‘Bengal Tigers’ from the area around the Northern Quarter’s Bengal Street and the Angel Meadow Gang. They would often stalk the area with knives and makeshift weapons, including heavy metal buckles, adding to the sense of discontent and unease.  Textile mills and foundries loomed overhead, Smithfield Market became increasingly busy– this in itself a place targeted by ‘scuttlers’ and pickpockets.

It was this turbulent area close to Swan Street and the George & Dragon, which informed much discussion between Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, the prominent 19th century thinkers. Engels would go on to write The Condition of Working Class in England, studying the deep poverty around places such as Angel Meadow, places which would have been served by the George & Dragon pub. It certainly was a far cry from Chetham’s Library where the pair would meet, less than half a mile away.

Rather remarkably, The George & Dragon continued into the 20th century, whilst many pubs in the vicinity came and went.  A key date is the 23rd June 1932 – the date when then-licensee Luke Mooney obtained an official music license for the venue; giving it further popular appeal. This meant that rather than just a place for informal entertainments, the George & Dragon could function as a venue for proper gigs. 1937 marks another milestone year: the date when Ernie Tyson took over the license of the pub. Sporting a fierce reputation, Tyson was an ex-soldier and labourer, known for his forays into boxing. The pub in turn attracted a boxing crowd, and it was reported that on one occasion Ernie Tyson actually had to physically remove Jackie Brown, the former world champion, from the premises. He even organised bare-knuckle boxing matches in the venue.

Band on the Wall 1940

Yet Tyson also brought a character to the George & Dragon, including the feature that would go onto be its namesake – a stage built into the wall; hence the name we know the venue by today, Band on the Wall. Consisting of a high platform built into the far wall of the building, this would be a stage that would build the venue’s reputation for vibrant, exciting live music. Tyson indeed brought plenty of life to the venue. Despite his tough exterior, he also was known for hosting a party in the pub for local children every Christmas, and during his time there, the roof became a kind of ‘menagerie’ packed with a number of animals including pigeons, chickens, parrots and rabbits. He also had two guard dogs – perhaps no wonder, given the still notorious nature of the area.

Gangs were an ongoing issue around the George & Dragon, including a group called the ‘Barrow Boys’ who lived in Angel Meadow – often threatening waiters and bar staff. The leader was ‘Jazzer Hamilton’, who himself was known to visit the pub, and even reportedly contributed to its growing music scene. It was believed that Jazzer dueted with Florence ‘Flo’ Flanagan, one of the venue’s resident accordionists, on at least one occasion.

From accordions to acoustic guitars, banjos to bass drums; an array of instrumentation started to appear at what would later become Band on the Wall (although the name itself wasn’t formally adopted until 1975). It was Tyson himself who decided on having a five-piece resident band, for example. The venue also employed a range of talented musicians, many who were living in the local area. This included Rudi Mancini, who was born in Ancoats to Italian parents, and known for his impressive accordion skills; taking his first job at the George & Dragon in 1934 when he was just 14 years old. The new funding for Band on the Wall will allow the contribution of figures such as Rudi to be further explored and celebrated.

The license of the pub kept in Tyson hands during the 1937-1949 period – passing from Ernie to his other two brothers in turn - therefore spanning some of the interwar years as well as WWII itself. During these difficult times, music was an important feature for social cohesion and enjoyment, with plentiful gigs taking place on this new stage at the George & Dragon. The music even continued to play when Manchester was hit by German air raids. One of the worst of these took place across 22-24 December 1940 when there were 443 bomb raids, known as ‘The Christmas Blitz’. The music played would have likely provided a positive force during frightening times, with the George & Dragon seen as one of the key places to catch live jazz music in the city, especially as the period around 1950 was seeing somewhat of a trad jazz boom.

Yet as Manchester faced a post-war economic slump into the 1950s – the character of the entertainment at the George & Dragon also appeared to change, with a rather weird and wonderful twist. Drag acts became a regular feature of pub’s programme, with influential icons including Diamond Lil (James Stone) and Neville St Claire Band on the Wall 1950sappearing there. In turn, the Band on the Wall played a significant part in the city’s Queer history.

 Much of the Swan Street area entered a period of decline at this time, with buildings starting to crumble – the George & Dragon’s drag acts and shows, rather reminiscent of colourful, eclectic wartime entertainments attempted to provide a splash of colour in the situation. This was also the decade when the name ‘Band on the Wall’ seemed to become unofficially adopted by the venue, with hand-written paper notices declaring ‘THE BAND ON THE WALL’ appearing in side windows and at the front door. Far from the only mysterious feature, this double-naming of The George & Dragon took a place at a time when waiters reportedly carried cutlery knives in case they needed to defend themselves, a mafia-style singer appeared complete with a cloak and fighting regularly broke out.

