Scuttlers: Manchester’s Moral Panic of the 19th Century

You’d be forgiven for thinking that youth culture gangs – the groups that the pearls-clutching, right wing press sneeringly term as ‘chavs’ and ‘hoodies’ or, if casting our net further back, the ‘casuals’ who dominated the football crowds in the late ’70s and ’80s, or even the mods and rockers of the ’50s and ’60s – were an invention solely of the last few decades. But the fact of the matter is that so-called respectable society’s moral panic about such delinquent youths, handily dressed in an identifiable uniform of their own devising, is a tale as old as time. We only need to go back to late 19th century Manchester, and look at gangs known as scuttlers, to prove our point.

Scuttlers was the name given to members of neighbourhood youth gangs located in the districts of Manchester and Salford. The gangs were incredibly territorial and would adopt the names of their streets or neighbourhood to distinguish which ‘battalion’ they belonged to. For example, The Bengal Tigers represented Bengal Street in the Ancoats district of Manchester; the ‘cradle of the industrial revolution’ and the world’s first industrial suburb. The Meadows Lads meanwhile, took their nomenclature from the Angel Meadow area located directly northeast of the city centre, on the banks of the River Irk, whilst the Greengate Roughs, dominated the easternmost part of Salford, bounded by the River Irwell. What every area had in common was poverty. These were the overcrowded, dilapidated slums of an area of England so industrialised as to be known as the ‘workshop of the world’ and, from 1870 onwards, the children of that industrial revolution were looking for kicks.

Aged, on average, from 14 to 20, style was just as key to these young men as it is for the Burberry-wearing youths seen in Britain’s cities today and they took just as much pride in always being well turned out as their modern-day counterparts. The chosen uniform of a scuttler seldom differed between gangs or battalions and they would often mimic the fashions enjoyed by a high-born society which, through the sheer twist of fate as birth, these slum warriors had no hope of ever reaching or becoming part of. Key to every scuttler’s look were brass tipped clogs which, when connecting with the cobbled streets of the Manchester slums, created a distinctive clattering echo. This ‘scuttling’ sound would ultimately provide the gangs with their name. 

The scuttlers were also the first youths of Manchester to adopt the baggy style that would go on to became so popular a century later when, in the 1980s and ’90s, the city was enjoying the height of its ‘Madchester’ fame and the music scene was dominated by the likes of the Stone Roses and the Happy Mondays. Their own particular ‘loose fits’ were sailor-style bell bottom trousers – fourteen inches around the knee and twenty one around the ankle – the better to show off the clogs.

A  thick leather belt with a heavy brass buckle, often engraved with the names of sweethearts and accompanied by illustrations of arrow-pierced hearts, scorpions or serpents, was worn with pride around their midriff. But these belts were not just decorative or indeed practical; when wrapped tightly around the wrist, they would be used as a weapon in the many pitched street fights and turf wars with rival gangs that became known as ‘scuttles’. As such, the quality and weight of such belts were essential, as they proved a formidable tool for the battles for supremacy that waged in the maze-like rabbit warrens of squalid slum streets of  Victorian England’s industrial north west. Scuttlers would also carry knives but, as with the heavy-buckled and thick leather belts, the intention here was always to wound and maim rivals, rather than kill them.

Flashy silk scarves or mufflers were worn around the neck, the colours and design of which helped to identify just what gang or battalion the scuttler belonged to. Though worn with an understandable sense of pride and belonging, this clearly made the navigation of the city difficult as, much like the wearing of football shirts or the mod and rocker dress, the youths were effectively flagging up what they belonged to as they passed through rival districts, which would inevitably guarantee them a hostile and lively welcome. The collective hair style of a scuttler was a short back and sides topped off with a long ‘donkey’ fringe that hung lower on the left hand side, plastered down on their forehead and over that particular eye. A peaked cap would sometimes top off a scuttler’s outfit but, unlike the bakerboy caps worn low over the eyes in the BBC gangland drama Peaky Blinders, these were almost always tilted at the back in order to show off the trademark donkey fringe.

Mention of scuttlers’ sweethearts, reminds us that this youth cult wasn’t just male orientated. Indeed, there were more young women involved in the urban youth gangs of the north west than in any other region of the country. This is undoubtedly down to the prevalence of cotton mills in Manchester and Salford, which ensured that young women were in regular, gruelling employment. As such, they were just as hungry for kicks away from the factory floor as the lads. These girls also behaved and dressed just as boldly as their male counterparts and, like them, they chose to wear clothing that identified them as being affiliated to specific gangs. This included an equally distinct look of clogs, shawl and a vertically striped skirt. Whilst many of the women were just as game in the violent scuttler existence as the boys, they also put their streetwise wits to good use by means of intimidating witnesses or the organising and selling of raffle tickets to raise money for legal representation should a scuttler find him or herself up in court.

In the teeming and densely populated industrial cities of Manchester and neighbouring Salford, scuttling was certainly a popular activity amongst the many disadvantaged youth who lived there. One infamous scuttle reported in 1879 was said to have occurred between over 500 youths. Naturally, such activities came to dominate the headlines, with newspaper reports striking fear and puzzlement into the hearts of their middles-class, suburban readers for whom, tales of how the average scuttler lived felt alien to them; even if, in reality, those well-to-do readers in places such as Didsbury lived just six or so miles away from the impoverished urban districts of the city.

A deputation made up of local authorities was subsequently sent to London and the Home Office seeking a legally binding permission to terminate the contracts of any employee suspected of being a scuttler but, this avenue gained little support from the factory and mill owners; scuttling was an after-hours activity, often taking place on Saturdays (leaving Sunday to recuperate ahead of the start of the working week on Monday morning), as it did not affect their work, the bosses saw no need to comply with the local authorities petitioning and, without any legal footing available to them and the fact that the immediate community were sympathetic or just plain ambivalent to the scuttlers’ behaviour, the local authorities were forced to admit defeat.

