Gangs and knife-crime fears: how has Britain responded through history?

British cities are in the midst of a crime epidemic. Or are they? Two experts consider the historical precedents for the moral panics over knife-crime and moped robberies that have swept the nation in recent times | Compiled by Chris Bowlby, a BBC journalist specialising in history

A cartoon from 1862 shows a pair 'garroters' attacking a victim. (Photo by The Cartoon Collector/Print Collector/Getty Images)

Current concerns about gangs and knife-crime are not new – far from it. Similar anxieties were voiced across England’s major cities during the latter decades of the 19th century. Then, as now, most gang members were young men, and gangs were overwhelmingly concentrated in districts already blighted by poverty, ill-health and unemployment.

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Like their modern counterparts, the ‘Scuttlers’ or gang fighters of Victorian Manchester and Salford fought with knives, although they also used the buckle ends of their heavy leather belts. Scuttlers, like Birmingham’s ‘Sloggers’ and ‘Peaky Blinders’ (who emerged during the 1890s) were fiercely territorial. Encroachment into a district colonised by a rival gang was the surest way to spark a fight. In Birmingham, as in Manchester, members of rival gangs also sought each other in city-centre music halls and nearby beerhouses. Considerable kudos was at stake.

Young men who courted women from rival districts also found themselves at risk. Male gang members regarded local women as their property – and viewed a youth from a rival district walking his ‘sweetheart’ home from a music hall as an affront. Retribution might be meted out on the spot, or a battle with the gang from the offending youth’s district might be arranged.

Today, these confrontations arise out of infringements of ‘respect’. Victorians didn’t use that word as we use it, but the sparks that ignited fights, leading to countless stabbings, are startlingly similar. That said, the two eras diverge in one key respect: Manchester’s scuttlers and Birmingham’s Peaky Blinders seldom killed one another. They set out to scar and maim opponents. They fought for status, not profit, and most of them grew out of gang-fighting by their early twenties.

The most successful interventions were from the ‘working lads' clubs which cut off the supply of recruits into gangs

Scuttlers and Peaky Blinders attracted extensive newspaper coverage, but only made headline news in the local press. London’s street gangs of the time, by contrast, attracted national – even international – notoriety following disturbances over the bank holiday weekend in August 1898. The ‘Hooligans’, originally a south London gang, became infamous overnight. It’s no accident that the London term ‘hooligan’ became the generic label for a disorderly youth. The national press tends to pay much more attention to offences committed in the capital, and it’s easier to persuade governments to attend to law and order problems close to the seat of government.

Official responses to gangs and knife-crime have tended to be highly punitive, egged on by the media. In Manchester and Salford, Scuttlers were jailed in their hundreds. But even exemplary sentences of penal servitude for life imposed in the 1880s and 1890s had no visible deterrent effect.

The most successful interventions were those by the ‘working lads’ club’ movement. Lads’ clubs, established in the poorer districts of England’s cities during the 1890s, provided alternative outlets for youths, effectively cutting off the supply of recruits into gangs. They owed much of their success to their promotion of sports – football, but also athletics, gymnastics and boxing.

In the decade prior to the First World War, Manchester’s Scuttlers and Birmingham’s Peaky Blinders effectively disappeared. By the 1920s and 1930s, they were recalled – sometimes almost nostalgically – as belonging to an older, more turbulent age.

Dr Andrew Davies is a reader in history at the University of Liverpool.


Over the past two years, British newspapers have been full of alarming reports of rising levels of urban knife-crime. But there’s nothing new in this. Similar stories swept the media as recently as 2007–08. And they produced the same results: urgent calls for decisive government action followed by a smattering of studies and reports.

Take a look back at the past century or so, and you’ll find that moral panics over crime levels are far from uncommon. They occur when a particular type of crime is suddenly perceived as being unusually threatening – often due to the rise of a new technology or tactic. So, while moped crime generated a blizzard of headlines last summer, in the more distant past bicycles were at the centre of a crime panic, just as railways were when they spread across Victorian Britain. New crime strategies are fodder for the sensational reportage that sells newspapers.

Advances in technology can make it seem that a new kind of crime is occurring. So-called ‘upskirting’, where photographs are taken underneath women’s clothes using mobile phones, is currently causing anxiety. But this form of assault has its historical echoes. Outbreaks of skirt-lifting were reported in the 1850s and 1860s because light crinoline cages made this an easy assault for Victorian roughs, or ‘baboons’, as magistrates called them.

These crimes sometimes strike a chord with the public because they apparently confirm existing anxieties. For example, the idea that knife crime is on the rise is grist to the mill for those who argue that there aren’t enough police on our streets.

This is how a moral panic is created and escalated: reportage ‘proves’ that a community is ‘right’ to be worried. The reality is that sober and solid research often shows little real change in crime levels.

New tactics often spark panic. Moped crime generated headlines last summer, just as railways did when they spread across Victorian Britain

A good example of this is the Victorian panic over garrotting, which hit the headlines between 1858 and 1862. Garrotting was a form of what today we would label mugging. It was often perpetrated by two attackers, who slipped a thin rope or fabric around a victim’s neck and pulled the head back, before rifling through their pockets for valuables. It caused widespread panic, and even a change in male fashions – stiffer coat collars suddenly became popular because they obstructed the garrotter.

Garrotting was a relatively new crime, and its timing was interesting, because it coincided with the decision to replace transportation with a new system of penal servitude at home. Critics of that decision argued that garrotting was learned and spread by young men who were sent, as juveniles, to the new prisons. Here, instead of being trained to be useful members of society, these men refined their criminality.

Today, more people are being imprisoned for knife-related offences. As knife-crime is normalised, and loses its sensational edge, the press will lose interest, just as it’s done in the past. But the headlines may well return when something new (a reform, or advance in technology) makes it sensational again.

Dr Judith Rowbotham is visiting research fellow, School of Law at the University of Plymouth.

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This article was first published in the September 2018 edition of BBC History Magazine