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.

“Soldiers” and Scuttlers

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.

Gangs of Manchester in the Guardian

Martin Wainwright, the Guardian‘s Northern correspondent, discusses The Gangs of Manchester here. Many of the stories in the book were first reported in the same newspaper in its original incarnation as the Manchester Guardian.

BBC Manchester Online: feature on The Gangs of Manchester

To read a feature on The Gangs of Manchester, plus an interview with Andrew Davies by Richard Turner of BBC Manchester, click here.

  • Gangs of Manchester: on sale now

    Available from the 'Buy Gangs of Manchester' webpage (see links on left), Amazon, Milo Books and all good bookshops
  • All images and text copyright to Andrew Davies or reproduced by kind permission of copyright holders. Please do not reproduce any part of this website without the permission of Andrew Davies.
  • Website design by Selina Todd