The A-Z of gangs and gangsters

With BBC crime drama Peaky Blinders set to return for a fifth series this week, historian Julian Humphrys guides us through the dark alleys of Britain’s criminal underworld

The Kray brothers

A… is for Armstrongs

In the years before the union of the English and Scottish crowns in 1603, gangs from reiving families like the Armstrongs would regularly descend on isolated farms on the Anglo-Scottish border and carry away loot, livestock and hostages. In 1583, Willie Armstrong of Kinmont led 300 men of his clan on a raid across the English border, ransacking the farms of the Tarset Valley and murdering eight of its inhabitants.

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He returned ten years later, this time in an alliance with the Elliots of Liddesdale. In 1596, even though there was an immunity from arrest so that border families could attend a meeting, Armstrong was seized by the English and incarcerated in Carlisle Castle. Undeterred, 80 of his supporters broke into the castle at night and brought their leader safely back to Scotland.

B… is for Basingstoke

The small town of Basingstoke in Hampshire seems an unlikely location for mass civil disobedience, but in 1881 matters there had got so bad that they were even debated in parliament. At the time, Basingstoke boasted 50 pubs and a reputation for drunkenness, so when the Salvation Army turned up in 1880 to preach temperance the new arrivals enjoyed the backing of many leading inhabitants. But Basingstoke also had a large brewing industry, whose employees were alarmed that their livelihoods were under threat. Egged on by their employers, they formed a mob with the express aim of disrupting the Salvation Army’s activities.

The Massaganians, as they called themselves (because they would ‘mass again’ if dispersed), began with heckling and jostling, but as time went on their activities escalated into-full scale rioting. Troops had to be deployed before order was restored.

C… is for Cock Road Gang

Not all gang violence was townbased. The Cock Road Gang was an infamous gang of robbers and protection racketeers which flourished in Bitton (outside Bristol) in the late 18th century. Led by the Caines family and operating from their base in the Blue Bowl Inn at Hanham (the pub is still there), they preyed on travellers and demanded protection money from their neighbours until 1815, when a night raid by the authorities netted 25 prisoners.

D… is for Damned Crew

No 16th-century Londoner wanted to get on the wrong side of the ‘Damned Crew’.  e crew in question was a bunch of gentleman louts who would swagger drunkenly through the streets of the city, causing trouble and picking fights. Chief swaggerer was Sir Edmund Baynham, a ne’er-do-well who later narrowly escaped execution after joining Essex’s Rebellion of 1601, against Elizabeth I. Four years later he was implicated in the Gunpowder plot and spent the rest of his life roaming Europe as an exile.

E… is for Elephants

One of London’s most effective criminal gangs was the Forty Elephants, an all-female crime syndicate, which operated out of Southwark in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Although they indulged in a wide variety of criminal activities, a particular speciality of theirs was shoplifting, which they often carried out wearing coats equipped with extralarge or hidden pockets and hiding places for stolen items sewn in their underclothes.

F… is for Folville

Today it’s a quiet Leicestershire village, but in the 14th century Ashby Folville was the lair of the dreaded Folvilles, a gentry family that terrorised the county for 20 years. Led by Eustace Folville, they carried out acts of violence – sometimes for themselves, sometimes at the behest of others. In 1326, they assassinated Roger de Beler, the right-hand man of the hated Hugh Despenser and four years later they kidnapped the judge sent to arrest them and held him to ransom.

G… is for Glasgow

Like most major cities, Glasgow has spawned its share of violent gangs over the years. One of itsmost infamous was the Bridgeton ‘Billy Boys’ – a Protestant gang set up by William ‘Billy’ Fullerton in the 1920s to challenge what it claimed was an influx of hostile Irish Catholic immigrants. The gang grew into a small army, and is remembered in We are the Billy Boys, the controversial song sung by some Glasgow Rangers fans before matches until it was banned in 2011.

H… is for Hawkhurst Gang

Of all the smuggling gangs of the 18th century, the Hawkhurst Gang was by far the most formidable. Between 1735 and 1749, the gang established a smuggling network that stretched from the Thames estuary to Dorset, and protected its interests through intimidation, violence and, on occasion, murder.

Smuggling gangs often enjoyed a good deal of local support, but the brutality of the Hawkhurst Gang turned many people against them. In April 1747, the inhabitants of Goudhurst formed a militia and defeated an attempt by the gang to storm the village. But the Hawkhurst Gang wasn’t finished yet. Later that year, they raided a government Custom House in Poole and recovered a large stash of contraband that had previously been seized from the gang. A few months later the gang kidnapped an elderly customs officer and the witness he was taking to identify a captured smuggler, and brutally murdered them. For the authorities it was the final straw. Within a year nearly all the leaders of the gang had been arrested, tried and executed.

