Author Q&A: Andrew M. Davies

The Big Issue in the North
Issue: 745

(Milo Books, £11.99)
Andrew Davies is senior lecturer in modern British history at the University of Liverpool. The Gangs of Manchester: The Story Of The Scuttlers, explores the violent underworld of youth gangs that emerged in Manchester during the late 1870s until their eventual demise at the turn of the century.

What drew you to the scuttlers?
I first learned about the scuttlers from older people living in Salford during the 1980s. They’d heard tales of the gangs of the 1880s and 1890s from their parents and grandparents. I was fascinated by these stories.

How did you research the book?
Most of the episodes in the book are based on reports in local newspapers. The leading scuttlers appeared in court again and again. Everyone knew their names, though they were regarded with a mixture of admiration and fear. Court records survive for some of the major gang trials.

Were you surprised by any findings?
I was surprised to find gangs venturing right across the city in search of a fight. I’d assumed that feuds would be between gangs from adjacent districts. Many were, but I discovered vendettas between gangs four miles apart. Scuttlers from Gorton or Openshaw would walk through town to seek out gangs from Salford, and vice versa. They were fighting gangs, driven by pride, revenge and sheer excitement. Every gang wanted to prove their neighbourhood was the toughest.

Why did violent youth gangs emerge in major conurbations?
It can’t be a coincidence that gangs have always been formed in areas where young people have few economic prospects and no political voice. For most lads in Ancoats in the 1880s, there was little chance of an apprenticeship and few local people had the right to vote in general elections. To be a member of a gang like the Bengal Tigers was to be somebody.

How did the media react?
Then as now, most coverage of the gangs was sensational. Some of the things that went on were terrible, but it’s always easier to demonise young people – or point the finger at their parents – than to get to the roots of problems that stretch back for decades.

Did girls play a role in these gangs?
They often fought alongside the lads. The magistrates didn’t know how to deal with them. One stipendiary magistrate offered to discharge them if they went into domestic service but they said they’d sooner go to prison.

What were the long-term legacies of these gangs?
The most important legacy was the lads’ clubs set up in districts like Ancoats, which had long been a hotbed of scuttling, with backing from employers and figures like CP Scott, editor of the Manchester Guardian. Salford Lads’ and Girls’ Club, established in 1903, still does fantastic work in Ordsall today – some volunteers have been with the club for more than 50 years.

Are there comparisons between then and now?
All the elements are there, from the pride in where you come from to the obsession with looking the part. The scuttlers, with their flared trousers and long fringes, would have fitted in at a Happy Mondays gig 100 years later.

Are you excited about your book being turned into a play?
Very much so. I’ve seen the last plays by the MaD Theatre Company and their work is brilliant – funny but with a real edge to it. They write Manchester stories for Manchester people, and that’s what my book’s about –except half of it’s about Salford.


Big Issue North 27 October- 2 November 2008.

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