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Manchester … Part 2 : The Free Trade Hall

I went to a few concerts in my Manchester years. Saw some of the bands who were changing popular music and giving the city a permanent place at the top table. But I also saw an awful lot of small time music, out of fashion artists, pub bands, some of whom rocked, some of whom rolled over, and a performance poet or two. I saw The Smiths and New Order play to audiences that had already declared them special in the extreme. I also saw Jake Thackray, Spike Milligan and an out of favour Kinks put on a storming show at The Apollo. I shared the upper balcony with an theatre employee. Just two of us. He was full of how he had been sent out on some errand for Ray Davies. My memory tells me it was to get fish and chips but that sounds a little too northern; a little too made up. What I do remember was that he was in awe of the band. I had always liked them without ever being aware of just how good they were. Knew they wrote good songs, didn’t realise just how well they could play them. By the time they opened their encore set with Waterloo Sunset I was in paradise.

Of course I missed the most significant Manchester gig of them all. I was only 7 so it wasn’t all my fault. Bob Dylan and his backing band (currently The Hawks and soon to be The Band) annoying the faithful of the folk fraternity (always an easy thing to do and usually an enjoyable one) by plugging in and playing loud.bob-dylan-play-fucking-loud-before-like-a-rolling-stoneThe folkies had invested a lot of time in their champion; a man who single-handedly had stopped folk aficionados from being uncool; and he was making them very uncool again by moving on while they stood still. Famously someone shouted out “Judas”.*

He responded with “I don’t believe you. You’re a liar.” before instructing the band to play loud. “F***ing loud!” In its own blustering way it was a moment of musical revolution. Manchester does revolutions better than most places in England.dsc_0141It happened in the Free Trade Hall in 1966 and by the time I read about it, it was all  history – but a history that had changed things; given them a shake. Dylan had subsequently made some of the best records of the modern era; some acoustic, some electric, all showing his astonishing songwriting ability. And many a musician had discovered a groove that would have gone unploughed but for the play it loud moment. Some of the generation above mine hadn’t forgiven him and still hoped he would come back into the fold and sing Little Boxes and Goodnight Irene with Pete Seeger and Tom Paxton. (Don’t get me wrong I love the music of these people, I’m just not sympathetic to the ongoing whining that Dylan should have remained shackled to ‘the cause’ when he obviously had a little more musical adventuring to fit in.)dsc_0133The Free Trade Hall is now a luxury hotel. The last time I’d looked at it seriously it was redundant and looking in danger of being condemned. I’m not sure if a hotel would have been my choice for such an important building but it certainly beats the wrecking ball I once feared.dsc_0174In terms of working class history and the history of radical politics in England, the Free Trade Hall stands on the most hallowed ground in the city. This is where The Peterloo Massacre took place in 1819. Just four years after Waterloo the swords of the dragoons were turned on the working people of Manchester who had gathered to listen to Henry Hunt address them on the causes of the poverty, economic distress and hunger that had afflicted Manchester’s poor since the end of the Napoleonic wars. The cavalry were instructed to arrest Hunt and to disperse the crowd. They charged with sabres drawn. 15 were killed and over 600 seriously injured. It is a source of historic shame that such a thing could have happened and a source of on-going concern that lessons still need to be learnt from it.dsc_0140“The cavalry were in confusion: they evidently could not, with all the weight of man and horse, penetrate that compact mass of human beings and their sabres were plied to hew a way through naked held-up hands and defenceless heads; and then chopped limbs and wound-gaping skulls were seen; and groans and cries were mingled with the din of that horrid confusion.” (Eye-witness Samuel Bamford)

The troops seemed to particularly target women. One calling out to a trooper she recognised “Tom Shelmadine, I know you. You won’t cut me.” But he did, opening her chest to the bone.

These were Mancunians to the heart. People who had gathered together, many in their Sunday best, for a joyful, almost carnival occasion. They were calling for universal manhood suffrage. At a time when about 2% of the population had the vote, and the country had seen a great easing of financial burdens from the rich since Wellington’s great victory in Belgium, and an increase in the burden on the poor; the north had taken up the call for ordinary people to have the vote and Manchester had taken the lead in the north. The crowd genuinely expected a happy outcome…and soon. It remains one of the most significant events in the country’s history and yet is barely acknowledged. A small plaque on the front of the hotel yet on the area formerly known as St Peter’s Fields now stand the great central library, the magnificent gothic town hall, the Free Trade Hall, The Bridgewater Hall and The Midland Hotel. The latter celebrating being the meeting place of Mr Rolls and Mr Royce but not it’s place in the history of British radicalism.

Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote The Mask of Anarchy in response to the slaughter and though it calls for a non-violent stance against political oppression was nonetheless banned for the next 30 years. It is magnificent.

“Stand ye calm and resolute,
Like a forest close and mute,
With folded arms and looks which are
Weapons of unvanquished war.

And if then the tyrants dare,
Let them ride among you there;
Slash, and stab, and maim and hew;
What they like, that let them do.

With folded arms and steady eyes,
And little fear, and less surprise,
Look upon them as they slay,
Till their rage has died away:
Then they will return with shame,
To the place from which they came,
And the blood thus shed will speak
In hot blushes on their cheek:
Rise, like lions after slumber
In unvanquishable number!
Shake your chains to earth like dew
Which in sleep had fallen on you:
Ye are many—they are few!”

dsc_0138The movement continued throughout the next hundred years. First with The Chartists and later with The Suffragettes. All seeking what we now regard as a natural right of every citizen and yet they were portrayed and treated as criminals. They wanted a say in things which affected them. They wanted the vote. Manchester led the world in this fight for human rights. They might just wish to shout a little louder about their achievements. Butchering your own citizens may be a source of shame but it isn’t Manchester’s shame. I’ve spent most of my adult life (and I must thank Mr Brown our Ulverston history teacher in 1973 for first opening my eyes) in awe of the nineteenth century worker. Down-trodden, denied education, denied rights, denied the opportunity to rise above his or her lot, yet more involved than most are today, better informed, more passionate. Come on you modern citizens of the north. Take pride in your roots. You are still exploited, down-trodden and kept in your place. Remember that it is still the case that “Ye are the many – they are the few!”

In the 1840s Manchester was responsible for 50% of all Britain’s overseas trade. Yes! Half! This gave the city and the region unprecedented power and authority. This was the place where the middle classes were able to say to the aristocratic landowners “We’re making the money now, we shall also have a say in how things are done.” The Free Trade Hall was a centre for public debate over many issues. You’ll still find ornamental sheaths to symbolise opposition to The Corn Laws, Chartists met here, in the 1850s a big public meeting urged the abolition of the death penalty, opposition to slavery in Great Britain is largely a child of the north and played out vital chapters under this roof. Millworkers were prepared to suffer, and suffer horribly, for their principles in this. The American Civil War brought about an embargo on the trade in cotton. Lancashire was almost wholly dependent on cotton. This “cotton famine’ caused great distress. The Confederate States were sure that the British would enter the war on the side of the South to protect its cotton industry. The working people made their position known here in this great building. Their opposition to slavery was stronger than their need to work. They remained solidly behind Abraham Lincoln.dsc_0139Manchester (and indeed The Free Trade Hall) played its part in the birth of of the British Labour Movement. One of the leading local figures was Richard Pankhurst. Advanced in their views on worker’s rights, anti-slavery, anti-death penalty and the need for trades unions, they were backward in the need for women’s rights. Pankhurst never ever thought of extending the movement towards his formidable wife. She recognised the intransigence of the male-dominated labour movement and formed the Women’s Political and Social Union. It met in The Free Trade Hall.

Many of the freedoms and human rights we have accepted as a true privilege of living in Britain, and which are increasingly under fire, were forged in this city: many in this building. The site has seen a massacre, the building was the epicentre of Northern Radicalism, it was bombed in the blitz, re-opened as the region’s premier concert venue and home of the Hallé Orchestra (who I saw there on a rare school trip in 1972; can’t remember much about the music but do remember being told off by a teacher with a big nose for struggling to open a packet of wine gums!) Staged Bob Dylan plugging in, T Rex, Pink Floyd, The Sex Pistols and pretty much anyone who was anybody.dsc_0188As a hotel it’s expensive (about £200 a night for a double room) but if you’re passing through Manchester you couldn’t possibly spend the night surrounded by more history. And the puddings are excellent!


Apparently Keith Butler, the guy who yelled Judas died 15 years ago, after a violent reaction to bee stings. A lonesome fate for a participant in what may be the most hallowed bootleg moment ever.*(Michael Carlson)