Manchester’s Original Gangsters

To read an article by Andrew Davies in response to David Cameron’s call for a ‘war’ on gangs, click here. ‘Manchester’s Original Gangsters’ appeared in the G2 section of the Guardian on 22 August 2011. The G2 cover that day featured none other than Dolly Parton.

A War on Gangs?

In the wake of David Cameron’s call for a ‘concerted all-out war on gangs,’ I was asked to offer a historical perspective for The World This Weekend on Radio 4. The programme is available on the BBC i-player for the next week, where the talk can be found 25 minutes into the programme. Here is the full text. The final paragraph, which comments on the antics of the Bullingdon club at Oxford University in 1894, did not feature in the BBC broadcast. I’ll try to be more succinct next time …

At the end of a week in which the Prime Minister declared a ‘war on gangs and gang culture,’ it’s worth pausing for a moment, and reflecting on the fact that we’ve been here before. Long before the phrase ‘Broken Britain’ had been invented, something remarkably close to present-day gang culture was manifested on the streets of Victorian Manchester. It was seen in Birmingham, Liverpool, London and Glasgow too, as the period from the 1870s to the 1890s witnessed recurring panics over what today we call knife-crime.

Then as now, young people were routinely demonized by politicians and sections of the press. The terminology differed, of course. Victorian gang members were labelled ruffians and brutes, barbarians and savages. But the rhetoric was used for many of the same purposes, not least to create the illusion that violence was new, and to deflect attention away from an unpalatable truth. Gangs and knife-crime have always been clustered in those parts of Britain’s cities characterized by poverty, unemployment and chronic levels of ill-health.

In nineteenth-century Manchester and Salford, youthful gang members called themselves scuttlers. Some of them were girls and young women, and lads and girls alike revelled in the notoriety afforded them by the press. A member of one of Salford’s gangs, John-Joseph Hillier, was dubbed the ‘King of the Scuttlers’ in newspaper headlines in 1894. For years afterwards, he wore a jersey with the title journalists gave him sewn onto the front.

Victorian attempts to explain the problems of gangs and knife-crime seem startlingly familiar to us. Where modern politicians blame American gangster rap, nineteenth-century commentators blamed bloodthirsty comics, known as ‘penny dreadfuls,’ and melodramatic productions at cheap theatres. Popular culture generates new forms of gang style, but these are surely adornments, not causes.

In the search for blame, Victorian parents were castigated too. As the Manchester Guardian lamented: ‘It was high time that parents should be taught their duty; at present they seem either regardless of this – or utterly afraid of punishing their children.’ It’s chastening to think that these words were written during an epidemic of knife-crime in the summer of 1890. Then, as now, the problem always seemed to lie with other people’s children.

The Victorians, like ourselves, found solutions to these problems hard to come by. Gangs seemed to be largely immune to prison as a deterrent, and flooding the affected districts with police, in anticipation of what we might call zero tolerance, only seemed to disperse violence from one area to another. In the search for a solution, Manchester and Salford led the way with the formation of working lads’ clubs. These new centres for education, training and recreation, established during the 1890s, were targeted at precisely those impoverished neighbourhoods most afflicted by gangs. It took a generation, and a significant commitment of both time and money to improve facilities for young people, but as the clubs grew, gangs declined. If this episode from our past is any guide, then working with – rather than against – young people will be our best way forward.

And finally, as we ponder the sentences meted out following the recent disturbances, we should bear in mind another lesson from the nineteenth century: that the punishment of young people has often been made to fit the person as much as the crime. While Manchester’s scuttlers received tough sentences from an unforgiving judiciary, the Lord-Justice General signed a letter to The Times in 1894 in defence of members of Bullingdon club, sent down from Oxford University following a drunken riot in Peckwater quad at Christ Church college. No looting was reported that night, but 500 panes of glass were smashed. In any other context, that would have constituted criminal damage. But then again, perhaps the line between youthful high jinks and mindless criminality is thinner than we care to admit.

Gangs of Manchester walks from May 2010

Emma Fox will be leading monthly Gangs of Manchester walks from May 2010. Emma is an experienced Manchester tour guide and local history enthusiast. Her first six “scuttlers’ walks” all sold out. The dates of the forthcoming walks are:

Sunday, 29 August at 1pm
Sunday, 26 September at 1pm
Sunday, 31 October at 1pm
Thursday, 25 November at 10.30 am
Thursday, 27 January 2011, at 10.30 am
Sunday, 27 February 2011, at 1 pm
Tuesday, 29 March 2011, at 10.30 am
Saturday, 30 April 2011, at 1 pm.

The walk starts at outside Edwards Shoes, inside Barton Arcade, between St Ann’s Square and Deansgate, and lasts around two hours. It ends in the Marble Arch pub, where signed books will be available for purchase.

For further information call Emma Fox on 07500 774 200 or email showmemanchester@yahoo.co.uk.

To book your place on the walk, please go to http://www.quaytickets.com/?Venue=397
or call 0843 208 0500.

Click on the link below to see the flyer for the first walk:
Gangs of Manchester Flyer-1

Emma’s tour finishes at the Marble Arch on Rochdale Road: one of the locations for the film sequences for Angels with Manky Faces and a stone’s throw from the opening scene of The Gangs of Manchester.

Preview of Angels with Manky Faces at the Bluecoat, Liverpool

A special preview of Angels with Manky Faces will be held in the upstairs bar of the Bluecoat, Liverpool, on Wednesday 24 June from 6.30-7.30 p.m. The preview will feature a talk on the historical research that went into The Gangs of Manchester, an introduction to Angels with Manky Faces by script-writers Rob Lees and Jill Hughes, and screenings of two of the film sequences specially made for the play (introduced by MaD film-maker, Paul Cliff). The films feature Clint Boon, Martin Coogan, Phil Beckett – and many more … This is a free event; tickets for the Liverpool performances of Angels with Manky Faces (Unity Theatre, 22-23 July) will be on sale on the night.

Inside Out (again)

The feature on the scuttlers on Inside Out (BBC1 North-West) was broadcast on 18 February; it’s on the BBC i-player for a week and features some brilliant footage by the Manchester photographer and film-maker Paul Cliff. The historical reconstructions were staged by the MaD Theatre Company. They’re double proper good.

The Inside Out website features an interview with Rob Lees, artistic director of MaD. Rob talks about the relationship between The Gangs of Manchester and MaD’s forthcoming production, Angels with Manky Faces. You can also see Robbie Ashworth and Jack Williamson modelling scuttler chic – period costumes for Angels are being made by the wonderful Tracey King. She knows her stuff!

The feature was presented by Nigel Pivaro, familiar to most viewers as Terry Duckworth. Nigel now works as a journalist. He’s left Weatherfield, but we have asked him to do a cameo in one of the film scenes for Angels. We’ll keep you posted.

The first of the gang to die

A big thank you to the blogger at Occupied Country. This made my day, cheers.

Angels with Manky Faces

Tickets for Angels with Manky Faces – MaD Theatre Company’s new production inspired by The Gangs of Manchester – are now on sale. There will be five performances at the Library Theatre, Manchester, on 19-22 August. These include a matinee on Saturday 22nd. The production contains strong language and, in the words of the script-writers Rob Lees and Jill Hughes, is “not for the easily offended.” You have been warned! You can book tickets here.

There will be an additional performance at the Unity Theatre in Liverpool, on 23 July.

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