As you might expect, when it comes to writing about gin palaces, London seems to hog the limelight, but they popped up all across England in the early 19th century, including Manchester.
Without Dickens to write about them or Cruikshank to draw them, the records are more sparse, but they do exist. And, once again, we owe disapproving temperance types a debt of gratitude for their information gathering, biased as it might be.
For example, here’s a summary of the situation from Manchester in 1844: Its Present Condition and Future Prospects by the French economist Léon Faucher who visited England on a study tour in the mid-1840s, with paragraph breaks added for easier online reading:
Only twenty years ago, drunkenness was considered a degrading indulgence; the dramshops were in retired places, and their customers entered secretly by private doors; and a candle placed behind the window was the dubious sign to arrest the attention of the passer-by.
But now, drunkenness has infused itself into the bosom of society. Habit has conquered shame, and that which formerly drew a blush from the men is now regarded as a daily habit by women and children.
By degrees, the dim lights have been replaced by the dazzling gas; the doors have been enlarged; the pot-house has become a gin-shop; and the gin-shop a species of palace.
The games hitherto carried on in these places not being sufficient, the proprietors have added music, dancing, and exhibitions, as additional attractions to a dissolute people. Formerly, concerts were held in these places only in the winter, but now they extend throughout the year; and, as in Liverpool, so here, the swelling of the organ, and the sounds of the violin and the piano, resound in their large saloons.
One of these houses, situated not far from the Exchange, and at the entrance to Victoria Bridge, collects in this manner, one thousand persons, every evening, until eleven PM. On Sundays, to diminish the scandal, religious hymns and sacred music are performed upon the organ and piano.
We can’t work out exactly which establishment is being described here but a quick look at this much later map, from 1888, suggests plenty of candidates – P.H. here, P.H. there, P.H.s everywhere. Whatever was previously on the site of The Grosvenor seems most likely.
In 1845, an American observer using the pseudonym ‘Looker On’ set out just how common gin palaces were in Manchester at that time:
To form any just idea of the magnitude of Manchester, and of the character of its population, it should be entered towards evening.
Then every mill is illuminated, and as their countless windows blaze forth, they present a brilliant spectacle. The black walls are no longer seen, and the canopy of smoke which overhangs all is no longer distinguishable by the eye.
At the corners of nearly all the principal streets are gaudy buildings, with enormous lamps, and into these Gin Palaces, as they are called, a continual stream of living beings enter.
And oh! what a wretched procession! Old men and little children, drabbish women and young girls; youths of besotted appearance, and men in the very flower of life, bowed down to the dust, energies quenched, strength prostrated, minds half destroyed.
Benjamin Love’s 1842 book The Handbook of Manchester gives us another couple of interesting nuggets, wrapped up in a lot of temperance hyperbole:
From an observation made on [Sunday] the 13th March, 1842, by the writer’s direction, there were found to enter one dram-shop only, in this town, the astonishing number of 484 persons in one hour! The greater part were women! Some decently dressed, apparently the wives of mechanics; others almost naked, carrying in their arms a squalid infant. When wives frequent gin-palaces, no wonder their husbands, on leaving work, proceed straight to the beer house.
Assuming we credit Mr Love’s figure, that means these places were undeniably busy. It also suggests a clear gender divide between types of establishment. Beerhouses were the antithesis of the gin palace – generally small and plain.
Here’s a bit more from ‘Looker On’ describing the scene inside a Manchester gin palace:
Behind a bar, decorated richly with carvings and brass work, multiplied by numerous mirrors, in costly frames, with three or four showy-looking, and flashily attired females, occupied incessantly in drawing from enormous casks, gaudily painted in green and gold, and bearing seducing names, glasses of spirits, which are eagerly clutched by the trembling fingers of those who crowd round the counter, gasping as if for breath, for the stimulus of drink. Look at their red, half-raw lips; their glaring lack-lustre eyes…
Right, well, that’s enough of that, but the description of the fixtures and fittings seems accurate.
Glitter and grandeur aside, they were by no means genteel places, as this note of a criminal case from 1847 makes clear:
Yesterday, at the Borough Court, before Mr. Maude, a fellow employed… about the Bowdun and Altrincham coach office named John Hampson, was charged with robbing a gentleman from Preston, of his purse and eighteen sovereigns.
It appeared that on Monday evening, the prosecutor who had come here on business, got ‘a little over the line,’ and being determined, as it seemed to have jolly good spree, and see life in Manchester, he bent his steps towards gin palace in Deansgate.
There, on the strength of his well-filled purse he was received by the company present as ‘a real good fellow,’ and very speedily his excessive liberality became apparent, as he insisted on standing treat for everybody.
When the hour for closing the vaults arrived, he was just in the height of his glory, and nowise inclined to go to bed, when the prisoner and some of his friends kindly offered to find him with quarters, provided he would pay for a supply of liquor.
Accordingly, he accompanied the parties to a house in Back Queen-street, where gallons of ale, quarts of rum, &c. &c. were sent for pretty freely, until overpowered with strong drink the Preston gentleman fell asleep, and on awaking found that he was minus his purse and eighteen sovereigns.
An 1857 guidebook to Manchester and Salford singles out the gin palaces of Ancoats for particular attention:
The oldest and the worst working district of Manchester, is the region known as Ancoats. Here, however, you will find the truest specimens of the indigenous Lancashire population, and hear the truest version of the old Anglo-Saxon pronunciation… Ancoats, in fact, is Manchester pur sang – Manchester ere sanitary improvement and popular education had raised and purified its general social condition.
Many of its streets, particularly the great thoroughfare called the Oldham Road, are magnificent in their vast proportions; but the thousands of by-lanes and squalid courts, the stacked-up piles of undrained and unventilated dwellings, swarm with the coarsest and most dangerous portions of the population. Here the old and inferior mills abound; here the gin-palaces are the most magnificent, and the pawn-shops the most flourishing; here, too, the curse of Lancashire-the ‘low Irish ’ – congregate by thousands; and here, principally, abound the cellar dwellings,and the pestilential lodging-houses, where thieves and vagrant; of all kinds find shares of beds in underground recesses for a penny and twopence a night.
Another source, also from 1855, paints a vivid picture of the contrast between the Ancoats gin palaces and their surroundings:
Returning from the Christmas treat of the St. John’s Industrial Ragged School, in company with the energetic and intelligent master of the New Ragged School in Angel Meadow, Ancoats, I met numbers of poor wretched looking children, in groups, round the corners of low streets and public-house doors, where the numerous gas lamps inside threw a gleam of light across the road, and the opening and shutting of the door of the magnificent gin palace gave a cheerfulness and bustle to a very dull and dirty street.
On the step of one public-house, a little girl, herself o about six years old, was nursing a pale and delicate infant not six months old, or rather just letting it lie over her knees. The mother was, in all probability, inside, spending her last copper; the rain was pouring, and it was past nine o’clock.
Finally, Elizabeth Gaskell’s 1848 novel Mary Barton: a tale of Manchester Life mentions gin palaces and pubs in passing in a couple of places, including confirmation of the obvious appeal of places ”where all is clean and bright, and where th’ fire blazes cheerily, and gives a man a welcome as it were”.
What we can’t work out – not easily, anyway – is if there are any surviving early 19th century gin palaces in Manchester today. There are plenty of wonderful historic pubs but most, such as The Marble Arch and Crown & Kettle, are late 19th century or early 20th century buildings.
On that, local intelligence would be welcome.