Manchester Nightlife in the 1940s – jazz, GIs, the Ritz, and more…

Based on a talk given at the Imperial War Museum North

It’s worth reminding ourselves that the idea of a night out on the town isn’t a recent invention. It pre-dates the twenty four hour party people, it predates the mods. Previous generations were always looking for places to go, nights out, and opportunities to get lost in music.

1940s nightlife in Manchester was busy, and intemperance, hedonism, and music were embedded in the city’s psyche. Go back a further hundred years – the 1840s – and if you read any accounts of Manchester in the 1840s you’ll soon realise it was so. In the 1840s, for the urban poor after a week of being worked to a cinder by factory bosses and mill owners, intoxication and music wasn’t just escapism; it was like sticking two fingers up at the bosses. That was the 1840s but there was a sense of that too, in the 1940s, maybe also in the current era. Going out at the weekend; as much an exercise in reclaiming life, as enjoying it.

So what would the soundtrack to a night out have been in the 1940s? Jazz; although it wasn’t always called that. It was “dance music”, it was what was played in dance halls (just as people now talk about “dance music”), or people thought of it as “swing”. Jazz, in the form of ragtime, had arrived in the first years of the 20th century, but had evolved into a few different genres by the 1940s. Most popular with the dancers in Manchester and elsewhere in the country was the smooth swing of the big band orchestra. Think Glen Miller; he was probably the biggest name in dance music at the beginning of the 1940s.

Gathering memories, evidence and ideas of what was happening in the 1940s, I went to a number of sources, including the Mass Observation archive and back copies of newspapers and magazines, from the ‘Manchester Evening News’ to ‘Melody Maker’. There’s some valuable oral history work done by Clare Langhamer who interviewed 23 elderly women in the 1990s who discussed their lives, work and leisure time, many of them contributing testimonies of nightlife in the 1930s and 1940s. Her work appears in Women’s Leisure in England, 1920-1960.

Talking about their enthusiasm for going out, one common theme or motivation was the urge to escape. One Langhamer’s interviewees, Elsie, says about her 1940s “I don’t remember any regular pleasures except escaping every now and again to dance”.

Women were the most enthusiastic dancers, and found dance halls more congenial than pubs. It’s hard to imagine fromthe perspective of our era, but – although this is a generalisation and there were regional differences – you’d see very few female drinkers out anywhere at night, even, pubs. Dance halls weren’t part of a drinking culture, and that suited many women. Even as late as 1959 only ten per cent of young women had an average of one or more alcoholic drinks a week, the vast majority steered clear.

In the 1940s the appetite for dancing was as strong as ever. The 1920s and 1930s were two decades of rising demand for dance venues, a post-First World War enthusiasm for jazz and going out dancing which was considerable but also controversial, particularly when the dressed-up liberated young women dubbed ‘flappers’ came to public notice. One article in the Manchester Evening News in February 1920 condemned the “frivolous, scantily-clad, jazzing flappers”, and described them as “irresponsible and undisciplined.”

Mostly the media and the moralists had calmed down by the 1940s, but even then there was residual disapproval or even fear. Mainly it was men telling women not to be flightly and to do doing something more improving with their time; like embroidery, knitting, evening classes, going to church.

But they were too late! Young women were enthusiastic about going out dancing, but also enjoyed all the associated rituals. In 1939, one of Mass Observation’s contributors, a twenty-three year-old typist described the joys of her going out rituals like this; “Preparing for a dance is half the fun to my mind. Getting one’s frock ready. Wondering whether you shall have your hair done.”

Before I began my research, I assumed that during the War the population would be sat indoors with their black out curtains drawn, crowded round the radio listening out for news or Winston Churchill’s latest speech. I’m sure they did that, but what I hadn’t realised was that people went out for nights out on the town too.

