April 18, 2013
A night to remember
I celebrated my 18th birthday in 1984 with a family meal in a local pizza restaurant followed by a nightclub in Manchester with my friends.I don’t recall much about the occasion but I’ll never forget how the night ended. I was in Piccadilly Gardens in the centre of the city when two rival gangs of skinheads clashed right around me. There were large numbers of crazed young men with crew cuts, steel capped DMs (much more lethal than the Twitter sort) and armed with pieces of wood with nails in the end. Ugly and frightening scenes ensued as they brawled en mass and I spent the rest of the evening helping a young ‘fighter’ who had sustained a nasty cut to the head. This incident wasn’t particularly unusual back then in ‘Gangchester’ and footage of rioting in the 80s recently shown on the TV (because of a certain funeral) has brought back many disturbing memories of that era. I’ve also been researching gang warfare for my book and I’ve discovered that the city’s violent history of streetfighting stretches at least a century back from the 1980s.
In the later decades of the nineteenth century, the streets of Manchester were terrorised by notorious gangs, known as ‘scuttlers.’ In 1890, there were many detailed descriptions of these terrifying street fighters in the press: ‘Scuttlers’ were young men and women, usually between the ages of 14 and 20, and ‘scuttling’ consisted of fighting between rival gangs, all armed with weapons such as knives, stones, broken bottles and the infamous scuttlers’ belts. Hundreds of youths would engage in vicious hand-to-hand combat in regular violent clashes, the purpose being to defend their territory and maim their opponents mostly by striking them with the buckle of the nail-studded leather belts. There were few deaths but many young streetfighters were disfigured by deep cuts to the face and hands, or were even stabbed.
Detective Caminada had no illusions about how dangerous these gangs were: ‘Many a good tussle have I had with other classes of criminals, but I would rather face the worst of these than a scuttler.’ In his early years as a police constable he faced them many times, and he didn’t always come away unscathed. In 1892 a 16-year-old factory worker was fatally stabbed during a ‘scuttle’ and Billy Willan, also 16, was convicted of his murder and sentenced to death. Desperate to avoid the gallows, Willan appealed to the famous detective to save him. Caminada took on his cause, unaware that, in a bizarre twist of events, his compassionate act would not only change young Willan’s life but have a significant impact on a member of the detective’s own family.
I shall draw on my own vivid memories of that night in Manchester as I write about the scuttlers in my book, The Real Sherlock Holmes.
(Due to the unforeseen circumstances, there are no photos of my 18th, but the one above is from two months later – we’re all still smiling!)