“This city continues to assert itself as a centre for brutality and violence almost without rival throughout England”
Contemporary account of Manchester in the second half 19th Century
The Victorian Greater Manchester area was one of the world’s first industrial conurbations. From the turn of the 19th century, hundreds of thousands of families had flooded in, attracted by the area’s 1,600 textile works. By 1870, such was the level of output, that the city was often covered in sulphurous smog. But that couldn’t hide the extreme poverty that accompanied this explosive industrial growth. The factory districts that sprung up in the shadows of the red brick mill buildings saw conditions comparable to today’s worst Third World slums.
The area’s back streets were a warren of horrendously overcrowded back to back lodgings, teeming tenements, workhouses, beer-houses, brothels and dosshouses. Tuberculosis ran rampant. Parental control was difficult in homes so small that even sleeping space was limited. With no room inside, life had to be lived on the street. Which, to be fair, made it a vibrant place. These were streets full of music halls and gin shops. But whatever the resilient character of its people, these were still slums.
One of the worst in the area, indeed in the world at that time, was the Ancoats; ‘one of the foulest creations of the new Industrial Age’. This ‘chimney of the world’ was surveyed in 1889 and half of its families were defined as ‘very poor’. And Karl Marx’s co-author of ‘The Communist Manifesto’, Friedrich Engels, named Salford a classic world slum. Other areas such as Angel Meadow and Collyhurst were equally squalid and grim. With so little space, territorial fights soon became common.
ERA OF EMPIRE
Some argue they were simply mirroring the British Empire. In part fuelled by the Manchester factories, the British were nearly always at war. They were constantly trying to enlarge their territories, fighting everywhere from Africa to Afghanistan.
But according to historian Andrew Davies, it was the sectarian underbelly of the 1870 Franco Prussian war (Catholic France versus Protestant Germany) that captured the imagination of many on the streets of Manchester. It mirrored the divisions between the recent Irish immigrants and their established and unwelcoming English neighbours.
Heroic stories of this conflict were told in schools and when the boys left education aged just 12, some of the more testosterone fuelled tried to mimic them. Gang warfare broke out on the slum streets. For these boys with few employment prospects, recreational violence was always an option. The gangs provided status, excitement and respect to individuals who had little.
Soon, one sound would cut through the din of factory machinery and strike fear into the residents of even those hardened cobbled streets: The clatter of the brass tipped clogs of the scuttlers.
THE FIRST YOUTH CULT
The scuttlers, the slang name given to these street fighting gangs, originally emerged from Ancoats and Angel Meadow. They then spread across the river to Salford’s Adelphi and Greengate districts.
What differentiates them from gangs of youths throughout history was their particular attention to style. They used soap like a hair gel to flatten down their long fringes over the left eye, the so called ‘donkey fringe’. The hair on their back and sides was closely cropped. They often sported neckerchiefs or flashy patterned scarves. The flaps of their coat pockets were cut into peaks and were buttoned down. They wore bellbottomed trousers, like a sailor’s, and some had pointed, metal tipped clogs on their feet. This wasn’t a simple fashion statement as they would inflict a more grievous wound when kicking a rival.
Each gang had its own distinctive colours and look. This attention to appearance served a practical purpose. In the heat of battle, it helped distinguish friend from foe.
Such dress also signalled to outsiders that this was no ordinary working class lad. This was a street fighter. This was a scuttler.
It was this conscious differentiation of themselves that’s partly behind why Andrew Davies, the definitive historian of these Manchester gangs, subtitles his book, ‘Britain’s First Youth Cult’.
The good people of Manchester would not be the first, or the last, to be panicked and outraged at the spectacle of lawless, sadistic, uncontrollable packs of teenagers.
In fact, many were not the amoral, almost orphaned denizens of the street as portrayed by the press. Most were in employment, in contrast to their counterparts, the Cornermen of Liverpool. At home, they would be expected to and did contribute to the family income. So when scuttlers ended up in court, it was often their mothers who came to plead as to their previous good character. And that the family could not afford the loss of a wage earner if their son were jailed.
When a Manchester Guardian journalist interviewed four members of an Ancoats gang in 1898, he found them articulate, amusing and refreshingly respectful. Some got in trouble with the law for nothing more than gambling or bathing in the wrong canal. Their ages ranged from 12 to 20, and though their violent acts were criminal, these weren’t professional criminals motivated by making money illegally. They were working class thrill seeking teenagers.