Skip to main content

Liverpool Gangs

Crime Files
Liverpool Gangs

A History of Violence

‘We are all aware that the population of Liverpool is a peculiar one - very peculiar. Taking it individual by individual, a poorer population probably does not exist in any large town or city in Great Britain.’ - Liverpool Echo, 20 November 1886

Victorian Liverpool was a city of poverty but also of great prosperity. At its centre stood St George’s Hall, operating as a concert hall for the wealthy and as a criminal court sentencing hundreds, many no more than children. Large libraries were built in the midst of a largely illiterate population. Civic architecture towered above cobbled streets strewn with sewage and cesspools. Cholera outbreaks swept through districts with nicknames like ‘Little Hell’. Refined and elegant ladies walked the promenades only streets away from places teeming with prostitutes and the poor. And with the super-rich so close to the slums, crime was endemic. It was estimated a quarter of the property stolen was taken by prostitutes. For the jobless who were unwilling to steal or prostitute themselves, Liverpool had the largest workhouse in the country, eventually housing 5,000 unfortunates.


Liverpool’s economic heart was the docks. Opened in 1715, business boomed through slavery and whaling and from sail to steam. By the start of the 1800s, the docks covered 140 acres with 10 miles of quay space. This gateway to the world serviced 20,000 ships a year, supplying and restocking the emerging British Empire.

This port powerhouse attracted between 100,000 to 300,000 Irish fleeing the potato famine at the end of the 1840s. These often Catholic immigrants clashed with the largely Protestant communities of earlier Welsh and Scottish immigrants crowded into the growing number of tenements. Sectarian gangs emerged with names like the Hibernians and the Dead Rabbits.

As Dr Michael Macilwee characterised it, it was a city that had everything from ‘religious riots to bare-knuckled brawls’.

Despite hard times due to reduced cotton imports during the American Civil War, the population grew nearly ten- fold reaching over a million by the 1870s.For many, this meant employment was sporadic at best. Young, eager to work, lads, or ‘nippers’ soon found themselves unemployed as somebody younger and cheaper came along. Many sought solace in alcohol. One paper of the time estimated that if every drinking establishment in Liverpool was put in a straight line, it would reach eleven and a half miles.In such rapidly changing times, moral panics came and went. For a while, everyone was obsessed about being garrotted by strangers. Then there was fear you couldn't even trust your family. In January 1874, a man was executed for the drunken, slow and savage beating to death of his own mother.

And then, that same year, there entered a new threat: The Cornermen...

The Trial

A Nation Gripped

The senseless savagery of the beating; the lack of intervention by the onlookers; the innocence and respectability of the victim; and the fact that his criminal killers seemed to be part of a new type of gang, ‘The Cornermen’, all combined to keep the nation gripped to the proceedings.There were three suspects in the dock, McCrave, Mullen and Campbell. At the trial, it was suggested that it was Campbell’s sister who had encouraged the beating by shouting “Give him it! Give him it!”The men stood emotionless in the dock. Some have suggested they didn’t want to show weakness and undermine their reputations. If that was so, it was a suicidal strategy.All three were convicted of murder and sentenced to be hanged. The jury recommended mercy for Campbell. He came from a respectable family and they petitioned the Home Secretary to take account of his previous good behaviour. They also organised a petition asking for him to escape the death penalty. Campbell escaped the hangman. Instead, he was sentenced to 20 years jail.There were petitions for McGrave and Mullen to also be reprieved. But at the same time there was a petition for them to be flogged to death.In January 1875, McGrave and Mullen climbed the scaffolding at Kirkdale prison. McGrave, the alleged ringleader, is reported to have been reduced to a babbling wreck by the sight of the hangman’s noose. Mullen remained calm and indifferent.For both men, there was no last minute reprieve. On a cold winter’s morning, the lives of a teenager and a young man ended at the end of a rope. In the same jail, Campbell continued his 20 years sentence.

PROSTITUTES, PENNY DREADFULS AND LOLLIPOPSThe Tithebarn Outrage sparked a public debate about gangs and street violence that pinpointed unemployment, housing conditions, punishment, police inefficiency and lack of political will as possible causes. Newspapers stoked the fury, realising that crime sold more copies. And even the cheap magazines, ‘the penny dreadfuls’ that specialised in salacious stories were blamed for declining standards.Concern extended to prostitutes and then to children playing in the street. Confectionary, and in particular lollipops were suggested as causes for moral decline. The police responded by arresting loiterers and people obstructing footpaths. So overzealous did the police become that as Dr Michael Macilwee notes, in one case, a judge had to tell police to calm down after they arrested four men waiting outside a church for their Bible class.

The Arrest

Returning to the scene of the crime

Later that night, McCrave felt drawn to return to the scene of his crime to see the subsequent spectacle. But he was recognised and identified to Samuel. Samuel sought out a policeman who arrested the surprised onlooker.McCrave protested his innocence saying he had witnesses who would prove he wasn’t the murderer. Questioned further, he pointed the finger at two of his gang, Campbell and Mullen.

