We are currently in the process of sorting through a box of material belonging to the late Ian Bailey. The material includes typed transcripts of many of Ian's assemblies and talks on the history of MGS, and is a treasure trove of material. To coincide with this year's Old Boys' Dinner, here is a transcript from a talk given by Ian in 1995 on the history of this quintessential MGS event.
Over the years, there has been, as you might expect, growth and change in the School; some institutions have appeared and withered away - rowing, lacrosse and boxing - and cock fighting -, to mention four at random -; others are still with us; the Dramatic Society is a good case in point - started in 1752 and still in very good health; another institution, almost as old, is the annual Old Boys' Dinner.
The Dinner is generally held at the Manchester Club, King Street, shortly before we break up for the Christmas Holidays. Between 150 and 200 old boys, in dinner jackets, the older ones with decorations, attend. The organiser has the title of Recorder. There are two principal speakers, called the Senior and Junior Stewards, prominent Old Mancunians who are invited to hold that office each year. After the meal and the Loyal Toast, the Junior Steward is called upon to propose the Toast - "The Pious Memory of Hugh Oldham". The senior Stewards then proposes the toast "Prosperity to the School" and the Chief replied to this. Next comes the toast "The Masters Past and Present", replied to by a master. The final toast is one to the Stewards and Recorder and they briefly reply. During the speeches we sing one verse of one of the School songs - which you don't know - discontinued since 1956; then we all sing Auld Lang Syne and proceed to weave our way carefully home!
What fascinates me is that the Old Boys' Dinner has weathered the storms and buffetings that have assailed the school as an institution for over 200 years, and I would like to recall the first dinner in 1781. First I'll put you in the picture with a few contemporary facts. George III was king. North was Prime Minister. On the very day of the meeting, our troops in America were engaged in what proved to be the last engagement in the War of Independence. Goldsmith and Sheridan were writing comedies; Reynolds and Gainsborough were painting portraits; Wedgewood was making pots and the Adams brothers were designing fireplaces and ceilings. Mrs Siddons was making her reputation at Bath after her first failure at Drury Lane. The first race for the Derby Stakes had been run the year before and it was still a crime, punishable by imprisonment and transportation if a Scotsman wore the kilt. No one in Manchester possessed an umbrella and probably none of the inhabitants had ever seen one. Cock fighting was still a recognised amusement in most public schools. The MGS boys used to bring game-cocks to school on Shrove Tuesday and spent part of the morning watching them fight. Any birds that ran away became the perquisite of the High Master who had them for his dinner! Manchester had one constable, 4 beadles and 2 ale tasters to look after it by day and 53 watchmen by night. No house was more than 5 to 7 minutes ' walk from the Exchange, Oldham St. was in the suburbs; Ardwick was in the country. On the day of the first dinner, there appeared an advert of a house to let in Shudehill, off Corporation St., with a large and commodious garden. On the site where we used to hold the dinner, at the top of King St, stood a house belonging to Mr. Hall, the garden of which had a famous rockery.
Nowadays, the Recorder gives me short notice for Ulula, giving the bare details of the Dinner. The original advertisement which appeared in Harrop's Manchester Mercury of 18th Sept 1781, read as follows;- "Several gentlemen who have been educated at the Free School in Manchester, being desirous of establishing an annual feast, have agreed to dine together on Monday 24th Sept next, at the Bull's Head Inn [it stood in Market Place at the bottom of Market St] and request the attendance of those gentlemen who have been educated at the same School and wish to promote such a scheme:- Sir Thomas Egerton in the chair [he was at School in the 1750s] Dinner at 3 o'clock"
There is no mention of price but each man appeared to have paid his guinea - so £22.50 in 1995 - exclusive of wines - sounds very reasonable when you consider inflation over the last 200 years. The bull's Head was built in 1510 and was by far the leading and most important Inn in the town; it was also Manchester's first Post Office.
Let us imagine the scene - 32 Old Boys arrived the day before, by stage coach, diligence or chaise, in their own carriage, on horse back or on foot. Those coming across Kersal Moor might well have seen a man hanging on the gibbet there, and another might have complained of the rascally highwaymen that infested that desolate region. Processing nearer Manchester they might have seen a scold being ducked in the ducking pond - it is now the sunken garden in Piccadilly; and at the bottom end of Market Stead Lane - now Market St - they might have seen a man in the stocks and another being publicly whipped. Having changed their clothes, they assembled at the Bull at 3 o'clock; most were clean shaven, with bobbed wigs; one or two had pig tails; one or two following the latest fashion were wearing their own hair, powdered. One or two dandies had fancy waistcoats and embroidered velvet coasts. Only a few had tight pantaloons; all the rest have knee breaches and shoes with silver buckles.
The Senior Steward was Sir Thomas Egerton, who later became the Earl of Wilton; he lived in Heaton Park; the Junior Steward was William Egerton of Wythenshawe and the Recorder was a distinguished lawyer, Sir Richard Arden, who later became Lord Alvanley. He was Solicitor General and Attorney General in Pitt's government, as well as Master of the Rolls, and in Addington's government he was Chief Justice of the Common Pleas.
And now the bill of fare - the guinea's worth. They started with hare soup at one end of the table and clear vegetable soup at the other. Two dishes of fish or perhaps four would be placed at corners and in prominent places there would be a large piece of roast beef, a side of mutton and a dish of hunter's pie. Those cleared away, the table would be refilled with dishes of boiled turkey, roast pheasant, chicken, woodcock etc with sweets and jellies. And this was called an honest two-course dinner. most of the party drank ale from pewter tankards. It used to take two hours to get through the actual meal, and then they settled down to the serious business, drinking their claret, port or madeira and winding up the evening with great bowls of rum punch. A few might be smoking church wardens provided by the landlord, but snuff was preferred to tobacco,
The main items were the toasts, some with speeches, some without. The toasts were called simply toasts, or cellar toasts, toasts and three cheers, and toasts with three times three. From the very first dinner, they were drinking to Success to the School, Success to the Meeting, to Mr. Lawson the High Master and to Mr Darby his assistant. Within two years they were toasting The Immortal Memory of Hugh Oldham, and then, with the onset of the War with France, they were toasting The Wooden Walls of England; The Grand Old Duke of York; Prosperity to Old England and confusion to her Enemies and also to Foxhunting, The County of Chester; the Masters and the Scholars. At one dinner in the 1830s, 30 odd diners honoured over 30 toasts! The toasts were listed in the big book of the meetings, in which each man signed his name, as we still do. The Recorder wrote out the toasts and you can gain a fair idea of his condition when, in one year's toast list, toast number 23 has one word, "Forgotten", beside it!
And, of course, they sang. The standard classics and chart-topper, "The Vicar of Bray" was a must, of course. But they also had a song, composed specially for the dinner, by one Edward Chesshyre who had three brothers at the School, on becoming a vice-admiral. The song, not sung for possibly 100 years, had 8 stanzas, each of 8 lines; but I won't harrow your feelings at this time of the day by reading it - or singing it! - the tune is lost anyway. I'll merely say that the song refers touchingly to their school days and the attendant joys of learning Latin and Greek - not surprisingly, some reference to flogging occurs in 6 out of the 8 stanzas!
So, the dinners have been going since 1781, with a break in the 1860s and 70s and during both World Wars, otherwise we would have had the 200th Dinner in 1980. They were started out of respect for the High Master, Charles Lawson, who spent 58 years here, 15 as an assistant and then 43 as High Master, retiring in 1807 at the age of 79. his portrait is in the main entrance. There is a handsome statue to Lawson on the north wall of Manchester Cathedral.
To read more about the dinners, and the record book in particular, follow this link