Building Secrets: Free Trade Hall

Let's explore a building that is still firmly placed in the centre of not just music in Manchester, but the whole world: Peter Street's stunning Free Trade Hall.

By Ben Brown | 23 April 2020

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Before we even get around to the Summer of ‘76 and “The Gig That Changed The World“, the Free Trade Hall has a wealth of history and enough little stories to keep even the most distracted reader interested, starting right at the beginning with its construction…

The Hall was constructed between 1853-56 on land owned by Richard Cobden, a mutton-chopped Liberal statesman who was heavily involved in campaigns for free trade. The Hall was built to commemorate the repeal of the Corn Laws in Parliament, which is a pretty confusing event and something that’s not really worth reading about unless you’re revising for some sort of Economics degree.

Of note, the site chosen for the Free Trade Hall is also the location of the famed Peterloo Massacre, when, in response to chronic unemployment and severe famine, a crowd of approximately 80,000 peaceful protesters amassed, and were subsequently charged by cavalry – leaving many killed and hundreds injured.

The event caused a considerable uproar around the country, and certainly contributed to an underlying mistrust of authority and the ensuing struggles of the working class and women which would later manifest itself so effectively with the Suffragette movement in the city.

So the Free Trade Hall was built on the site of the Massacre over 35 later and was used as a public hall – which basically means anyone with enough brass to rub together could hire it out and organise events, concerts, meetings and exhibitions – no matter how innocuous or boring they may be.

The Hall became the home of the Hallé Orchestra early on in its life too, where they would play all of the hits of the day – much like a live version of Top of the Pops but with less Legs & Co and more Ludwig van Beethoven. In fact, the building remained home for the Halle right up until 1996 before moving to swish newer gigs at The Bridgewater Hall.

The Free Trade Hall was also a key site in the struggle for women’s votes – with many key events occurring within its walls. After years of organising small underground meetings around the city, 1905 saw a significant change in the tactics of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) and their pressure on getting the vote.

Founded by Emmeline Pankhurst, the WSPU sent down two young members to the Hall during a Liberal Party election meeting, hung a banner reading ‘Votes for Women’ over the balcony and heckled the shit out of Edward Grey and Winston Churchill.

When all of the stuffy blokes in top hats got offended and tried to eject them, they were arrested, refused to pay the fine and got sent to prison – starting 9 hard years of direct militant action by women who wanted the vote.

Over these 9 years the Hall was the site of many further disruptions by the Suffragettes, and as the WSPU grew in size – the women filled the Hall and it became the site of many speeches and meetings.

In 1913 a homemade bomb also exploded under the stage of the Hall, one of many such instances that happened around the country and a chapter of history that I was unaware of until now. In his book ‘The Suffragette Bombers: Britain’s Forgotten Terrorists‘, Simon Webb explores how these aggressive acts may have delayed, rather than hastened the vote. It’s an interesting read and I suppose I’ll leave you to make your mind up on what you think of it all – I’m not getting into it.

The Hall stood pride and place on Peter Street and even though the Luftwaffe managed a direct hit during the Manchester Blitz, the building stood strong. Throughout its life a long list of famous names came here including Charles Dickens performing in a play, Benjamin Disraeli giving his One Nation speech and even Bob Dylan during his 1966 World Tour.

The Dylan performance is famed for an altercation that occurred between Dylan and a member of the audience, with the disgruntled punter getting upset about Dylan playing with electric instruments and subsequently shouting “Judas!” at the performer. This Luddite clearly rubbed Dylan up the wrong way, who then proceeded to blast out ‘Like a Rolling Stone‘ as loud and with as much electricity as possible.

Now’s the time to get to what has been termed “The Gig That Changed The World”, which, upon investigation wasn’t actually a gig at all – it was two.

In February 1976, two lads from Bolton met with Malcolm McLaren in the hope of getting the Sex Pistols up to Manchester so that their band could support them. The band was Buzzcocks and although they didn’t get to support them at the first gig on the 4th June, they did get to play with them at the second gig 6 weeks later.

Held in the Lesser Free Trade Hall, it’s speculated that of the 40 or so people at the first gig, pretty much everyone ended up in a group or getting involved in the music industry in some form or another.

The truth is a little less romantic, as it’s known that only Morrissey, Bernard Sumner, Jon the Postman, Peter Hook (and a few more) attended the first gig, with the second (and more popular) one featuring many more Manchester music legends.

It’s hard to pin down exactly who was at which gig – the first one has reached legendary status, with thousands claiming that “they were there”, even though you could have counted the number of audience members on the hands of the Seven Dwarfs easily and still had a few digits left to spare.

The second gig was famously attended by future Factory Records boss Tony Wilson, as well as the quiet presence of Ian Curtis who would later channel what he saw (and heard) into Joy Division. Other attendees include Peter Saville, Mark E Smith, Martin Hannett and Mick Hucknall – all names everyone should be familiar with today.

So was it really “The Gig That Changed The World”? Well, many NME writers and music journalists proclaim that indeed it was – paving the way for indie music in a way that no other event did or has since. They say that without this gig there wouldn’t be any of the music we listen to today, and although I find that a little OTT, it’s clear that it was special.

The Free Trade Hall was where “the punk rock atom was split” as Steve Diggle of Buzzcocks proclaims; “it changed Manchester and it changed the world.”

The Free Trade Hall was converted into the Radisson Blu Edwardian hotel in 2004 and is also now the site of Peter Street Kitchen restaurant.