During the 19th century the population of Birmingham rocketed from 74,000 to over 630,000. And with this urban explosion - as with most other Victorian cities - there followed an epidemic in inner-city gang crime. One of the first reports of gang activity is the Slogging Gang riots of spring 1872. The motive of some of the rioters seemed to be no more than to smash and grab from shops from which they couldn’t normally afford to buy.
But unlike cities like Glasgow, redevelopment came earlier to Birmingham. This cleared many of the gang breeding ground slums in the city centre as people moved to new estates in the suburbs. Birmingham was different from other cities for another reason as well.
During the Industrial Revolution it was known as a ‘City of a Thousand Trades’. Whereas Liverpool’s wealth came from its docks, or Manchester from its mills, Birmingham was incredibly diverse. The industrial revolution gave rise to a huge number of highly specialised creative small firms each profiting by exploiting niche areas of the market. Birmingham would and could make anything, from buttons and buckles to jewellery, steam engines and guns.
It was perhaps inevitable that its gangs would be equally innovative in their approach. Unlike the unemployed Cornermen of Liverpool, or the thrill seeking teenage scuttlers of Manchester, the Birmingham gangs were professional criminals. They may have started as a rag bag of thugs and thieves, but they soon turned themselves into organised crime outfits. They made money from, amongst other things, gambling on anything from bare knuckle fist-fights to dog races. But the niche they ruthlessly exploited was horse racing.
A DAY AT THE RACES
After the First World War, racecourses became the playgrounds of choice for a liberated generation. And as they were the only place where legalised gambling took place the annual turnover they generated approached £500 million pounds. Racecourse attendance reached record levels. The inevitable pickpockets and card sharps were attracted to these huge crowds. But it was the bookmakers bulging satchels that attracted criminal gangs. Anyone could set up as a bookmaker. It was a largely unregulated business, and the lack of professional associations and protection meant the gangs could muscle in.
Early in the 20th century, one of the Birmingham gang’s known as the ‘Brummagem Boys’- Brummagem being slang for Birmingham - began to spread their criminal network from the streets of Birmingham to around the country. Helped by greatly improved transport, for the first time, regional gangs were able to expand beyond the streets that bred them. The new connecting railway between Birmingham and London meant they could target the racecourse riches of the country’s capital.
And if and when they met resistance, they would turn racetracks into battlegrounds.