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Manchester Gangs

Crime Files
Manchester Gangs

“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.


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 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.

Key Figures

“Each member of a gang is as well known to an enemy by a common name as are the Red Indians known by their tribes. Apparently there are no two gangs allied, and each are ready to declare war against another, the grievance of one member being a sufficient justification for a battle.” The Courier newspaper, 1892Scuttler gangs were named after the neighbourhoods and streets from which they came and for which they fought.THE BRADFORD STREET SCUTTLERS Their most notorious member was sixteen year old William Willan. And it would be his actions that would make the scuttlers national news. William Willan held a long running grudge with another sixteen year old. Peter Kennedy was with rival gang Lime Street Boys but his dye factory job involved walking through the Ancoats area. This was enemy territory. For a Lime Boy to enter a Bradford boy’s street was reason enough to fight. But there was also a suggestion that Kennedy had further angered them by being with a woman that a Bradford Scuttler thought was his. For whatever reason, in 1892, at 12:30 on a Saturday afternoon on the corner of Great Ancoat and Mill Street, William Willan fatally stabbed Peter Kennedy.THE GREENGATE SCUTTLERS When Billy Henry Brooks wasn’t labouring, he was the blue eyed teenage leader of this Salford based gang. Violent and volatile, he was predictably both a skilled and a sadistic street fighter. His black and white mug shot photo and police description state his complexion as ‘sallow’. His height is recorded as just 5ft, 4 inches.BENGAL TIGERS One of the most notorious of the scuttling gangs came from Bengal Street in Ancoats on the edge of Manchester city centre. During the 1880s, it was the heart of gangland Manchester and the most dangerous place to be. But despite their fearsome reputation, if they ventured just five minutes in any direction, they would run the risk of rival gang retribution. In January 1887, Joe Brady, an 18 year old member of the Bengal Tigers beat up and humiliated an Angel Meadow gang-member. Some suggest he not only took the beaten boy’s pride, but also his girlfriend. Two weeks later, Owen Callaghan, led a fatal revenge attack. For his part in the stabbing to death of Joe Brady, Owen was sentenced to 20 years. Thirteen years into his sentence, he was diagnosed as criminally insane. He died 33 years later in an asylum.KING STREET LADS In 1873, these Salford based Scuttlers tried to recruit regular church going Thomas Inglis. The 18 year old worked as an iron glazer to support his parents. He refused to join his local gang. For this, around 20 gang members attacked him as he walked a boy home after Sunday school. The first blow was from the buckle of a belt. Beaten to the floor, Thomas was lucky to be able to bolt home. His brother handed him a fire rake to defend himself. Inglis chucked it at the gang but it ricocheted off the street. Tragically, it lodged in the skull of a ten year old boy. The boy died that night. The autopsy proved the killing was accidental. Without this, Thomas could have hung.KING OF THE SCUTTLERS Irish born John Joseph Hillier joined a gang at 14 and was soon leader of the Deansgate mob. His weapon of choice was a butcher’s knife. His main rivals were the Casino gang. He attacked a rival gang’s leader in 1893 just weeks after being released from jail. When the press labelled him ‘King of the Scuttlers’, this style obsessed scuttler sewed the title on his jersey. Many gang members grew away from their allegiances as family responsibilities impinged. But Hillier would spend a lot of his adult life doing hard labour in jail.‘SCUTTLERETTES’ Violence was often used as a way of impressing and courting women. But women weren’t just objects of, or witnesses to fights. They sometimes encouraged the fighting. And there are accounts of women kicking and punching deep in the middle of these street battles. One was the sweetheart of the Bradford Street Scuttler, William Willan. Hannah Robbin went to court with three of her girlfriends in 1892. They’d been arrested for scuttling by using their belts to beat their victims outside one of Manchester’s music halls.