As the media frenzy and moral panic developed, scuttling reached something of a peak in 1890-’91, with Manchester’s Strangeways Prison recording more inmates interned for the offence of scuttling than for any other crime in the city. But if the prospect of stiff sentences and hard labour were intended to deter these juvenile delinquents from a life of petty theft and violent affray, then the establishment had once again unequivocally failed in its course of action. Court reporter Alexander Devine, who would go on to pioneer the local lads’ club movement that arguably succeeded where the judicial system failed, remarked with some amazement that the conduct of Scuttlers in the dock “was most flippant and callous…the youths laughed and turned round to wink at friends in the gallery” Clearly, finding themselves up before a judge or magistrate was just another rites of passage for the youth of 19th century Manchester, one that came along with a considerable cache in the long run. 

The role of Alexander Devine in bringing about an end to the scuttler phenomenon cannot be underestimated. Arguing in his 1890 publication, Scuttlers and Scuttling: Their Prevention and Cure, that the reason for their conduct was a lack of discipline, both at school and in the home, the availability of ‘base literature’ such as the ‘penny dreadful’ with which he believed brought about a bad influence (echoes of such moral panic can be found in the twentieth century when ‘video nasties’ were the subject of prosecutions under the hastily drawn up Video Recordings Act of 1984. Once again Manchester played its part here too, as instances of police raids on video hire shops in the city soared under the auspices of then Greater Manchester Police Chief Constable, James Anderton, a devout Christian who claimed to have a ‘direct line’ to God. Famously, his diligent officers once seized the 1982 Dolly Parton comedy The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas because they believed it to be pornographic material) and the monotony of working class urban life, Devine was integral in setting up the Working Lads Clubs movement at the end of the century. Cannily, these clubs were established in the heart of gang territories (one such club is the Salford Lads’ Club on the corner of St Ignatius Walk and Coronation Street in the Ordsall area of Salford, later made infamous by its appearance on the sleeve of The Smiths 1986 album, The Queen is Dead) and provided facilities for more worthwhile and wholesome leisure, sport and entertainment activities away from the workplace that brought people together and put away petty turf rivalries. Boxing, football, rugby, athletics, educational lectures, arts and crafts and trips away were all made readily available and were soon attracting the attention of eleven and twelve-year-old boys whose future would have been earmarked for the scuttler life prior to the launch of the movement. As a result, the supply of fresh recruits to the ranks of scuttlers soon began to dry up and, as the gangs frowned upon having more mature members (the notion of a twenty-something entering into a scuttle against someone arguably ten years his junior was considered an unfair advantage and a big no-no) they had no course but to begin to dissolve. This, combined with slum clearances and, more tragically, global conflicts such as the outbreak of World War One, brought about the demise of the scuttlers.

It’s a little known fact that Manchester City FC has its roots in averting the grip the scuttlers had upon the city. In 1880, members of St Mark’s Church of England in West Gorton formed a football club, Gorton AFC to curb the local gang activities. All were welcome to join, irrespective of religion. The lessons from the extinction of the scuttlers are clear for all too see; government needs to invest in youth services if they are serious about helping young people who are likely to take the wrong path into gang crime or radicalisation.

But it’s not just in Manchester City that we see the legacy of the scuttlers still living on to this day. In 2009, Manchester’s MaD Theatre Company staged their original play Angels with Manky Faces, which told the tale of Bengal Tigers leader, Jimmy Johnson whose life of gratuitous violence and casual sex takes a turns when a sultry Irish beauty arrives at his favourite brothel. The play mixed drama with comedy and traditional folk music, examples of which can be found on  YouTube here: You Stole the Sun and Dirty Old Town

2015 saw the debut of another play, Scuttlers, at Manchester’s Royal Exchange Theatre. Written by the acclaimed Scottish playwright Rona Munro (the writer behind the 1994 Ken Loach movie, Ladybird, Ladybird, as well as the 2010 film Oranges and Sunshine, directed by Loach’s son, Jim Loach) Scuttlers is set in 1895 and focuses on the rivalry between the Bengal Tigers and the Prussia Street gang. 

There’s even a band from Middleton who have taken the name Scuttlers in tribute to the 19th century ne’er do wells. They released their debut single, Lies in the Sky, last February. 

In February 2009, former Coronation Street actor-turned-journalist Nigel Pivaro reported on the reign of the scuttlers for the BBC regional programme Inside Out, which can be viewed on YouTube in two instalments here and here.

Anyone wishing to learn more about these 19th century youth gangs would be advised to read historian Andrew Davies’ 2009 book, The Gangs of Manchester.

A version of this article first appeared in 2013 on my previous So it Goes blog on Blogger.com

5 thoughts on “Scuttlers: Manchester’s Moral Panic of the 19th Century”

  1. I’ve been doing my family history and my family were the Bengal tigers of ancoats Manchester I’ve done the whole visit and traced back to the mills on Bengal street they were weavers my grandmother was Agnes Fenton she was a Bengal tiger female they were all born in ancoats Manchester ,I’ve traced my ancestors to ancoats Manchester.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. So I have some of them as living on 26 canal Street Manchester and they also ran the canal system at the end of Bengal street I have tons of information on them it’s been a real eye opener ,,my great grandmother Agnes Fenton had a rose tattoo on her arm as well that was what the women had as part of the Bengal tigers as well as the buckle

    Liked by 1 person

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