Mullen had fled the scene and returned to his and his brother’s lodgings. He’d woken up his brother Thomas and said they needed to immediately stow away on a ship to America. They were later discovered and arrested aboard a ship on the river.To catch Campbell, the police followed his sister. She boarded a train and was trailed to Bolton. Campbell was found to be hiding with relatives there.

The Crime


‘My husband was murdered for sixpence’ -Alice Morgan

t was an August Bank holiday in 1874. Robert Morgan and his wife, Alice, spent the day on a trip to Birkenhead. They then caught the ferry back across the river. At around 9pm, the couple met up with Robert’s brother, Samuel, at the docks. The three walked up Tithebarn Street and on their way home, popped into a pub in Chapel Street for a nightcap.As they departed at around 9:30pm, it was still light. They were surrounded by Cornermen. One asked Robert if he had six pence for a quarter pint. Perhaps because they were on one of the major seven streets of Liverpool, Robert, felt safe enough to goad them. He said they wouldn’t need to beg if they had a job? Even less wisely, Robert then turned his back on them.Within a few steps, one of the Cornermen delivered a punch to the back of his head. It sent Robert sprawling across the street. Samuel retaliated. He knocked one of the assailants down. The gang whistled for back up. Campbell and Mullen attacked Samuel.A third man began kicking Robert. When he started trying to choke him, Robert’s wife jumped on him. So someone took a running kick at her. She was hit in the ear so hard that she went deaf - the kick to her head was the last thing she ever heard as she would never regain her hearing.

The noise of the fighting drew crowds out of the pubs and families from their homes. But instead of protecting Robert and his family, some encouraged the beating. One woman shouted, “Give him it! Give him it!” Some men decided to join in the activity of kicking a human being like a football. Approximately seven men kicked Robert’s increasingly lifeless body for about 40ft down the street.When Robert stopped moving, the gang fled down one of these side streets. Samuel tackled one but then McCrave pulled a knife. Distracted, and then attacked from behind, Samuel couldn’t stop the gang’s escape.It was said that the police tried to intervene but too late. Robert bled out on the steps of a warehouse. Samuel returned to find an onlooker trying to revive Robert with brandy. But it was all too late.Finally, at 9.50pm, the police took control. A PC Adam Green arrived and escorted Robert to the North Dispensary in Vauxhall Road. The coroner found his body shockingly cut and bruised. What appeared to be a stab wound was identified on the left side of his neck. Samuel set off to capture the assailants.

Key Figures

Meet the Gang

‘They were given up to every form of misconduct, morally and socially; they preyed upon society and degraded the very instincts of society. They were the Cornermen.’- 1874 Liverpool news report‘...they would turn to violence as a first resort, not a last.’- Martin Rigby, Liverpool EchoTHE CORNERMENThe Cornermen weren’t really an organised gang. And they were barely adults. They were more like the ‘feral youths’ the tabloids referred to during the English summer riots of 2012. ‘Cornermen’ was more a general term given to any group of young, unemployed, drunk, violent males begging or fighting on the corners of streets.They could often be found round Tithebarn, a maze of slums. The police rarely moved them on.Their weapons were improvised from their meagre possessions. So the nails that held the soles of their shoes could be altered to administer bloody kickings. The leather belt and buckles that held up their trousers were turned into a swinging, ripping club, like a simpler version of the cat o’nine tails whip. And when delivered with enough skill and force, the wound inflicted closely resembled that of a knife wound.With such crude means, it was rare for them to go one to one with their victims. They usually attacked in a pack. As others worked the streets and docks during the day, they got drunk. But come dusk, these streets became their hunting grounds.

The Victims:

ROBERT MORGANRobert was in his mid twenties. Some sources say he was a warehouse porter, others, that he was a shop worker. All are agreed that while he lived in a poor district, he was a respectable, regularly employed and happily married man.SAMUEL MORGANSamuel, 29, was the elder brother of Robert. Like his brother, he was a law abiding, solid working class character. His job, as a carter (literally, transporting goods in a cart) means he was as fit and strong as his brother. Both brothers’ jobs mean they can handle themselves.There are fewer details about the lives of the rabble of petty criminals and thugs that were arrested for what became known as the Tithebarn Street Outrage. Considering two were executed, their ages should be noted.

The Perpurtrators:JOHN McGRAVEBy dint of his age, 20, many presumed McGrave the leader. He was the first to be arrested and was the first to try and blame the other two in the gang, Mullen and Campbell.MICHAEL MULLENMichael was just 17, even though in such slum conditions boys became men a lot quicker, he was essentially a teenager. He had a younger brother, Thomas, aged 15. The two would try to escape for a new life in the Americas.PETER CAMPBELLThe most ‘respectable’ of the gang, Campbell, 19, came from a decent enough family that they would try to use the judicial process to his benefit.

