Talks on The Gangs of Manchester

Andrew Davies gives regular talks about the gangs of Victorian Manchester and Salford at venues across Greater Manchester. Please keep an eye on this page for details of forthcoming talks.

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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.

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!

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.

Angels at the Dancehouse

Tickets for the final two performances of Angels with Manky Faces at the Dancehouse theatre in Manchester on Sunday, 8 November are available from ticketline. Performance times are 3.00 pm and 7.00 pm.

A poem by Mike Garry

Mike Garry recently read this new poem on BBC Radio Manchester. If you’re coming to see Angels with Manky Faces at the Dancehouse in November, this will get you right in the mood. In the mean time, check out Mike’s work here.

Angels with Manky Faces

Close your eyes

Go back in time

Picture this in your mind

A summer sky without sunshine

Pigs dogs and rats are running wild

The smell of shite the buzz of flies

Pub and mill on every corner

Street alive with disorder

Open sewer smell of sulphur

Poverty of the lowest order

Echoed clog

Echoed hoofs

Dripping rain from dripping roofs

The iron grind steel rimmed cartwheels

Music laughter a choir of screams

Ancoats

Circa 1880

Decadence awash

Vice aplenty

Brothels in hovels dogfights down stairs

Bare-knuckle boxers

Shebeens everywhere

Five families share one house with two rooms

Raucous cries from the singing saloons

Tots pedal sin running door to door

Jugs of ale and gin fly back and forth

Spreading tales of Scuttling Gangs

Who lay down their lives for a small plot of land

Wearing clogs with shined and sharpened brass tips

Belt and Buckle wrapped tight round their fists

A short back and sides and tattooed fore arms

With the name of their true love within a red heart

The Bengal tigers the buffalo bill the meadow lads maim and kill

They’re chalking their codes on the sides of pub walls

All for one

One for all…………………………………………..

Open your eyes

Return to modern times

Walk the streets and you will find

A summer sky without sunshine

Dogs as weapons running wild

The smell of weed the buzz of flies

The pubs and mills on every corner

Have been converted to apartments

Cars, buses, trucks speeding by

The smell of carbon monoxide

Bouncing rain on tarmac streets

Different songs different beats

Ancoats on the cusp of 2010

History repeats itself again

Tots on bikes pedalling sin

In the form of crack cocaine and heroine

And telling tales of the Manchester gangs

Cheetah, Gooch, Doddington

Chalking codes on mobile phones

In pristine trainers and logo’d clothes

Mothers cry into Rosary Beads

A son is gone and he’s only sixteen

On Facebook on t shirts and tattooed shoulder

The letters R.I.P. and a list of fallen street soldiers

A copter hovers, a distant siren sings

There’s blood on the pavement the smell of death in the wind

Boy battles boy with knife and gun

A mother worries – it could be your son

Gone are the scuttlers the battles the chases

But there’ll always be angels with manky faces

(c) Mike Garry, October 2009

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