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David Partington

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Gang, Bang!

By David Partington

Studying gang culture was perhaps the most interesting term of my history degree (apart from the one I spent pursuing a young lady called Roxanne… but that is another matter). Anyway, recently we have had the spectacle of undercover policemen infiltrating radicals and turning native, the government having a go at hoodies and gangs, and the odd riot. We have the constant moaning about drunkenness and disorder and knife crime. Have we seen it all before? Let’s have a brief look at the eighteenth century and the Victorian Age and see how it compares.

The Victorian Age

By the early nineteenth century the economic and social effects of industrialisation were of course beginning to take effect, particularly by the expansion of urban centres and the squalor that came with it. At the same time the criminal law was still rooted in an almost feudal base with offences, as I recall, such as ”Having  wood and being unable to account for it” punishable by hanging. By the same token, until the formation of the Metropolitan Police in 1829, the concept of police in the modern sense was unheard of, and law enforcement seems to have remained at the level of the Shakespearean Watchman.

Against this background radical and revolutionary ideas were in the air, which would later flower in the form of Engels, Marx and others.

In terms of revolutionary activity and agent provocateurs and rioting we’d have to go it a bit to top the Cato Street Conspiracy.

In 1792 Thomas Spence arrived in London from Newcastle and became a radical ideologue preaching the equal distribution of land and other ideas which can legitimately be termed socialist. He died in 1814, but his followers (“Spenceans”) continued to organise and agitate. After a riot in Islington, one of his followers was stabbed and four were charged with High Treason. The main prosecution witness turned out to be a government spy and agent provocateur with a questionable history, and the jury refused to convict.

In 1819 members of the Spencean movement played a part in organising and speaking at the huge public meeting which resulted in the Peterloo massacre in Manchester. 18 people died and as many as 500 were injured by the sabres of troopers on horses.

This revved up the hard-core Spenceans even more – so much so, that the next year (1820), when some of the Spenceans learned that several ministers were due to have dinner in Grosvenor Square the next evening, they formed a daring plan to assassinate the ministers and (just for extra spice) cut off their heads and parade them on poles. They took over a building in nearby Cato Street as a base for the assault, but once again there was a spy in the camp and police raided the house. Some Spenceans escaped, some surrendered, but there was also a sword fight in which one policeman was stabbed to death. Four of the conspirators were later hanged and others transported.

Booze cruises & smuggling

How about the modern day booze cruise? I understand the revenue have been busy confiscating alcohol and cigarettes brought from Europe for re-sale to the unhappy inhabitants of this isle who are too poor to enjoy the heavily taxed booze and fags.

I am not sure this would have been tolerated in the eighteenth and early nineteenth century. Smuggling gangs such as “The Blues of Kent” were large and well-organised, and employed so called “batsmen” to defend the contraband – armed with clubs, flails and hand guns (woe betide any revenue man who tried to intervene).

I well recall reading how the citizens of one area rose up when they discovered their precious contraband had been seized; marched 30 miles en masse to the revenue men’s basis; and forcibly took it back, giving the eighteenth-centuryVAT men a severe kicking before processing home in triumph. An aspect of the Big Society which I would heartily endorse, although Dave might not feel this entirely “on message”.

General crime

In the squalor of Victorian London (and doubtless elsewhere), street crime was endemic. In 1811 there was a brutal double murder in the East End which sparked a debate about policing which ultimately led to the formation of the Metropolitan Police, and crime formed the basis of lurid reports in the press such as this one.

For a brief snapshot of mayhem on the Victorian street, there is this from The Victorian Web history site. It certainly seems as if the police were busy in London. In The Night Side of London (1858) J. Ewing Ritchie gives the following figures for 1856:

It appears that in all 73,240 persons were taken into custody, of whom 45,941 were `males, and 27,209 females; 18,000 of the apprehensions were on account of drunkenness, 8160 for unlawful possession of goods, 7021 for simple larceny, 6763 for common assaults, 2194 for assaults on the police; 4303 women were taken into custody as prostitutes.

Leaving aside drunkenness, theft was rampant. While children might pickpocket and steal from barrows on the streets, women might engage in shoplifting, and, as for London’s sly con men, cheats, “magsmen” or “sharpers,” they were notorious. So were the housebreakers working in teams, and slipping into homes and shops and warehouses. Mugging, with its associated violence, was rife. A hanky dipped in chloroform might be used to subdue someone before robbing him, or a man’s hat might be tipped over his face to facilitate the crime (this was called “bonneting”). Another ruse was to lure men down to the riverside by using prostitutes as decoys. The dupes would then be beaten up and robbed out of sight of passers-by.

