Jonathan Schofield

I was wandering around Manchester General Cemetery the other week. This is in Harpurhey, a couple of miles north of the city centre. There’s something very evocative about the place. 

On the little hill, above the steep drop to the River Irk valley, the tombs clump and gather like a mini-Mancunian Highgate Cemetery. 

Something major is missing from the entrance on Rochdale Road. The gateway and side chapels from the 1830s were the finest neo-Greek buildings in the Manchester area. As good as the Art Gallery, as austerely powerful and exquisitely modelled as The Oratory in Liverpool. 

They were got rid of in the 1960s, a period rich in cultural vandalism.

Through the lost gates, there are many tombs of the great and good in the cemetery and the humble and downtrodden too. One woman who always intrigues me is Nancy Cunningham (1862-1931). Her inscription reads:  ‘In Loving Memory of Nancy Cunningham, daughter of John and Tamer Gradwell of Blackley, who went to Heaven Aug 23rd 1931, aged 68 years. At peace with God’. 

Nancy Cunningham was born on 12 August 1862 and baptised at St Peter’s Church Blackley on 22 February 1863. She was the daughter of John Gradwell, a brick setter and steeplejack and legend has it that as a young girl Nancy would often scale mill chimneys to deliver her father his dinner. 

She became a renowned singer and whistler and was nicknamed ‘Dicky Bird’ (no relation to a famous cricket umpire). Whistling, believe it or not, was a proper music hall act once upon a time, sometimes there were whole choruses of whistlers – quelle horreur! 

Nancy married twice, first to John White in 1886 and then to Joseph Cunningham in 1901, with whom she had two children. 

Nancy had an alcohol problem and then some. She became the scourge of Rochdale Road, accumulating an impressive 173 convictions for being drunk and disorderly. This was claimed to be a record for any individual by the Manchester constabulary – especially for a female. 

Nancy for obvious reasons hated the police but also the Salvation Army who were always trying the old sanctimonious guilt trip on her. In 1912 she went to attack some of the Sally Army on Rochdale Road. It was raining, so one of them held an umbrella over her as she did so – which was mannerly. Nancy came to her senses and, unexpectedly for many, joined the Salvation Army. 

Nancy, and her resurrection into sobriety, was deemed inspirational. The natural performer in her was exploited and she became the focus of campaigns against the evils of drink across the UK, singing and whistling for God. 

Then at a gathering in Birmingham she lapsed. And that was the next 20 years of her life: lapse, get drunk, get arrested, be saved, lapse, get drunk, get arrested and so on, until she popped her clogs in 1931. Nancy was said to be lodged in too tightly  ‘between the bottle and tambourine’. 

Yet, the population of North Manchester felt great affection for the remarkable climbing, whistling, drinking, preaching Nancy ‘Dicky Bird’ Cunningham. Her funeral in 1931 was attended by hundreds of people and extra police had to be drafted in to control the crowds. The cemetery gates had to be closed.

(By the way, Nancy had performed at the gigs for the Salvation Army alongside, Jane Johnson who was known as the ‘champion drunkard of the world’ – crikey.)

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