The Crimes

“Life in parts of Manchester is as unsafe and uncertain as amongst a race of savages” Mr Justice Wills comments upon jailing Owen Callaghan for manslaughter of Joe BradyFIGHT CLUB The gangs would actually chalk an invitation to fight on a wall or the pavement. This would specify the day and the time for battle to commence. It might even detail the numbers expected and the weapons to be used. Though street gangs usually targeted their immediate neighbours, they sometimes banded together against another area’s combined gangs. So, all the gangs in Ancoats would join to take on those of Salford. These group gangs would walk three to four miles to engage in mass bloody brawls. These close combat confrontations could involve a couple of dozen to hundreds of young people. The so called ‘Rochdale Road War’ of 1870-1, led to the conviction of around 500 scuttlers. Their battlegrounds ranged from streets, to graveyards and pubs. With no restriction on teenagers drinking, much fighting could be alcohol fuelled. The results of these clashes were captured in the next day’s headlines:“Knocking a Man’s Eye Out”    “Murder in Manchester”       ‘Stabbing in Pendleton’           “Breaking a Woman’s Jaw”During one particularly bloody period, the doctors at Ancoats Hospital were said to be overwhelmed by having to stitch and sew up so many victims.But despite the frequent ferocious fighting, deaths were surprisingly rare. This is all the more astounding because the battles always involved weapons.ORNAMENTAL AND OFFENSIVE The Glasgow Razor gangs were known to sew razors into their clothing but the scuttlers took this approach one step further. They made their wardrobe into weapons.The coloured, patterned neckerchiefs could be loaded with stones, tied and turned into a swinging cosh. Their heavy brass belt buckles, sometimes shaped like serpents, were sharpened so that they could whip and slash with them. And if the blade bit didn’t slice you, the heaviness of the buckle was sufficient to fracture the skull. And when their opponent was beaten to the floor, their brass toe capped clogs would help finish the job.But like most street fighters, the scuttlers would use anything to hand, including broken bottles and paving stones.


“Wait till I come out”This courtroom threat was made by scuttler Alexander Pearson just days after William Willan had been sentenced to death. It seemed nothing could stop the scuttlers.The judge recommended the police flood areas known to be gang dominated. The police knew this ineffective. The Home Secretary demanded an end to scuttling. He suggested making membership of a gang a sackable offence. The mayors of Manchester and Salford suggested, predictably, for laws to allow flogging for scuttling. Neither of these was done. But policing and sentencing did increase. And parallel to this, there was the rise of the working lads’ club movement.TO BRIGHTEN YOUNG LIVES AND MAKE GOOD CITIZENS The club motto of The Salford Lads ClubFounded by the middle class, social reformers, and the liberal elite, the Lads clubs offered working class teenagers alternative activities such as football. They targeted school leavers, 12 and 13 year olds, in the worst areas. Ancoats had four Lads’ Clubs set up in just five years. The clubs began to divert recruits away from the gangs. On the opening night of the Salford Lads’ Club, 700 boys tried to join. One of these schemes resulted in the formation of St Mark’s Football Club. It is now known as Manchester City FC. Sports rivalry had replaced the fighting rivalry.By the time William Willan was released in 1900, scuttling was already starting to fade. Scuttlers were no longer kings of the street. Their 30 year reign was over.SCUTTLERS TO SOLDIERS And many scuttlers would go on to become fine soldiers. It was in fact the Boer War that revealed only 10% of recruits were completely fit. It emphasised again the need for The Lads Clubs. The health of urban youth had become a national concern. And with the demolition of the worst slums, the environment that had helped breed the scuttlers was largely destroyed.In 1908, The Children Act created juvenile focused courts and regulated the sale of alcohol to minors. It also prevented them from being sent to prison, the fate of many a scuttler…...Gangs would not terrorise the streets of Manchester to such an extent for many decades. But then a combination of high unemployment and a rapid rise in hard drugs made small gangs into big firms. And for them, killing to protect drug territory was just part of the job description.“Manchester is not the Wild West, but many of you treated the streets as if it were’’ Mr Justice Brian Langstaff sentencing the Gooch gang in 1989.