When war was declared early in September 1939, theatres and dance halls were immediately closed, but this measure only lasted two weeks. A correspondent in the magazine ‘Modern Dance’ wrote in October 1939 that Manchester had been gloomy since war had broken out, but reported how excited people had been on the reopening of the city’s dance halls, even though they’d only missed out on a fortnight of nights out. This what she wrote; “Despite the black-out and the black look-out, I, in common with many others, donned dancing shoes and made for the nearest hall, dived in, through darkened doorways, and stood blinking in the light and thought how heavenly it is to dance again. It really did help us all to feel more cheerful.”

Of course, the war dragged on, but the night-time economy continued to thrive, partly because there was a determination not to allow German bombing raids to put an end to the good life. Going out dancing had become an important part of the British way of life. We weren’t going to let Adolf deprive of us of life’s joys. A journalist writing in Melody Maker on the eve of VE Day in 1945 was moved to describe going out dancing as ”A symbol of freedom of expression; a right to enjoy the simple things of life without fear”

One specific reason why demand was so strong, before and during the War, was the rising population of the city of Manchester. Manchester’s population rose steadily through the first thirty years of the twentieth century. In the mid-1930s the city’s population was at an historic high, around 750,000.

All over Manchester neighbourhoods sustained thriving businesses – every district had a high street, with a greengrocer, baker, ironmonger, and a cinema. From Levenshulme to Cheetham Hill, neighbourhoods often also had a grand Palais-style dance hall. Many local people, of course, like people elsewhere, were living in substandard housing, two up two down, outside toilet, no access to anything remotely glitzy; that was part of the thrill of a visit to the local Palais, a bit of glitz and sophistication.

There were dozens of other venues, too, more informal. At the Stretford Trades & Labour Club, in and around 1941, Hughie Gibb’s dance band played. Remember that name; Hughie Gibb.

Why was the population rising in the first third of the twentieth century? People were moving to and staying in the city because there was work here. The Manchester and Salford docks and the nearby Trafford Park employed thousands of people. In some senses, Trafford Park had a good war. It was the target for German bombing raids but the docks became a key oil terminal and the city made a massive contribution to the war effort via engineering and aircraft manufacture.

The war effort, the increased production, the recruitment of women to jobs in munitions factories; all meant that in 1945 there were 50% more working in Trafford Park than there had been in 1939; 75,000 people.

Back in the 1940s 18, 19, 20 year olds would be living at home; young men and women would live at home until they got married. The school leaving age at the beginning of the war was 14 (from the mid-1940s this was 15) so many of these young people would have a job, and some disposable income. Homes wouldn’t have a TV. Young people had the urge and the means to get out of the house.

Belle Vue was a particularly popular – and cheap – place to go dancing (in 1936 they built the Coronation Ballroom to meet the demand), but Belle Vue was adversely affected by the War, with the cancellation of events and much of the site shut down as the armed forces sequestered some of it as a regional base. Nevertheless, it still featured music, including performances by the Halle Orchestra, who’d been bombed out of their usual home at the Free Trade Hall.

Out on the town you’d expect to know the older style dances like the waltz and the tango but also maybe have an attempt at the latest trends, like the Charleston. Dance schools were all over the city and many of them doubled-up as commercial dance halls too. Finnigans in Cheetham Hill and Cadman’s in Sale were popular.

Again, though, these dance schools were most popular with women. Manc lads tended to lack enthusiasm or desire. I read one old fella reminiscing about days spent in a dance hall above the Coop on Moss Lane, who said that when “the dreaded tango” was announced the lads would bolt for the, get a pass out, sit in the pub with a pint, and then return fifteen minutes later, met, he said “with ironical cheers from the girls”.

Pride of place, the jewel in the city’s nightlife crown, was the Ritz, opened in 1925 and acquired several years later by Mecca, the country’s leading dance hall operators; they also owned the Plaza on Oxford St which was just two hundred yards round the corner from the Ritz.