The Aftermath

New Kids on the Block

After the Tithebarn Outrage, crime topped the political agenda. On the streets it was said some citizens took to taking Shillelagh (walking sticks that doubled as clubs) with them. But the next major fatality of the gangs wouldn’t be a native citizen. It would be a visitor.THE HIGH RIP“The crimes of the High Rip fell into three categories known as the wrongdoers’ three Rs – random violence, robbery and revenge attacks.”- Dr Michael MacilweeThe ‘heirs’ of the Cornermen terrorised everyone from shopkeepers to seamen between 1884 and 1888. The ‘High Rip’ or ‘High Rippers’ weapons of choice were knives. These, for obvious reasons, they called ‘bleeders’. Extremely violent, their main targets were lone Dockers and sailors.They sported a uniform of sorts, a tight fitting jacket and bell bottomed trousers held up by a thick leather belt. Like their predecessors, they could use their belts to lethal effect. A quiff of hair would protrude from underneath their muffler caps which were set at a ‘jaunty’ angle. Their sworn gang rivals were the Logwood Gang but there were also juvenile gangs such as the Lemon Street Gang. The gang’s new nemesis was a tough policeman known as ‘Pins’. The myth goes that he picked up a gang leader by the ankles and swung him around the surrounding gang, knocking them down like skittles.His methodology was blunt:“I grabs ‘em, I pins ‘em against the wall and I slaps ‘em a bit.”


The condemned youths walked jauntily from the bar of the dock, and disappeared with a callous smile upon their faces.’Court report of the Blackstone Street Murder, 25 February 1884The murder that gave the High Rip infamy took place in January 1884. Five young men, aged between 18 and 20, were alleged to have assaulted two Spanish seamen shortly before 10pm on a Saturday night. One sailor was able to escape but the other, Exequiel Rodriguez Nunuiez, was said to have been repeatedly beaten with belt buckles, kicked and then knifed. One of the men identified as using a knife was 18 year old Michael M’Lean.Unlike the Tithebarn Outrage, no one encouraged the assault and many witnesses came forward. One woman identified one assailant, a Patrick Duggan, as having asked to use her apron to clean his bloody hands. Another, William Dempsey asked for a brush to wipe the blood off his trousers.The defence would later draw attention to the age of the witnesses, many of who were just children.A police constable, Evans 343, took the sailor in an ambulance to hospital. He was dead on arrival. The attending doctor said that because of his death came so quickly after the beating, there were no bruises on his body. He had died before they could form.Of course, there is another explanation. There were no bruises as he was not beaten.There seemed to be no motive for the crime apart from, as court papers suggested, ‘wanton brutality’.Five men were arrested and each individual protested their innocence while naming others in the gang as guilty of the murder. During the arrests and investigation, various blood stained knives and items of clothing were found. At first, the men suggested the blood came from a nose bleed, then from sparring with each other. Finally, at the trial, it was suggested the five were acting in self defence against the Spanish sailors.The judge was very sceptical of this in his summation to the jury. He pointed out that they each had admitted to taking part in the beating, if not the killing. It took exactly an hour for the jury to return to find M’Lean and Duggan guilty of ‘wilful murder ‘. Due to the age of the accused, they requested mercy.

But the Judge assumed the black cap and said they had been found guilty of “a murder of a very savage character”. He passed a sentence of death.Duggan was reprieved and sentenced to ‘penal servitude for life’. M’Lean, aged just 18, protested his innocence one last Monday morning at Kirkdale Jail. He was then hanged. His death was mercifully quick considering the hangman later admitted to being drunk.The Police Inspector involved in the case was later demoted to Police sergeant. He had withheld vital evidence until late in the trial that the Spanish sailor had had a knife on him. His death may have been an accident in a genuine case of self-defence.The public hysteria over gangs may have helped give a death sentence to an 18 year old who if not an innocent, may have been innocent of the charge of ‘wilful murder’.Increasingly, religious and philanthropic groups sought to use charity, education, and better housing, rather than the law, to address the problem of gangs. There was a growing sense that the troublemakers were in a sense victims of their environmentSuch solutions are, however, long term. In 1888, it was reported in a Liverpool weekly papers that on a Monday night, a ‘murderous attack’ was made on a police constable by a gang of “high-rippers”. When they emerged drunk from a pub and fought among themselves over a watch, the policeman had tried to intervene. So they turned on him. The policeman survived.Fast forward to the 1950s and the gang problem caused The Daily Herald to ask of Liverpool, ‘What makes it our wickedest city?’And then in the 1980s drugs, and the millions they could earn criminals, entered the world of gangs.No longer would young men risk their lives for sixpence. Now they could make untold wealth.Men like Curtis Warren...