The conviction of Sean Mercer for the murder of eleven-year-old schoolboy Rhys Jones has restored the gang member, or self-styled “soldier”, of Britain’s cities to the collective position of Public Enemy No. 1. As I write this, internet discussion boards hum with calls for vengeance much more severe than the minimum term of twenty-two years imprisonment imposed on Mercer by Mr Justice Irwin at Liverpool Crown Court. In a year when gun-crime and knife-crime have rarely been out of the headlines, two elements of the Rhys Jones case appear especially shocking: the youth of the victim and his family background: ordinary, respectable and suburban.
Rhys Jones has been widely described as the youngest victim of gang violence in Britain. Yet historical studies of violence reveal heartbreakingly similar cases stretching back to the Victorian period and, then as now, the victims included children and “respectable” youths caught up in skirmishes between rival gangs.
Gangs in Victorian society
In the closing decades of the nineteenth century, all of the major British conurbations were plagued by fears of youth gangs and knife-crime. The antics of London’s “hooligans” were little different from those of Birmingham’s “peaky blinders”, Glasgow’s “penny mobs” and the “scuttlers” of Manchester and Salford. Then as now, gang members adopted a uniform to set themselves apart from other young people in working-class neighbourhoods. Peaked caps were worn tilted to the left over “donkey” fringes; bell-bottomed trousers measured twenty-one inches round the foot; and the brass-tipped clogs of the Manchester scuttlers announced their arrival en masse for battle from a distance of several streets. Coloured and patterned scarves denoted membership of a particular clique, and gang insignia were added to belts by inserting brass pins which were filed to sit flush with the leather. Belts and clogs alike served both ornamental and offensive purposes. And few scuttlers or peaky blinders walked out without a knife.
The case of John O’Toole
Killings were mercifully rare in Victorian gang battles. When Manchester’s scuttlers set out to “dose” their rivals, their aim was to inflict facial scars or wounds to the upper body. But when young people fight with lethal weapons, violence all-too-easily escalates and victims frequently include bystanders as well as members of opposing gangs. One such fatality in the Greengate district of Salford in 1873 resonates with the case of Rhys Jones.
On that occasion, the killer was one of the most avowedly respectable youths in the district. Thomas Inglis, aged eighteen, was a devout Christian and a regular at Sunday school. Employed as an iron glazer, he was a hard worker and a dutiful son, tipping up his entire wage packet to his parents. Despite repeated requests, Inglis refused to join the local band of scuttlers, the King Street Lads. They were determined to teach him a lesson of his own.
At eight o’clock on the evening of Sunday, 19 January, Inglis escorted thirteen-year-old Thomasina Nabb home from Sunday school. As they passed along King Street, they stopped to talk to one of Thomasina’s friends, only to see a twenty-strong group of scuttlers turn into the street. When the King Street Lads spotted Inglis, they shouted, “That’s him! We want him!” One of the scuttlers ran up to Inglis and struck him on the head with the buckle end of a belt. Inglis tried to flee, but he was quickly caught. Some of the scuttlers were carrying straps with stones fastened to the end, others had stones tied in knots in the end of handkerchiefs. Inglis was surrounded and badly beaten, his pleas for mercy ignored. He finally managed to pick himself up and ran towards the door of his parents’ house.
The scuttlers followed, their ranks swollen by a crowd of local children. As he reached the door, Inglis’s brother handed him a fire-rake with an iron handle so that he might defend himself. Inglis hurled the rake at his pursuers. It bounced off the pavement in front of them and lodged in the skull of ten-year-old John O’Toole. A fourteen-year-old girl tried to dislodge it, but it was too firmly embedded and she needed help from a passer-by to pull it out.
John O’Toole died later that night at Salford Royal Hospital. A post-mortem revealed a hole in his skull three inches deep and extending to the brain. Thomas Inglis was indicted for murder at the South Lancashire Assizes, but the judge ruled that the case was one of manslaughter rather than murder. The jury convicted Inglis, but were much moved, both by the evidence of provocation and the defending counsel’s depiction of the prisoner as an industrious worker, model son and committed Christian. They urged the judge to show mercy. Baron Pollock obliged. Thomas Inglis would go to prison for two weeks.
Punishment is not enough
The Manchester magistrates were bedeviled by scuttlers for three decades. Hundreds of youthful gang members were jailed, many were sent for trial at the assizes so that judges might hand out exemplary sentences of penal servitude. Owen Callaghan, a member of a much feared gang from the notorious slum and criminal quarter of Angel Meadow, was sentenced to twenty years for the manslaughter of Joe Brady of the Bengal Tigers in 1887. Still the gang conflicts raged, with the Meadow Lads and the Bengal Street scuttlers remaining to the fore. In 1892, a sixteen-year-old scuttler named William Willan was sentenced to death following a fatal scuttling affray in Ancoats. The sentence was commuted to penal servitude for life, but even as the gallows loomed over Willan scuttling continued to rage in Ancoats as it did in much of urban Britain.
Manchester’s territorial gang wars only subsided in the late 1890s, when judicial severity was deployed alongside philanthropic initiatives. Lads’ Clubs, formed throughout the districts colonised by the gangs, promoted new neighbourhood rivalries played out between football, cricket and athletics teams. And dedicated volunteers, many of them drawn from Manchester’s wealthy suburbs, worked painstakingly to help lads from slum districts find jobs previously denied to them on account of their addresses alone.
Lessons from the past?
In Manchester, the growth of lads’ clubs helped to bring the city’s gang conflicts to at least a temporary halt. The root causes of gang formation and conflict, however, were too deep for philanthropists to deal with. Maps of the scuttling hotbeds of Victorian Manchester and Salford are poverty maps, and TB maps, too. The same clusters of streets formed some of the worst hotbeds of tuberculosis in Britain and poverty surveys revealed a depth of human misery here on a par with anything encountered by Charles Booth in London. Where poverty and ill-health combined over generations with poor schooling and poor employment prospects, young people sought kudos and power in taking ownership of the streets. Local pride was all they had to defend, and every imagined insult was avenged to maintain the honour of the gang. We recognise this as the culture of “respect”, enforced today with guns as well as knives in areas of our cities suffering the same blights as the dens and rookeries that shamed civic-minded Victorians.
When violence engulfs respectable children, calls for retribution become shriller than ever. History teaches us that punishment alone will not wipe out the gangs. Much deeper social changes are required if future generations are to be spared the tragedies of Rhys Jones and John O’Toole.