In the aftermath of the recent public disorder in some UK cities — so widely publicised on 24hour news — there has been a swathe of social and political commentary, criticism of the Police, extraordinary prison sentences, possible evictions of families from local authority housing , and the cry for the suspension of mobile phone and social networks.
I felt that the following article should be shared with our readers, and would welcome your comments, opinions, and thoughts on what we have learned as a society, what we have learned as individuals, and what we might do now.
This is an extract from a recent copy of The Daily Mail , a UK newspaper.
Armed with knives and heavy-buckled belts, they left their regular stamping ground and marched for a mile-and-a-half to meet their enemy.
Their grim determination drew stares from bystanders along the way, but apart from the odd cry of defiance, none dared intervene.
For when the armed mob from Harpurhey (a district close to the center of Manchester) arrived at their destination, a pub in the Ancoats area of the city, the purpose of their mission became apparent.
There, gathered round the door, stood a cluster of members of the Bengal Tigers, the most notorious gang in Manchester, named after the street in which most of them lived.
Within seconds, the opposing gangs charged at each other, swinging the heavy buckle ends of their thick leather belts above their heads.
Several of the youths fell to the ground. One, who caught a blow to the head with a belt, felt his right eye haemorrhage, just weeks after he had lost the use of his left eye in a previous street fight.
Those still standing pulled out their knives and plunged the blades into the necks, shoulders and backs of a dozen or so gang members.
The wounds, like the confrontation itself, were carefully planned; the purpose was to maim and disfigure, not kill.
Within minutes the fight was over. The gang had achieved what they came for and quickly dispersed into groups of two or three to make them less conspicuous on their walk home.
The bloody, vicious encounter might well have occurred in any of Britain’s major cities on a typical weekend last summer in ‘knife-crime Britain’.
In fact, it took place more than a century ago in 1890 and heralded the explosion of Britain’s violent youth gangs.
And like the knife-wielding hooligans of today, the Victorian subculture prompted revulsion and moral panic among the law-abiding public.
The organised gang stabbings were known as scuttles; their perpetrators were scuttlers.
Scuttling, according to a social commentator of the time, Alexander Devine, was fighting between two gangs – typically of boys aged 14-19 – using weapons.
In an article he wrote for the Manchester Guardian, Devine attributed scuttling to four major causes – most of which will be familiar to today’s law-enforcement agencies.
He found that lack of parental control, lack of discipline in schools, base literature (such as the sensationalist ‘penny dreadful’ novels about pirates and highwaymen) and the monotony of life in Manchester’s slums were to blame for the urban guerilla warfare swamping not just Manchester but Liverpool and Birmingham as well.
But the trend undoubtedly began in Manchester, the world’s first industrial conurbation, dubbed the ‘chimney of the world’ because by 1870 it boasted 1,600 textile works with their chimneys belching out steam and smoke.
There, at the hub of England’s Industrial Revolution, the gulf between rich and poor was marked with overcrowding, squalid living conditions and the proliferation of the slums.
Those who worked in the factories were typically young men, separated from their parents, living in lodging houses – so overcrowded they were merely a place to sleep, with everyday living taking place on the street.
Against such a backdrop, with no real place to call home or parents restricting them, it is little wonder the city’s youthful workforce found themselves with time on their hands and little to do at the weekend.
For many, says Andrew Davies in his new book The Gangs Of Manchester, scuttling filled the void.
Along with the physical exertion of fighting, it created allegiances and communities and injected an excitement into otherwise drab lives.
Scuttling was not just about the combat itself. It came with its own fashions, trademark tools and, of course, female followers.
The Ancoats scuttlers wore pointed clogs (not just ornamental, but aggressively functional) and bell-bottomed trousers measuring 21 inches at their widest.
The flaps of their coat pockets were cut into peaks and buttoned down, and they wore flashy silk scarves around their necks.
Members of the gang were further identified by their long fringes, worn in a parting and pasted down on to the forehead over the left eye. Over the top they wore peaked caps, tilted to the left to show off their lopsided fringes.
Different gangs adopted different distinguishing clothes and hairstyles, but one thing they all had in common was their weapon of choice. Aside from knives, all carried buckled belts.
The belt was the scuttler’s most prized possession and he would wind the end of it around his arm to prevent it from being snatched from him during a fight.
He took pride in the design of his belt, many included serpents, a heart pierced with an arrow, the name of the wearer or a woman.
For three decades, beginning in the late 1860s, scuttlers terrorised Manchester.
The first groups, all built along territorial allegiances and typically named after the streets in which their members lived, began emerging in the late 1860s.
By 1872, Manchester City Council was alarmed by the increase in violent crime and feared the city’s reputation was at stake.
