11th August 2011. No Mean City.
Today a Thursday in 2011 Parliament was recalled from holiday to discuss the recent riots involving burning and looting in London and other major cities.
Gangs are nothing new in Britain and one of the most successful of Chief Constables in tackling the thugs inter-war, was Sir Percy Sillitoe.
It was after a career in Colonial Africa that he applied unsuccessfully to be chief at Hull and Nottingham, and it was along with a ‘half-hearted reading for the bar’ and depression, before he was successful at Chesterfield in 1923.
However it was after being appointed Chief Constable at Sheffield in May 1926 that he showed his mettle by revitalising a demoralised force, when he took on the gangs which had plagued and taken over the slum streets of the city for years, with his policy of ‘reasonable force’, a euphemism for ‘dishing out to the thugs in a language they understood’.
In 1931 he did the same for Glasgow where he broke the power of the ‘razor-gangs’ portrayed in the hard-hitting book ‘No Mean City’, a quotation from the Bible where Paul says, ‘He is a citizen of Tarsus, No Mean City’.
Glasgow gangs had names such as: Bowery Boys, Shamrock, Bingo Boys, Govan Boys, Baltic Fleet, Redskins, a litany which hid the most imaginable vicious thuggery ever seen in these islands.
At Glasgow Sillitoe introduced radios, civilians and retirement for police after 30 years.
Post-War Prime Minister, Clement Attlee appointed Sillitoe, brought out of retirement, to be Director-General of MI5 in 1946, though he was never a popular successor to Sir David Petrie, and never managed to secure the backing from colleagues whom he regarded as ’book-learned intellectuals’.
Gang violence saw its seeds in a 19th century, rapidly urbanised society; the term Juvenile Delinquent being widely reported in the growing newspapers of the time.
By 1890 gangs in the north of the city centre in Manchester, the likes of the Bengal Tigers of Ancoats and their rivals of Harperhey, were sentenced to penal servitude after a period when Magistrates considered lobbying to re-introduce flogging.
The Manchester Guardian at the time, commissioned a feature by youth worker Alexander Devine which revealed, ‘the gang member or Scuttler to be aged 14-18, carrying weapons from knives, sharpened bike-chains and heavy belt buckles, all in a 19thc Shock-City of pollution and filthy, teeming tenements’.(1)
Bengal Tigers for example had pointed clogs, bell-bottomed trousers, 14 inches at knee and 21 inches at the foot, flashy silk scarves and long fringes; ‘dressed up to mess-up’, as the later ‘Teds’ and ‘Mods and Rockers’, were keen to say.
In early 20th century Birmingham the ‘Peaky Blinders’ were adept at maiming their antagonists with razors cunningly secreted in their caps. There seems no end to the versatility of some human depravity, even though the ‘filthy, teeming tenements’, have gone.
(1) Scuttler was a term of the 1860.s marked by dress and an armoury of weapons.
Ref: 19thc Gangs. Mary Carp 1853.
Ref: No Mean City. Alexander McArthur and journalist, H Kingsley Long. Longman’s 1935.