On a suitably grey Saturday, I retraced the steps of the formidable gangs of the 19th Century known as scuttlers, recently recreated by Manchester’s Royal Exchange in Rona Munro’s play of the same name.
Led by Emma Fox of Manchester Guided Tours, the walk began at the Exchange. From there we meandered down Bridge St, crossing over the River Irwell, the boundary between Salford and Manchester. It was easy to imagine a group of Manchester scuttlers charging down here in their clogs in search of fights with Salford rivals.
From there we walked through Salford. The slums may be long gone but the street names remain the same. At the end of the 19th century, local rivalries ran high and it was amazing to see the proximity of some of the territories and to learn how difficult it was for local lads to stay out of trouble – gang size was everything and many were forced into violence.
By now we were back in the territory of the Manchester scuttlers and our next stop was Angel Meadow. This was the first port of call for anyone coming to the city for work and was described by Angus Reach, a journalist of the time, as “the lowest, most filthy, most unhealthy and most wicked locality in Manchester”.
And so it was regarded as a step up to find yourself a few yards away in the neighbouring slums of Ancoats. This was the hotbed of scuttler activity with bitter rivalries played out in just the same way as Munro’s play focused on the tension between the Bengal Tigers and Prussia St.
The tour ended on Jersey St, a stone’s throw from both locales and within view of the bridge which sees the scene of a bitter fight in the play. Fox skilfully recreated how terrifying it would have been as more than 300 lads communed on this narrow street, flanked on both sides by mills. As they stood screaming obscenities and throwing sticks and stones, it must have taken nerves of steel to hold your position and then join in the fight.
As we made our own way back to the hub of the modern city, the quiet streets of Ancoats echoed with this period of history where fighting and drinking were the only escape from the incessant roar of the all powerful mill, and scuttling was the city’s response.
A few weeks later I found myself back at the Royal Exchange but this time modern day gangs were the focus. As another companion event to the Scuttlers play, the Exchange staged a debate chaired by Dave Haslam.
The panel consisted of assistant chief constable Garry Shewan, Davine Ford of the charity Reclaim, Hannah Smithson and Rob Ralphs from Manchester Metropolitan University, as well as Ramir Lamar and Darryl Laycock, former gang members who are now community workers.
Kicking off the debate was this question: does Manchester still have a problem with gang culture? Ralphs commented that the definition of a gang is three or more people engaging in anti-social behaviour, and this covers a wide remit, while Shewan acknowledged that gang mentality is a problem. He said that labels come riddled with connotations and young people who grow up in areas with gang problems “have the burden before they even go to school”.
Laycock went on to explain why he joined a gang. He said that, having come from a broken home, a gang gave him security: “If you’re not in a gang you’re not protected.” Laycock felt that wider society also has a part to play: “Playstations teach kids to be gangsters before they even go out.”
Lamar added: “The papers called us gangs but we were just a bunch of kids on the street. You’re not born with the gangster gene.”
The panel then examined possible solutions to the problem. Shewan was of the belief that only a change in policing can help, most notably the the stop and search policy. But Greater Manchester Police said they have already reduced this by 60 per cent. The force is also targeting the BME community with its cadet programme in an effort to ensure that policing is more inclusive. This is supported by working with charities such as Reclaim to train police officers.
Ford added that preconceptions of areas such as Moss Side are not helpful and that, along with other groups, Reclaim is working hard to rebuild the area.
“David Cameron made promises but we never saw him again,” she said. “We must stop concentrating on the negatives. I feel safe on the streets of Moss Side, the positive stories are not produced.”
Lamar added: “We have no funding. We can’t make something out of nothing.”
This is food for thought: it’s more than a century since scuttlers roamed the streets of Manchester, but is today’s youth resorting to violence because they receive little or no support?