The 18th-century Hawkhurst gang
Smuggling gangs often enjoyed local support, but the brutality of the 18th-century Hawkhurst Gang turned many people against them. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

I… is for Ice Cream Wars

The 1980s Glasgow Ice Cream Wars was a turf dispute fought between rival criminal gangs who were using ice cream vans to sell drugs and stolen goods. Van operators were frequently subjected to violence and intimidation and in 1984 one driver, Andrew Doyle, and five members of his family were killed in an arson attack. Two men were wrongfully convicted for the crime and were only released in 2004 after spending 20 years behind bars.

J… is for Jock Elliot

Jock Elliot was a border reiver whose family rivalled the Armstrongs in criminal activity. In 1566, the Earl of Bothwell – the future husband of Mary, Queen of Scots – mounted a major sweep against local reivers from his base, the grim border castle of Hermitage. Bothwell finally caught up with Elliot and, pulling out his pistol, shot him from the saddle. But when he leaned over to inspect what he thought was Elliot’s lifeless body, the wounded reiver jumped up, set about Bothwell with his sword and made good his escape. Bothwell’s men took their bleeding leader back to Hermitage, only to find that the reivers they had already rounded up had taken over the place. They were forced to promise to allow the reivers to leave before Bothwell was allowed back into his own castle.

K… is for Kray twins

Probably the best-known gangsters in British history, twins Ronald and Reginald Kray headed an underworld empire that ruled the East End of London by fear in the 1950s and 1960s. The Krays courted celebrity, regularly entertaining actors, pop stars and sportsmen in Esmeralda’s Barn, their Knightsbridge gambling club. But there was darkness behind the glamour. The Krays’ fortune was based on a protection racket imposed by threats and defended by acts of violence.

In 1966, Ronnie shot George Cornell, a member of the rival Richardson gang, in the Blind Beggar pub in Whitechapel for calling him a ‘fat poof’. The following year they lured an unmanageable associate – Jack ‘The Hat’ McVitie – to a Stoke Newington basement flat where Reggie stabbed him to death. Scotland Yard had been on the trail of the twins for years and now they struck. The Krays were arrested and in March 1969, sentenced to life imprisonment with a recommendation that they serve at least 30 years in prison.

L… is for Liverpool

The citizens of 1880s Liverpool lived in fear of gangs of organised robbers – real or imagined. One such group was !e Cornermen, whose members would supposedly wait on a street corner for a victim to pass by before they pounced. Even more feared was the High Rip Gang. If the papers are to believed, they were an organised and ruthless gang that announced their existence by murdering a Spanish sailor in 1884. They then went on to prey on sailors, dockers and shopkeepers. Such was the public obsession with the High Rip Gang that virtually every violent crime was attributed to them and their criminal exploits were luridly emblazoned across the front pages of the local newspapers.

M… is for Mohocks

Deriving their name from the Mohawk people – an Iroquoian-speaking North American Indian tribe – the Mohocks were allegedly a gang of aristocratic ruffians who terrorised the streets of early 18th-century London, attacking and disfiguring men and sexually assaulting women. Lurid accounts of the Mohocks’ outrageous exploits began to appear in broadsides and pamphlets, and poet and dramatist John Gayeven wrote a play about them. Others, like essayist Jonathan Swift, questioned whether such a gang even existed at all – he argued that the panic surrounding them was a form of mass hysteria. To many historians, it seems likely that if such attacks ever did take place, they were few and certainly not the work of an organised gang.

N… is for Narcotics

Although more and more gangs are getting involved in activities such as gun smuggling, people trafficking and money laundering, a great deal of organised crime in the UK is bound up in the control and supply of drugs. A hundred years ago this would have been unthinkable, as most drugs weren’t illegal and were readily available, but a series of laws have pushed the supply of recreational drugs off the counter and into the hands of racketeers. One of the first such laws came in 1916, when concern over drugs taken by off-duty soldiers led to an amendment to the Defence of the Realm Act. The drug was cocaine,b and the law restricted its sale and possession to “authorised persons”.

O… is for Outlaws

Mention the word ‘outlaw’ and there’s a good chance people will think of Robin Hood and his Merry Men. But did Robin Hood ever exist? The first known mention of such a figure comes in 1225 when a fugitive called Robert Hod is reported to have failed to appear before the York assizes. Evidence suggests that by the second half of the 13th century Robin Hood (or variants of that name) was being used as a nickname, applied to other criminals, and the man of the legend was actually based on a number of people, all merged together under a single name.

P… is for Peaky Blinders

Thanks to the BBC series, Birmingham’s Peaky Blinders are now a household name but while the TV series is set in the years after the First World War, by that time the Peaky Blinders had been supplanted by another Birmingham gang.

The real Peaky Blinders gang operated from the end of the 19th century until the start of World War I, fighting other Birmingham gangs for dominance over territories in the city. Their signature outfit included tailored jackets, silk scarves and, of course, peaked flat caps.