Motivations for going out, as in every era, were many and various, including, of course, opportunities for liaisons. Although the chance of a dalliance was always possible, certain venues had a reputation for being more the kind of place where singles had luck. One such venue was the Palais in Chorlton in Manchester, as another of Langhamer’s interviewees remembers; “My sister met her future husband at the dance hall in Chorlton. Oh! It was the picking-up place, yes.”

Other venues had a reputation of a different sort. One of Clare Langhamer’s interviewees, Jane, remembers that so frequent and predictable was the fighting on Saturday nights at the Devonshire Street Ballroom in Cheetham Hill that the venue was known as “the blood bath”

A couple of things were particular features of nightlife in Manchester during the War. There had always been women in bands and all-female orchestras weren’t unknown, but with many male musicians called up to serve in the armed forces, there were further opportunities for female musicians. One particular British all-female Orchestra ere hugely successful in the war years; the one led by saxophone player Ivy Benson. She was from Yorkshire but over the years she used a number of Lancashire lasses, including Muriel Higson who was born in Bolton.

Also specific to the war years was the presence of GIs in Manchester’s nightlife venues. From 1942 to 1945 over a million American service personnel were stationed in Britain, and around 100,000 of them were Afro-American GIs. There was a big and busy airbase at Burtonwood near Warrington, and GIs from there would journey into Manchester to taste the nightlife.

This threatened to cause some problems as the US armed forces were segregated; the US army authorities pressurised the British government to put restrictions of where black servicemen could go, but our government decided there should be no restrictions on what were then called “coloured” troops.

The popularity of jitterbugging was down to the Gis; it was known in Britain by the beginning of the 1940s but the craze reached its height in around 1945. Another dance, the lindy hop, had evolved through the 1920s but also reached a mass audience during the War years – especially via the 1942 hit film ‘Hellzappopin’.

Into the second half of the 1940s, it was clear that the music scene had moved on a little since 1939. Nationwide, there was a drift away from the Palais-style venues, to function rooms, basements and other smaller spaces.

We see this all the time in music, how when something hits mainstream radio and appears too commercial, the rebel heart that beats in popular culture will kick in and musicians and others will go off and find something new, perhaps uncommercial, as an alternative.

In a reaction against the smooth, radio friendly swing orchestras you’d hear in the big halls and on the radio, a number of musicians returned to the roots of jazz, to New Orleans, to a rawer trad sound, forming smaller groups, six or eight maybe, rather than the twenty or so in big bands, and playing a less commercial style, recapturing the sound of jazz pioneers like Jelly Roll Morton or King Oliver

In Manchester, around 1943 Harry Giltrap playing guitar and/or banjo and Eric Lister on clarinet and vocals created the Delta Rhythm Kings. Their version of the jazz standard ‘Ballin the Jack’ was released in April 1946 by Hime & Addison, a record shop on John Dalton Street

At the Astoria Club on Plymouth Grove, the cornet player in the resident dance-band, Derek Atkinson set up a small trad jazz combo, the Dixielanders. Some of the personnel from the Dixielanders, went on to play in the Smoky City Stompers who were the first to play regularly and attract decent audiences. This was 1947, 48. There’s a recording of them playing at the Onward Hall – a building that’s still standing, on Deansgate, just on the corner of Bootle St

The Saints jazz band from Ashton under Lyne were another local act that won national acclaim. They’d play venues like the Old Thatched House Hotel, just off Market Street in Manchester, until they moved to a bigger venue, the Grosvenor Hotel on Deansgate.

Of course there was music beyond jazz, be it swing or trad. Young men and women with an Irish Catholic background were often committed members of the Gaelic League, branches of the Gaelic League would hold regular ceilidh dances, often on a Sunday

In Moss Side there were clubs playing jazz, but also calypso. In the 1930s and through the War, merchant seamen, those from Africa particularly, would take the 53 bus from Trafford Park into Moss Side and rented property and took rooms in boarding houses there. A handful of Africans also bought property Moss Side in the late 1930s.

