Historical image of Gangs in Urban Britain.

Youth Gangs and Street Violence in Late Victorian Manchester - REF 2021 Case Study

Since the UK riots in 2011, youth gangs and street violence have once again been under the microscope. During the riots, one in five of those arrested in London was reported to be a known gang member. Not only did the riots cause a lot of damage, they also prompted a lot of debate and tough talking by authorities, the media and the public in general, all busy looking for answers and solutions to the problems within British society.

The Challenge

Youth gangs and street violence are sadly nothing new. The urbanisation that accompanied the Industrial Revolution responsible for bringing greater numbers of people to live in towns and cities is thought to have given rise to the modern street gang. Rather than treat this as a relatively new phenomenon, there are a lot of valuable lessons to be learned from a study of youth gangs and street violence in the past.

Research Action

Dr Andrew Davies has been researching the hidden history of Manchester's gangs for many years. After receiving funding form the Economic and Social Research Council, Andy carried out extensive research exploring the nature and extent of gang formation and conflict in Manchester between 1870 and 1900, when conflicts between rival gangs caused persistent concern among many groups in society, including:

  • Civic leaders
  • Judicial authorities
  • Medical practitioners
  • Social reformers
  • Journalists

Andrew's work included major investigations into press reports from the Manchester and Salford newspapers using records held on microfilm in Manchester Central Library and Salford Local History Library. He also studied many witness statements and case records from Salford Magistrates' Court before building up a picture of 19th century gang members or 'scuttlers'.

Outputs and outcomes

Andrew's research had four key findings:

  • In the late 19th century, as today, gangs were clustered in districts characterised by high levels of poverty, unemployment and ill health.
  • Contrary to recent media and political debate, gangs are not a by-product of the growth of black communities in British cities; nor can they be attributed to the influence of 'gangsta rap'.
  • Mass imprisonment has failed to curb the spread of gangs or the use of weapons by young people with evidence showing that many Victorian gang members often served repeated terms of imprisonment.
  • The growth of the Working Lads' Club movement in Manchester during the 1890s proved more successful than penal sanctions in tackling gang formation. The provision of new opportunities for sport, education and training for youths in the city's poorest districts resulted in a widely reported diminution of violence around 1900.

In 2008 Andrew's work culminated in the publication of 'The Gangs of Manchester' which tells the story of the 'scuttlers': gangs of youths who terrorised the world's first industrial conurbation in the late 19th century. Since publication, Andy has made a substantial contribution to the public understanding of gang conflict and knife crime. His work has featured on a number of BBC Radio 4 programmes and BBC TV shows, including:

  • The One Show
  • Inside Out
  • The World This Weekend

Andrew has also delivered a number of public talks based on his book in venues ranging from libraries to lads' clubs and schools. He also delivered presentations to magistrates and probation officers, as well as prisoners in Strangeways Prison in Manchester.

His research has inspired new forms of artistic and literary expression, such as the play Angels with Manky Faces with the MaD Theatre Company in Greater Manchester. Other literary and musical works inspired by 'The Gangs of Manchester' include poems by two Manchester poets, Mike Garry and Mike Duff, and a song by the pop group Bye Bye Johnny.

Andrew has also collaborated with a Manchester tour guide responsible for devising a 'Gangs of Manchester' walk which takes groups around districts featured in the book.

The Gangs of Manchester is a refreshing, in-depth study [of the rise and fall of the 'scuttler' street fighting gangs of Manchester] and has much to contribute to current debates and concerns.

Reviews in History (Institute of Historical Research, University of London)

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