Undergoing a range of peaks and troughs, by the 1960s, the venue was again seen as a platform for celebrating lively local music, with young local groups playing every Thursday, Friday and Saturday night by 1968.

However, it was Steve Morris who gave the place a whole new momentum when he took over in 1975, along with his business partner Frank Cusick. Steve was a highly influential jazz musician in his own right, and wanted to bring this genre to the fore. He reopened the venue officially as the ‘Band on the Wall’ – bringing an end to ‘The George & Dragon’ - later in 1975. A packed music programme highlighted his fresh intentions, which included a ‘jazzy selection’, a ‘Monday Night Rock Club’ and space for the new Manchester Musician’s Collective. During the 1970s a number of North West musical talents appeared at the venue including guitarist Kenny Shaw and bassist Pete Glennon, with a dedicated ‘Women in Music’ series by the 1980s seeing performances from the likes of Jennifer John and The Holloway All Stars.

Band on the Wall also provided a platform for Manchester’s early punk scene and showcased some of the freshest talent during this time. The ‘New Manchester Review Monday Night Rock Club’ lasted between 1977 and 1979, featuring gigs from over 100 artists, including the likes of John Cooper Clarke, Joy Division, Buzzcocks and The Fall. There even was a gig in 1976 which featured Martin Hannett – best known as the producer behind albums such as Unknown Pleasures – on guitar. To continue on the theme of surprises, Monday nights at Band on the Wall were certainly far from dull, with other rather unexpected additions on the bill including an all-woman clog band, comedy rock groups, and even an appearance from Carol Ann Duffy, 32 years before she became Poet Laureate.

According to Bernard Sumner and Stephen Morris (Joy Division / New Order):

“Band on the Wall was at the heart of the post-punk scene of the 1970s and has always been an instrumental part Manchester's world-famous music scene. It was here where we, as Joy Division, played some of our earliest shows, and is still a place where artists can hone their skills today.”

All whilst celebrating local creativity, Band on the Wall’s reputation for celebrating international talent remains – highlighting the importance in researching this further. The latter half of the 20th century saw Manchester become home to many communities from the Caribbean and Band on the Wall became known for reggae music.

Band on the Wall 1982

 Following a brief closure of the venue in 1982 for redevelopment work, the Dizzy Gillespie logo was adopted: the now-famous sign people are used to seeing in neon lights – and an enhanced World Music programme was taken up, championing often under-represented international talent and giving new opportunities. For example, Manchester’s Twelve Tribes of Israel Youth Band rehearsed and performed at Band on the Wall, led by musician Tee Carthy, who still works there today. Other varied acts who have taken to the stage over recent years include a young Björk, Nadine Shah and Sun Ra Arkestra. Little wonder then that it has gone on to receive a range of awards, for example the 2019 City Life Best Live Venue Award, with the Best Clubnight award also going to the Craig Charles Funk & Soul Club held there.

Nine years ago, Band on the Wall also became a home for the offices of Brighter Sound, a music education organisation and charity seeking to connect local young people with creative possibilities – this creativity after all being at the heart of the venue. Debra King, Director at Brighter Sound, reflects:

"Brighter Sound moved into the newly refurbished Band on the Wall in 2010. We’re based above the Picturehouse - the old cinema (and carpet shop!). As a charity we offer creative development opportunities for young and emerging musicians. Some of our very first residencies took place here, led by artists such as DJ Yoda, The Unthanks, Snarky Puppy and Beth Orton. For those at the beginning of their musical journeys - like the early career musicians on residencies and the teens who attend our free weekly Sing City sessions - creating music and performing somewhere so steeped in musical history is really exciting, knowing the legendary bands and artists that have graced the stage before them." 

Band on the Wall William Ellis 2011

The Band on the Wall stands out as a place which doesn’t just provide a music venue, but a supportive music community – with further exciting developments expected from the Bigger, Better, Stronger project in light of the funding. The pilot programme of the project, for example, saw children from the nearby New Islington Academy in Ancoats learn new musical skills as part of a ‘Guide to the World of Music’. And with these skills ranging from Irish folk fiddle music to international dance and reggae guitar, it’s no wonder the Band on the Wall brings a smile to people’s faces. Who would have thought it from a place that started life as the George & Dragon and endured a strive for survival on Swan Street, starting over 200 years ago.

History informed by the Band on the Wall and its website, with thanks.

By Emily Oldfield

Photography - provided thanks to Band on the Wall

Images 2&3 - Manchester Libraries

Image 7 - credit William Ellis