Britain’s First Gangs – The Manchester Scuttlers
by Evelyn Little
It’s a dubious distinction, but Manchester claims it nonetheless. The earliest teenage gangs in Britain formed in the sooty back alleys of Victorian Manchester. In a movement which appalled the niceties of refined society and terrified the middle classes, teenagers of the Industrial Revolution began forming ‘Scuttler’ gangs, and heading out to wreak havoc upon the streets of Manchester.
An Inevitable Development
Industrial Revolution Manchester was, in all fairness, ripe for just such an occurrence. An enormous influx of people seeking work had led to the development of unsanitary but close-knit slum districts in which existed a simmering street culture. These slums were often volatile, their populations fuelled by a booming pub trade and hyper-masculine attitudes which valued violence and viewed ‘otherness’ with suspicion. Fair fights were at that time a perfectly legal way of resolving disputes, and were often undertaken in public to the delight of spectators. The police may become involved should a fight turn foul, but usually the people of the slums were left to their own devices. Furthermore, slum life was often depressingly monotonous, and contained little opportunity for personal betterment. Brought up on violence, hemmed into close quarters with one another, and filled with pent up frustration, it is perhaps little wonder that ‘scuttling’ caught on in the way it did.
From Play-Battles to True Violence
Gang culture broke out with a vengeance in the 1870s, and spread with startling speed through Manchester and the surrounding areas. There are those who believe that the movement had its origin in street recreations of battles in the Franco-Prussian War. These recreational battles gave an outlet in which inherent frustrations and indigenous prejudices (Catholic vs Protestant, My Street vs Your Street and so forth) could be taken out. Although initially ostensibly carried out in play, it did not take long for ‘sides’ to band together along lines based upon personal, geographical, and cultural identity and begin to battle their rivals in earnest. Thus formed the Scuttler gangs – Britain’s original hoodies.
Scuttler gangs largely identified themselves along territorial lines. Although complex cultural identities were developed within the gangs, their basic allegiances were geographical. This is reflected in the gang’s names. The ‘Bengal Tigers’, for example, came from the area around Bengal Street in Ancoats, and despised the ironically named ‘Angels’ of Angel Meadows. Much of the scuttle culture may have stemmed from a need for a sense of belonging and peer respect lacking in young people from families struggling with the demands of Victorian slum life. This need for belonging is exemplified by how quickly scuttlers both male and female took on an easily identifiable ‘uniform’ consisting of pointed, brass-tipped clogs, caps turned backwards, a donkey-fringe, bell-bottomed trousers, and neckerchiefs.
Scuttler gangs also showed curious but significant differences to their modern counterparts. Modern gangs tend to be heavily involved with criminal enterprise, often related to drugs, and are often more interested in money and power than in gaining a sense of intrinsic belonging. Modern gangs not only cause harm to themselves and the members of rival gangs, they cut deep gashes into the very fabric of society through their efforts to push their products by fostering drug addictions, leading addicts to turn to crime in order to fund their habits and places enormous pressure on health and welfare services. Scuttler gangs had far, far less of an impact upon those around them, displaying extremely little criminal enterprise and having nothing more than a cursory interest in robbery, extortion and so forth. Their primary occupation was defending their identities by battling other Scuttler gangs in vast brawls which could encompass as many as 500 people. When not buried within a mass of violently punching and kicking youths, scuttlers spent their time policing their territories and meting out swift, blunt justice to anyone whos face did not fit. Intimidation, beatings, and inter-gang brawling were the order of the day. Drug-pushing to civilians, gun crime, extortion, and the myriad other criminal practices carried out by modern gangs were never on the cards.
The Football Cure
The scuttlers therefore seem remarkably tame to modern eyes. Although (much like modern hoodies) they were regularly condemned in the press, and although they undoubtedly terrorised the streets and caused a great many injuries – the scuttlers seem never to have set out with the intention of actual murder. Their weapons of choice were large-buckled belts and small knives with which they would beat and disfigure but not actually kill their rivals. Although they horrified the Victorians, modern readers used to reports of gangland murders, gang-related drug crime and so on will probably be inclined to view the actions of the scuttlers as scaled-up playground fights rather than serious criminal acts. The scuttlers held sway for thirty years, but by the end of that time, people had begun to realise their essential motivations. Scuttler frustrations and energies were fairly easily channelled into less destructive means by those with the foresight to set up such
initiatives. The Salford Lads Club, for example, offered disaffected teenagers a stimulating alternative to gang culture – the primary attraction being football. Aiming its enterprise at young men of scuttler recruitment age, it was overwhelmed by the response – 700 young men turned up to join on its opening night. Several similar clubs opened with remarkable success. One such club from West Gorton is now known as Manchester City FC (although doubtless some fans would prefer that their club’s hooligan gang origins were kept quiet…). The scuttling days were over – but the seeds had been sown, and the way paved for other gangs and gang trends to rise and fall through the streets of Britain.
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