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 trials
But William Willan wasn’t in court for scuttling. He was on trial for murder.
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.