Nor was the feuding confined to city boundaries. A year earlier groups of scuttlers had crossed the River Irwell to neighbouring Salford, prompting young men there to form their own gangs in order to thwart the Manchester menace.
Not content just to fight each other, the gangs stood on street corners, knocking hats off women who refused to succumb to their charms in a practice known as ‘bonneting’, where a hat would be knocked to the ground and trodden on, to whoops of delight from the gang.
Huge swathes of the city became no-go areas and in those parts where gangs did prevail, no one was safe and every young man was expected to join.
In 1873, a young Sunday School attendee named Thomas Inglis refused repeated entreaties to join his local gang, the King Street lads, in an act of defiance that almost cost him his life.
One Sunday, on his way home from Sunday School, the 18-year-old was ambushed by a mob of 20 scuttlers.
Thomas was struck by the buckle end of a belt, punched by another of the pack and set upon by a group carrying stones tied into the ends of handkerchiefs.
There, however, there was no respite as the mob followed him, their ranks swelled by the addition of some local urchins. Fearing for his sibling’s life, Thomas’s brother handed him an iron-handled fire rake to defend himself.
The youth threw the rake into the crowd, whereupon it ricocheted off the paving stones, bounced up and lodged in the skull of a ten-year-old boy.
The boy died later that night and Thomas Inglis was arrested and charged with murder.
Only his good character and the post-mortem test results, which revealed the angle of the rake’s impact and proved it had bounced off the paving stones, spared Thomas from the hangman’s noose.
Convictions for scuttlers were few and far between and even when sentences were handed down they did little to deter further outbreaks, acting instead as badges of honour.
Gangs were extraordinarily difficult to police, their operations spread over a vast area, and officers often only pinpointed scuttles when they were over and the perpetrators dispersed and protected by their neighbours.
When the Harpurhey mob attacked the Bengal Tigers on August 3, 1890, it resulted in three penal sentences for the Harpurhey ringleaders, ranging from 12 months to five years.
Victorian prison was not for the fainthearted and along with solitary confinement, inmates were subjected to the treadmill, a giant wheel powered by the prisoners.
So demanding was the physical effort required for a day’s work on the treadmill that it was not uncommon for men to fall off in exhaustion and be crushed.
Nevertheless, scuttling continued and by the end of August 1890 MPs were calling for the reintroduction of flogging, as no other deterrent seemed to be working.
The years 1890-91 are regarded as the height of scuttling. When Joe Brady, an 18-year-old member of the Bengal Tigers, was killed on February 5, 1887, by a mob from the opposing Angel Meadow gang, a series of violent clashes ensued.
Brady had been targeted after he humiliated an Angel Meadow member in a fight two weeks before, and, it is thought, because he stole one of the opposing gang’s girlfriends.
When the Angel Meadow mob finally caught up with him, late in the evening of February 5, at least five of them felled Brady and plunged knives into him.
Their leader, Owen Callaghan, snarled ‘Let’s finish him’ just before Brady was struck a fatal blow to the heart.
By 1890, it was thought more youths were held in Strangeways Prison for scuttling than any other offence and when another gang member was killed in Ancoats in 1892, the cry for something to be done became deafening.
Not content with just knives and belt buckles, gang members began collecting broken bottles before fights ‘because they hurt more’.
Part of the problem, of course, was that although gang captains of Victorian Manchester were castigated in courtrooms and demonised by the Press, they were feared and admired among their own.
One in particular, John Joseph Hillier, earned the reputation as King of the Scuttlers when a newspaper reported his attack on a fellow ‘captain’ in 1893 just weeks after being released from prison.
The headline read: ‘A candidate for the Salford Scuttling Championship: Grand Form.’
Hillier was still defending his unofficial title in 1899, but for most of the scuttlers the practice began to decline by 1897, with huge numbers of perpetrators languishing behind bars, not yet halfway through their five-year sentences.
By the turn of the century the gangs had all but disappeared, due in part to the demolition of some of the city’s worst slums, but due also to a growing concern about the state of urban youth after calls for recruits to the Boer War found only 10 per cent of applicants fit for service.
Working lads’ clubs were established across the slum areas, offering boisterous camaraderie, organised activities and a sense of belonging that extended beyond the confines of the street.
Thus a new generation of youths were introduced to more peaceable pastimes just at the point when many of the gang stalwarts who might have recruited them were incarcerated and prison sentences were becoming more severe.
On top of that, the spread of street football and the advent of the cinema gave youngsters at the turn of the last century something more productive to do with their time than scuttling.
But as anyone who is involved in youth crime or social work today will attest, the legacy of those early Mancunian violent youths is still prevalent today in our major industrial centres.”
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