The Gangs of Manchester

gangs mancs

The first book that I have read since starting City Jackdaw. Which is fitting as it was from  this book that I got the title of my Blog. My initial interest was the Manchester connection: it is where I live, it is where my ancestors lived. One of the great appeals was that I am familiar with the areas and streets where these gangs roamed and in most cases got their names from. For example the memorable Bengal Tigers (Bengal Street, Ancoats) and the Clock Alley Lads, a few minutes walk from Victoria station. But this local knowledge is not essential for reading the book.

Scuttlers. The name of these brawling tribes of youths who fought turf wars against each other in the slums of Victorian industrial Manchester, who out of the depravity and squalor forged fearsome reputations and a notoriety. It was in this coming together that the first youth cult emerged- young people bonding together and wearing a recognisable ‘uniform’ that announced to all that they were members of a particular gang, in a phenomenon of violence that swept throughout the city.

It is hard not to read of the exploits of these lads (mostly lads, although there were girls involved too) and think of today’s youth, who are often castigated for loutish behaviour. Back in 19th Century Manchester they would attack innocent passersby, damage property, and often turn on beleaguered police officers trying to arrest one of the gang members. But what surprised me was the sheer numbers involved. Pitched battles would be fought between hundreds of stone throwing, knife wielding, belt swinging youths, with just a handful of police employed to try and bring order to the crime ridden streets. I think of the Manchester riot of 2011 and it pales in comparison as a one off event. Scuttling was no flash in the pan of disaffected young men- the gangs ran amok for three decades.

Another surprise was the lack of an honour code- although members of the same gang were bound together by loyalty and pride, they would confront other gangs, displaying all the bravado and willingness to maim their opponent, but as soon as they came off worse and were carted off to be stitched up at the infirmary they would name their attackers to the police, allowing the law to dispense their revenge.  No scruples about grassing in the Victorian era it seems. (Although a factor could be that the police officers weren’t governed by the kind of restraining rules they are now and were, perhaps, a little more persuasive.)

And in regard to the youth issues of today-how did the scuttling come to an end?  There were calls for flogging to be used, and long sentences were handed down in the days when prison, here the local Strangeways prison, was no cushy number. (There is a comical part where the mother of a lad, appearing in court, made such a commotion she was invited into the witness box to plead for the character of her son who was, she said, a good  boy at heart. The judge asked whether she realised,  though, that these were serious crimes which he had committed?  Maybe he was about to  be swayed towards leniency until a police officer pointed out that the mother had recently been brought to court for running a brothel. “Hes going to the house of correction!”)

Instead of these strict measures though, it seems the end of scuttling came about with the introduction of working lads’ clubs which offered sporting pursuits which channeled the energy and frustration of these young men and gave them something other to do,under the Christian ideal, with weekend camps at the coast or countryside a big draw for boys who lived in slum housing with no chance of holidays. And also that great British pastime -football. Teams were formed and venues agreed to hold matches instead of ‘scuttles.’ There was still that sense of belonging and competitiveness, but now it was on behalf of a club or a team, and didn’t result with a belt buckle wrapped around the head. Mostly.

This bodes well for the countless volunteers and youth workers who strive today to get our young people off the streets and engaged in something worthwhile. The blueprint worked!

My only disappointment? I never recognised a single, scowling ancestral scuttler within the covers of this book. If I continue with my family history research perhaps I will uncover a saint or great reformer. To begin with though, I think I had better give the prison records a try.