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.

Angels with Manky Faces

There will be a final, one-off performance of the play inspired by The Gangs of Manchester at the Dancehouse theatre in Manchester on Thursday, 15 July. Angels with Manky Faces will be performed by Manchester’s MaD Theatre Company.

Angels with Manky Faces played to packed houses at the Library Theatre and the Dancehouse in 2009. This additional performance is to raise money towards the production costs of MaD’s forthcoming play, Thai Brides and Teacakes.

Angels with Manky Faces features original film sequences set to classic Madchester songs, with cameos by members of The Smiths, the Inspiral Carpets, the Mock Turtles and Twisted Wheel. They appear alongside Manchester actors and DJs, including John Henshaw (Early Doors, Looking for Eric), Graeme Hawley (Coronation Street’s John Stape) and Terry Christian.

For further details, including ticket agencies, see the Dancehouse website.

For a sneak preview, click here for the trailer MaD made for Angels last year. In a new scene, specially written for the final performance, that bugger Bernie finally makes it onto the stage!

Angels with Manky Faces at the Dancehouse Theatre, 6 & 8 November

There will be three performances of Angels with Manky Faces at Manchester’s Dancehouse theatre (opposite the BBC on Oxford Road) in November. Performance times are as follows:

Friday 6 November, 8 p.m.

Sunday 8 November, 3 p.m. and 7 p.m.

Tickets are priced £10 (£9 concessions). You can buy them in person from the box office at the Dancehouse at the following times: Monday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday: 4 p.m. – 7 p.m. You can ring the box office on 0161 237 9753 to reserve tickets; they’ll hold them for you for four days.

Alternatively, from 1 Sept. you can book online via ticketline.

Early booking is advised: the performances at the Library Theatre in August sold-out with a fortnight to go.

For reviews of Angels at the Library, check out the separate page on the play.

Angels with Manky Faces

A Bengal Tiger and his molls: Rosie Phillips, Jack Williamson, and Abi Gunning.

A Bengal Tiger and his molls: Rosie Phillips, Jack Williamson, and Abi Gunning.

Preparations for Angels with Manky Faces, MaD Theatre Company’s new production inspired by The Gangs of Manchester, are gathering pace. Paul Cliff is making six short films, which will be back-projected in between scenes performed on stage. The photo above was taken during a day’s filming at the Black Country Museum.

Even though it’s early days, ticket sales are going strong – a third of the tickets for the Manchester performances (19-22 August) have already been sold.

New edition of The Gangs of Manchester

A revised edition of The Gangs of Manchester is now out. The new edition is a smaller-sized paperback and the UK cover price is 7.99.

There is one addition to the text: an astonishing postscript to the story of Billy Willan, the scuttler sentenced to death in 1892 at the age of sixteen. This was supplied by his descendants, who still live in the Ancoats district of Manchester.

Manchester Histories Festival

Andrew Davies is giving a talk based on The Gangs of Manchester as part of the Manchester Histories Festival at Manchester Town Hall on Saturday, 21 March. Andrew’s talk is at 11.30. He will joined by the Manchester-based photographer and film-maker Paul Cliff, who will be projecting photographs of Ancoats street scenes from the 1890s and mug-shots of leading scuttlers. Paul will also show a short, film preview of Angels with Manky Faces – the new stage play inspired by The Gangs of Manchester to be performed by the acclaimed MaD Theatre Company in August 2009.

You can see the full programme for the Manchester Histories Festival, and book free tickets for any of the talks, here.

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.

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