Q… is for Quadrophenia

Based on the 1973 album by The Who, Franc Roddam’s 1979 film Quadrophenia tells the story of Jimmy, a sharply-dressed scooterriding Mod from the 1960s. The film focuses on the events of the summer of 1964 when, according to the media at least, gangs of Mods battled it out in Britain’s seaside towns with their mortal enemies, the leather-jacketed, motorbike-riding Rockers.

Mods and Rockers at Margate beach
Mods invade Margate beach during a fight with a group of Rockers in 1964. (Photo by Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images)

R… is for Richardsons

The South London gang, led in the 1960s by Eddie and Charlie Richardson, was at least as prolific as that of the Krays and certainly more violent. Operating from behind the cover of a scrap metal business they controlled a criminal empire involving protection racketeering and drug dealing. Anyone ‘taking a liberty’ with them risked a painful encounter with their enforcer, ‘Mad’ Frankie Fraser. #e pair were arrested in 1966 following a murderous brawl in Catford, and at their subsequent trial accounts were given of the tortures Fraser had inflicted on those who had crossed his bosses. #ese included electric shocks and the painful use of pliers. Because Charlie Richardson’s (above) custom was to give his bloodied victims a clean shirt to go home in, a beating from the Richardsons became known amongst the criminal fraternity as ‘taking a shirt from Charlie’.

S… is for Scuttlers

In the 1870s, people in Manchester watched in horror as ‘Scuttlers’ – neighbourhood gangs of young, working-class men – fought ferocious battles with each other using fists, knives and belts. Like many youth groups, the Scuttlers developed a distinctive appearance, wearing colourful neckerchiefs and long fringes. Scuttling was largely brought to an end by the establishment of lads’ clubs, which offered young boys who might become the next generation of Scuttlers an alternative form of competition – football.

T… is for Arthur Thompson

Arthur “ompson senior was one of Glasgow’s most feared gangsters. “ough he was reputed to have made a vast fortune from protection rackets, he was never convicted of any serious offences and always referred to himself as a ‘Glasgow businessman’. Although he’s now often called ‘the Godfather’ of Scottish crime, any newspaper that did so during his lifetime could expect a very rapid communication from his lawyers. “ompson survived numerous murder attempts, including a car-bomb which killed his mother-in-law (his son was also gunned down outside the family home) and at least two shootings. He died in his bed from natural causes aged 61, in 1993.

U… is for Undercover

In a bid to gather the evidence needed to convict criminal gangs, members of the police force have often gone ‘undercover’. In 1977, the police seized the largest LSD haul in history largely thanks to the efforts of one of their officers, who spent two and a half years posing as a hippy in order to infiltrate the gang producing and distributing the drug. Efforts have also been made to infiltrate gangs of football hooligans – an extremely risky job requiring an in-depth knowledge of the football team in question. One such operation, codenamed ‘Red Card’, successfully infiltrated a gang of Birmingham City hooligans and led to a number of convictions in 1987.

V… is for Victorian

In Victorian times, the big cities of London, Glasgow, Manchester and Birmingham were not the only places to be plagued by gangs of fighting youths. The completion of Cobden Bridge over the River Itchen at Southampton in 1883 almost immediately led to a series of pitched battles between the ‘townies’ of Kingsland, Northam and St Deny’s, and those from the new estates across the river.

W… is for Weapons

Did the Peaky Blinders really sew razor blades into their flat caps and use them to slash the foreheads of their enemies, causing blood to pour down into their eyes and blind them? Almost certainly not. Razor blades were still a novelty when the Blinders were plying their trade. One item of clothing that was regularly used as a weapon, however, by the Blinders and by many other gangs, were the thick leather belts they wore. Their buckles could be sharpened to produce a deadly flail.

X… is for Xenophobia

Hatred of foreigners has often led to mob violence. One early example is the Evil May Day Riots of 1517, when mobs of Londoners rampaged through the streets, looting and destroying all property they suspected to belong to foreigners. Hundreds of rioters were arrested, but only 13 were executed. The rest were pardoned, largely thanks to Henry VIII’s Spanish queen, Catherine of Aragon, who begged her husband to show mercy.

Y… is for York

York was the birthplace of a member of one of the most famous gangs of all – Guy Fawkes of the gunpowder plotters. An experienced soldier, his job was to light the fuse that would blow the Houses of Parliament sky-high in 1605. He was captured before he could do so and, under torture, revealed the names of his accomplices. Sentenced to be hanged, drawn and quartered, Fawkes jumped from the scaffold and broke his neck before the full horrors of the execution could be inflicted.

Z… is for Zulus

Football hooligan gangs of the 1970s and 1980s frequently had names. Chelsea had the Headhunters, Millwall the Bushwackers, while Birmingham City’s had the Zulus. That’s because, whereas the gangs they came up against were predominantly white, theirs had members of various ethnic backgrounds.

Julian Humphrys is a historian and author specialising in battlefields. His books include Enemies at the Gate (English Heritage, 2007)

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This article was first published in the September 2019 issue of BBC History Revealed