Many of these properties with a residential use were also used for businesses. There was a demand for places to meet and socialise and for welfare associations, legal advice centres, restaurants, clubs. The Merchant Navy Club was co-founded by two seamen from Nigeria. It became a focal point for people from all over the North of England with a background in that country’s Efik community. On Princess Rd near the corner of Moss Lane East, a hostel for African seamen which evolved into a club called the Palm Beach, which also catered for a largely Nigerian clientele. It became the Reno in the 1960s, a celebrated venue in 1980s Moss Side.

In any research of nightlife you’ll find that gay venues are among the most under-documented, for obvious reasons; especially before the decriminalisation of homosexuality in 1967, the venues were hidden away, under the radar.

Built in 1865, the Union Hotel (now, the New Union) has claim to be the longest surviving gay-friendly venue in Manchester. We can assume it had a gay clientele in the 1940s; one visitor in the 1950s recalled a lesbian three-piece live band, organ, drum and guitar. In 1965 the licensee’s liberal attitudes to allowing gay men and women in his venue led to his imprisoned for ‘outraging public decency’.

In the late 1940s into the 1950s, there was no gay village, no agglomeration but there were several other venues and bars in other parts of the city where gay men gathered. One was the the Rouge on Brazennose St and another was the Rockingham on Queen St off Deansgate. At the top of Oxford St there used to be a huge Gaumont cinema (it later became Rotters nightclub); in the basement were two adjoining bars, the Long Bar, and the Trafford Bar; the Trafford Bar was a known gay venue.

After the War, trad jazz was joined on the fringes of the mainstream by bebop, and modern jazz inspired by the likes of Dizzy Gillespie. A man called Tony Stuart has been credited with a leading role in modern jazz in Manchester. He had a 14 piece band, but he also had a more be-boppish jazz quintet. He was involved in running the Astoria on Plymouth Grove and would arrange for the GIs from Burtonwood to travel over by coach every weekend. It’s said that by the end of the war some of the servicemen were providing him and others with the latest bebop 78s and encouraging Manchester musicians to ditch the trad jazz and learn some of the modern numbers then fresh out of the USA.

Also in the late 1940s Eric Scriven set up Club 24 at 24 Port Street, off Newton Street in an area which has recently rediscovered its nightlife potential. A couple of years later he moved to 43 Port Street, renamed the club Club 43. This name he continued to use when he moved to other premises; Club 43 at the Clarendon where he hosted the likes of Zoot Sims and Dexter Gordon. The Clarendon was demolished to make space for the Mancunian Way.

Most GIs left at the end of the War, but when the Cold War kicked off a good number came back and the Burtonwood base remained busy through the 1950s. Their presence built a sense of a world outside the neighbourhoods, and was part of a cultural opening-up in British cities which had had real momentum in the 1940s. It also illustrated, on a local level, one of the stories of the 20th century – how big American influence was becoming in Britain. We saw that in foreign policy after the War but also culturally – especially the American influence on popular culture in the 1940s, through cinema and jazz – which paved the way for the big mid-1950s invasion; Jerry Lee Lewis and Elvis Presley

That rock & roll generation owed something also to the self-organisation of the post-War music scene, especially in bringing music out of the big halls and into the basements and pub function rooms.

The Ritz is still the Ritz. The Astoria on Plymouth Grove later became The Carousel then the International2; an important venue in the late 1980s, early 1990s.

Whether they are still there, or bulldozed, long gone, those places and spaces people frequented in their early adulthood – where they heard the music and met new friends, even during the War, perhaps especially during the War – those places remained in the collective Manchester memory.

I asked you to remember the name Hughie Gibb? He was the bandleader at the Stretford Trades & Labour Club, in and around 1941. His three boys, Barry, Robin, and Maurice Gibb grew up in Chorlton and then West Didsbury and became the Bee Gees.

There’s no full stop in history, there’s always the story of what happened next.

‘Life After Dark: A History of British Nightclubs & Music Venues’ by Dave Haslam is published on August 13th 2015. More information here;