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.

Mike Duff on The Gangs of Manchester

Manchester poet and novelist Mike Duff has written an appreciation of The Gangs of Manchester in the fanzine United We Stand (issue 177, November 2008). Mike read an early draft of the book and wrote the poem “The King of the Scuttlers” in response. This is what he made of the final version:

THE GANGS OF MANCHESTER is a well thought out, brilliantly told, historically accurate and definitive work about a phenomenon that swept the slums of Manchester during Victorian times: The Scuttlers. This was a Manchester of public houses, gin-shops, singing saloons, organ grinders and monkeys and music halls. Of prostitutes and pimps and lodging houses where men slept the line (if you couldn’t afford the price of a mattress they let you sleep on a wooden chair, the chairs were placed around the side of the room, and men would fall asleep upright on a rope stretched from one wall to the other). This was a Manchester of salvationists, revolutionaries, thieves, cadgers and Fenians. And Marx and Engels knew the Meadow, Ancoats, the Adelphi in Salford well and drank on the Crescent. It was here amongst the bedraggled that they formed their theories. And the author captures the mood, danger and violence of the times. So much so that you walk the streets of Manchester with the Scuttlers. The Scuttlers were groups of youths who caused murder and mayhem across the streets of our city and frightened the authorities into a frenzy. Scuttling (gang warfare for turf) first arose in the squalid, rat invested dwellings at the bottom of Rochdale Road, when Angel Meadow went to war with Ancoats over who controlled New Cross, and it quickly spread across the poorer parts of the city to Salford. Gangs and gang leaders quickly became legendary (the Bengal Tigers, the Bungall Boys, the Meadow Lads, John Brady and Owen Callaghan). Their mode of dress was amusing by modern standards, they favoured silk flashy scarves, brass tipped clogs, bell bottomed trousers and had their hair cut short at the back and sides and they sported long fringes plastered down beneath peaked caps that they always tilted to the left. Their favoured weapons were belts wrapped around their knuckles, pokers, hammers and chivs (knives) and remarkably they ranged between 12 and 22. The Rochdale Road wars lasted for thirty years and on every page of Andrew Davies’ gritty book there is a tale or two that will shock the reader and lay low the myth that the youth of today are any more out of control than their predecessors. In fact I’d argue that the kids today are angels in comparison. If you don’t know the streets of Manchester or Salford it will not impair your enjoyment of a book that is simply the best of its kind that I have read.

Mike Duff

 

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