A historian at the University of Liverpool has uncovered extensive archive material detailing the activities of the ‘scuttlers’ - one of Britain’s earliest youth cults.
Records from the late Victorian period detail more than 30 years of territorial battles in the streets and music halls of Manchester, where youthful gang members were easily identified by their fringed hair, tilted caps and bell-bottomed trousers.
Gang fights were known as ‘scuttles’, and as many as 500 young people would take part in pitched battles between rival gangs.
Dr Davies explains: “The archival records from this period are so vast that it took 15 years to pull all the material together. By combining press reports with police, prison and court records we get a real picture of what life was like for young people going through the new, compulsory school system and out into the mills and factories of Manchester.
“Gang members were relentless in their violence and would take possession of their favourite music halls and attack any members of rival gangs that entered the hall using sharpened belt buckles or knives as weapons. Each gang wanted to be recognised as the toughest in the city, and scuttlers would walk as far as five miles to take on a rival gang.
“Manchester’s gangs were motivated by the excitement of battle and the status it gave them. In Liverpool, where youth unemployment was much higher, gangs were more likely to be formed for the purpose of street robbery and there is much less evidence of territorial violence here.
“Some Manchester gangs actually found inspiration for their style in continental wars such as the ‘Russians’ and the ‘Turks’ who re-enacted the Russo-Turkish war of 1877-8 on what is now the site of the City of Manchester Stadium, built for the Commonwealth Games.”
Gang members were recruited from the age of 14 up to 21, and included girls as well as boys. Female ‘scuttlers’ were condemned by the press who believed that they stirred up fights by flirting with boys from rival districts. Young women, however, often took an active part in fights between rival gangs.
Dr Davies added: “One ‘scuttler’ whose career the newspapers followed in detail was John-Joseph Hillier. Born in Ireland in 1875, he grew up in Salford and was a gang member at the age of 14. He went on to lead the ‘Deansgate Mob’, based in Manchester city centre. The boys frequented the Casino – a popular music hall – and regularly clashed with opposing gangs inside the hall. Hillier was repeatedly jailed for his attacks with a butcher’s knife. The newspapers called him the ‘King of the Scuttlers’, a title he later had sewn onto the front of his jersey.”
The research is published in the book, The Gangs of Manchester, and will be launched at a public reading on Wednesday, 22 October at Manchester Central Library. The book is also being adapted into a play and will be performed at Manchester’s Library Theatre in 2009.
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