Violence could, of course, easily extend to murder. Prostitutes themselves ran huge risks. No one knows how many of them were strangled or stabbed or butchered (Jack the Ripper was far from the only villain, and Dickens’s Nancy must be mourned for many a pitiful “lost woman”). No respectable woman would have ventured forth after dark at all, if she had any choice in the matter. Even if a policeman appeared on the crime scene, he might be driven off by having nitric acid thrown in his face. The helpless were at special risk. Well-turned-out children might be waylaid, dragged down an alley, and stripped of their finery, or pet dogs kidnapped for ransom or simply filched for their skins. Around mid-century, and again in 1862, “garrotting”, or half-strangling unwary pedestrians from behind while accomplices stripped them of their valuables, caused great waves of panic (White 337). There were big-time criminals as well as gangs of street hooligans. In a new version of highway robbery, for instance, bankers’ consignments might be snatched in transit. There was also a surge in gun crime in the 1880s, and hardened burglars “increasingly went armed”.”

Wrong side of the tracks

Perhaps you could avoid trouble by taking the new fangled railway? Not a bit of it!  From The Victorian Web again:

“According to Peter Kalla-Bishop, in the mid-nineteenth century, the railway traveller — and men in particular — often had to cope with danger as well as discomfort. Trains were frequented by cardsharps, thimble-riggers [con men who play the shell game], pickpockets, robbers and murderers, whose fondness for dressing up as clergymen often gave the impression that the Church of England had ordered a mass exchange of incumbents.

These threats to the wallet and the person could not be avoided by wisely choosing a compartment occupied by a lady. In the absence of corridors many of these apparent ladies turned out to be blackmailers who, unless their demands were met, proved only too ready to march up to a porter at the end of the journey and make accusations of “improper advances.” The word around the clubs was that it was safer to travel in make company while bearing in mind the advice of The Railway Traveller’s Handy Book of 1862: “In going through a tunnel it is always as well to have the hands and arms disposed for defence so that in the event of an attack the assailant may be immediately beaten back or restrained.”

The first murder on a British train was Thomas Briggs, a 69-year-old clerk, battered to death and thrown onto the line while travelling to London on the 21.50 from Broad Street to Poplar in July 1864. The motive appeared to be robbery as his gold watch and chain, and gold-rimmed glasses, were found to be missing.

Hoodies, hooligans & scuttlers

Meanwhile, today’s hoodies would appear to have a long and an illustrious heritage

The term “hooligan” is said to derive from the activities of the Irish Hooligan family in south London, but this may be something of an urban myth. But what is not a myth is that the term has been in currency since the 1890s. It was first recorded in the annals of the London Police Courts in 1894 in a reference to a gang terrorising Lambeth, “The Hooligan Boys”. Also referred to as “The O’Hooligan Boys.” A murder by a member of the gang in 1898 drew the attention of the press and the word passed into common parlance from there.

Meanwhile, up in Manchester, gang culture would give anything in London a run for their money.  Historian Andrew Davies has written an account in his book The Gangs of Manchester – Gang members were known as “scuttlers,” “scuttling” being the colloquial word for fighting.

Just like mods and rockers of the 60s or the modern hoodie they often they wore trade mark clothes and haircuts: these included bell bottomed trousers, caps and distinctive haircuts known as “the donkey fringe,” seemingly something quite New Romantic in style. Coloured scarves marked out particular gangs and brass tipped clogs added to the menacing look.

Female gangs

In another uncanny parallel with modern concerns about violence amongst teenage girls there were female gang members as young as 14 known as “scuttlerettes.”  These young ladies would raise the testosterone lever by flirting with rival youths, egging them on.  Scuttler gangs fought for status as the “hardest” and would travel considerable distances to arranges fights. Some became media figures: Joseph Hillier was a member of “the Deansgate Mob” aged 14. These days it would mean that he drank cappuccino and ate tapas. Then it meant that he was repeatedly jailed for slashing members of the rival “Casino Gang” with a butcher’s knife. He was known in the press as “The King of the Scuttlers”. Delighted with this, he had the slogan sewn into the front of his jersey.

Gangs adopted fantastic names which seemingly reflected the whiff of Empire such as “the Bengal Mob” or “the Meadow Tigers”, but what “She Battery Mob” were named after goodness only knows. Fights such as “the Rochdale Road War” between groups nicknamed “Turks” and “Russians” might involve hundreds of Scuttlers.

Finally, one little titbit that my researches turned up. When watching all those holiday adverts that plaster the TV at this time of year, remember that one Thomas Cook began his business by, amongst other matters, organising train trips to watch public executions. Now that’s what I call a holiday!