Academic journal article Journal of Social History

Youth Gangs, Masculinity and Violence in Late Victorian Manchester and Salford

Academic journal article Journal of Social History

Youth Gangs, Masculinity and Violence in Late Victorian Manchester and Salford

Article excerpt

It is surprising how few people, outside of the police and those residing in the immediate neighbourhoods where the outrages occur, really know what "scuttling" is. In the first place, the "scuttler" is not a thief, nor does he aspire to be a highwayman; he does not "scuttle" for any actually dishonest purpose.


A "scuttler" is a lad, usually between the ages of 14 and 18, or even 19, and "scuttling" consists of the fighting of two opposed bands of youths, who are armed with various weapons.

Alexander Devine, Scuttlers and Scuttling: Their Prevention and Cure (Manchester, 1890), p. 2.

Historians are well aware that Britain's cities have a history of conflict between rival youth gangs. In their influential studies of "hooliganism", Stephen Humphries and Geoffrey Pearson have both pointed to the existence of violent gangs such as the "scuttlers" of Manchester and Salford during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.(1) However, in the absence in Britain of a tradition of research in empirical sociology to parallel the classic Chicago studies of the gang during the 1920s and 1930s, our knowledge of youth-gang formation in British cities prior to the Second World War remains patchy.(2)

The most detailed historical exploration of the culture of the British youth gang is to be found in the work of Stephen Humphries. In Hooligans or Rebels? (1981), Humphries adopted a class-centred approach through which he was concerned to show that violent gangs emerged in inner-city areas characterised by deprivation and high levels of unemployment. Street-gang culture, Humphries asserted, "offered working-class youth the opportunity to conquer its feelings of hunger, failure and insignificance and to assert a proud and rebellious identity through which its members could feel masters of their own destiny."(3) According to Humphries, weapons were possessed by "a small minority" of gangs, but were "carried largely as symbols of defiance and resistance" and were rarely used.(4) In Humphries' account, "serious violence" was most likely to escalate when established street gangs turned against newly arrived immigrant groups, especially in periods of economic decline. The severity of assaults upon young Jewish immigrants in East and South London during the 1890s, for example, reflected acute anxieties over competition in local labour and housing markets.(5)

Humphries thus situated his analysis of street gangs within a broader discussion of class and ethnicity. By contrast, he showed little concern with gender, noting only in passing that "the assertion of masculinity" was one of the focal concerns of the working-class street gang.(6) My aim in the present paper is to develop a more nuanced analysis of confrontations between rival gangs in relation to masculine notions of honour and reputation. Moreover, by exploring the broader relationship between masculinity and violence in the working-class districts of late Victorian Manchester and Salford, I propose to show that gang conflicts were rooted in a much wider association between "hardness" and masculine status which permeated working-class culture.(7) "Hardness", or toughness, was considered a quintessential masculine virtue. Considerable kudos was derived from displays of fighting prowess and the ability to withstand pain, and boys and youths continually tested each other's mettle in order to prove themselves, and thus their masculinity, in the eyes of their peers.(8) In addition to courting peer respect, displays of male bravado were intended to impress young women, and youths assumed a chivalrous obligation to avenge perceived insults to their female associates. Working-class youths commonly regarded their "sweethearts" as their property, and the attentions of rival suitors constituted clear infringements of male honour.(9)

Gang conflicts provided a systematic means for young men to prove themselves against their peers, and affrays were invested with great significance by the participants. …

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