Throughout the last quarter of the nineteenth century the subject of gang crime periodically troubled the newspapers. Concern about ‘roughs’ first surfaced in the 1870s in London and elsewhere, with specific incidents involving ‘corner men’ in Liverpool, and ‘scuttlers’ in Salford before the ‘hooligan panic’ broke in the 1890s. I’ve written about gang fights (including one fatal stabbing) before but the pages of the newspapers would suggest that while youthful ‘bad behaviour’ was endemic, fatalities were rare.
Today we have a fairly clear idea of what we think a ‘gang’ is even if very few of us are qualified to judge. So called ‘post code wars’ involving territorial disputes have dominated press coverage along with shootings and the seemingly routine carrying of knives in some parts of London and other major British cities. Those involved are usually young – below 25 – working class, and often from the poorest, most marginalised sections of society.
When I looked at the make up of the ‘gang’ responsible for the murder of Joseph Rumbold in 1888 only one of the 10 young men that appeared at the Old Bailey accused of his murder was unemployed. That was 18 year-old George Galletly, the person who actually stabbed Joe by the York Gates at Regent’s Park. Galletly was the only one convicted and his sentence of death was quickly commuted to life imprisonment on account of his tender years.
I’m not clear that the Victorians believed they had a problem with gang violence in the way that we do today; crucially while the Pall Mall Gazette ran one of its periodic ‘exposés’ on the London gang issue the papers mostly dealt with the topic as a routine, if unpleasant, consequence of urban living. Even when a case like the Regent’s Park murder was fresh in the memory the papers weren’t always keen to hype an incident like the one that I’ve picked for today’s visit to the police courts.
Rumbold had been killed on the 24 May 1888 and the trial had taken place at the Old Bailey in August and Galletly set to hang on the 21st, exactly 130 years ago today. By the 21 August 1888 however Galletly had already been reprieved by Henry Matthews, the Home Secretary and the press had moved on. After all, an even more sensational murder story was just around the corner…
At one in the morning on Sunday 19 August 1888 PC Nicholas (100D) was walking his beat in Lisson Grove when he came across a group of young men in the street. There was about a dozen of them and they were rowdy, quite possibly drunk, acting ‘in a very disorderly fashion, and fighting’. The copper did what he was expected to do and asked them to go home quietly.
This seems very like the Fitzroy Place or the Lisson Grove ‘Lads’ that had been involved in the Regent’s Park murder earlier that year. Groups of young men, aged 18-25, wandering the streets late at night, under the influence of drink, pushing, shoving and abusing passers-by; this has all the hallmarks of late eighteenth-century ‘hooliganism’.
One of the group, William Murphy (a 20 year old carman from Marylebone) took exception to being asked to ‘go quietly’ by a policeman. He squared up to PC Nicholas and took off his heavy leather belt. Wrapping it around his wrist, with the large brass buckle to the front, he aimed a blow at the officer.
PC Nicholas avoided being hit on his head but the buckle landed with force on his hand, doing some damage. He blew his whistle and help soon arrived; Murphy was overpowered after a short struggle and the others scattered. On Monday the carman was up in court before Mr De Rutzen at Marylebone Police court, where he’d been before.
The magistrate recognised him and dismissed Murphy’s claim that he was only defending himself against the policeman. He had previous convictions for assault, including at least one where he’d served 2 months for violence that involved him using his belt as he’d done the previous night. As Andy Davies’ work has shown the Salford and Manchester ‘scuttling’ gangs decorated their heavy leather belts with horse brasses that doubled as offensive weapons in their fights with rivals; it seems the tradition had also reached Marylebone.
De Rutzen sent him down for three months this time, but probably felt it would do little to change his behaviour. I suspect he was correct, most young men like Murphy seemed to treat gangs as stage on their journey to adulthood. Once they found a sweetheart to settle down with and the demands of a family intruded they left their wayward youth behind them. The violence didn’t necessarily stop of course, but the target became much closer to home.
[from The Standard, Tuesday, August 21, 1888]