The Arrest

The Bradford Street scuttler, William Willan had been in plenty of fights but he had no criminal record. He was, after all, only sixteen. But when one Saturday in 1892, he fatally stabbed Peter Kennedy in the side, he not only broke the law, he broke the scuttle code. The point of the fights was to maim, not murder. As Kennedy lay bleeding, Willan fled the scene.Many in his gang feared the retribution that would follow. They decided to inform on him. This was lucky for the police for they had been largely ineffective in combating the scuttlers. The police were there to deal with professional criminals or market disturbances and pub brawls. Citywide organised gang violence and murder just wasn’t in their remit. As Duncan Broady of the Greater Manchester Police Museum noted; “The police weren’t set up to deal with this scale of outbreak”.And if a uniformed bobby did turn up to a mass scuttle, they may themselves become the target. They also found that if they quietened one district, fighting would just break out in another.Fearing the gallows, Willan ran to his friend, Jimmy Hands. Willan gave him his wage packet on condition that Hands stashed the murder weapon for him. He gave him only one instruction “If you get copped, don’t tell on me”.But the following day, at 3pm, Jimmy Hands walked into Canal Street Police Station in Ancoats and handed in the clasp knife. He told the desk sergeant that the weapon had been used by William Willan to stab Peter Kennedy.Willan was arrested on the Monday morning. At this stage, the charge was not murder. Peter Kennedy was still in hospital. But his condition deteriorated. He died two weeks later.William Willan and two of his friends were now charged with murder.

The Trial

The initial court response to the scuttlers had been to fine them. But this neither worked nor deterred them. Most families were too poor to pay the fines. So the judges started sentencing them to jail. The city jail at Belle Vue was soon swamped. But the ranks of the scuttlers seemed undiminished, despite prison then being a brutal place. Scuttlers could expect the hard labour of breaking rocks, time on the Prison treadmill (a giant wheel powered by prisoners), or solitary confinement.The local council became worried by the sheer number of 12 and 13 year old boys languishing in prison. In the 1890s, there were more young people in Strangeways for scuttling than for any other offence. Many scuttlers served repeated sentences, and even long termers, returned to the gangs. Despite this, lengthier and more severe sentences were considered the answer. But even sentences of 15-20 years didn’t seem to frighten the scuttlers into changing their ways.“Their conduct in the dock of the police court is most flippant and callous. On one side stood the witnesses, bearing marks of severe stab wounds, and in the dock, the youths laughed and turned round to wink at friends in the gallery. Even down in the cells they whistled and sang and said ‘Oh, oh it’ll only be 12 months for me.’" Contemporary account of scuttler trialsBut William Willan wasn’t in court for scuttling. He was on trial for murder.IN LOVING REMEMBRANCE OF WILLIAM WILLAN With three morning papers, two evening and several weeklies, the Manchester press jumped on the murder story. The term 'scuttler' had been created by the gangs themselves but it became known to magistrates at their early trials of gang members. So this 1892 trial had the sensational mix of a new unknown youth group and their dangerous pastime that had now ended in murder.The trial was also unusual because members of Willan’s own gang had actually testified against him. Normally, scuttler’s wouldn’t even give evidence against a rival.The case against Willan and two others hinged on the testimony of their own gang. Along with two others, he was accused of murder. Before then, William Willan had never been in court. Now, aged sixteen, he faced the death penalty. The boy broke down and cried. Throughout the trial, he was said to literally tremble.The jury returned a guilty verdict. When the judge donned the black cap to pass the death sentence, Willan had to be held down by two police officers. He was lead barefoot from the court screaming.A week later, Willan’s girlfriend was in court herself for scuttling. It was part of a suspected revenge attack for William’s arrest. As the police gave an account of her arrest, a police inspector demanded that she pull up a sleeve of her blouse to show the court. She did. It revealed a tattoo saying: ‘In loving remembrance of William Willan’.As Willan waited for the gallows in prison, his mother mobilised a huge campaign to gain him a reprieve. Thousands signed a petition. The police actually testified to his previous good character. Finally, the Home Secretary commuted his sentence to penal servitude for life. And finally, his sentence was reduced to just eight years imprisonment.