In the 1890s a new word entered the lexicon: ‘hooligan’. It was used to refer to gangs of youth, mostly men, who engaged in petty crime and acts of anti-social behaviour. We’ve taken the word and applied it more broadly to any group of badly behaved people, and in the 1970 and 80s, largely those associated with football ‘fans’.
Of course the ‘hooligan menace’ was not a new thing in the 1890s it was more that the period witnessed one another media generated ‘moral panic’ about youth, and specifically youth in Britain’s large urban areas. This fear of youth, and preoccupation with gangs, re-emerged in the 1890s and then again at various points in the twentieth century (in 1920s London, in the 50s with Teddy boys, 1960s with Mods and Rockers) before it changed its focus to concentrate on knife and gun crime in the late 1900s and early 21stcentury.
Before the term ‘hooligan’ was coined most youth gangs were identified as ‘roughs’ or ‘ruffians’; fairly generic terms that could be used against any group of ill-mannered people gathered in small to larger crowds, such as could be found at a political rally or demonstration. If you look at the context of reports in the media however it is fairly easy to spot where the ‘roughs’ in question are young men (and women) behaving badly.
In May 1890 Lloyd’s Weekly included a report of a ‘ruffianly attack on cyclists’. Lewis Smead (a licensed victualer), William Harbert (a skate maker) and Edward march (an engineer) were enjoying a day out with their cycle club on the Fulham Road. Rather like today’s lycra clad enthusiasts that clog up the country lanes on the edges of the capital and throughout the Home Counties, these three ‘respectable’ members of lower middle class society were taking the air and indulging their passion for two wheels.
They belonged to a club and were cycling slowly and in single file along the Fulham Road when they passed a group of young people. Almost immediately they were subjected to a tirade of verbal abuse. This soon escalated into physical violence as random youths rushed into the street to try and knock a rider off his bike, perhaps daring each other to do so.
The police quickly got involved as they had already been trying to move on the ‘gang of disorderly youths and girls’ who had been pushing pedestrians off the pavement as they strutted their way down the road.
One lad, later identified as Lewis Rogers, a 19 year-old coachman, knocked Mr Smead off his vehicle and then punched him in the jaw, swearing at him for good measure. Then a full blown battle ensued which the police were hard pressed to do much about. One of the club’s bicycles was ‘completely smashed up’ and as Harbert tried to apprehend the perpetrator he was assaulted. Rogers allegedly told him that ‘he would boot him up’.
March’s lip was split open as he struggled with several youths and at least one of the girls, and noted that the females were ‘helping [the boys] in every possible way’. The girls it seems were every bit as ‘ruffianly’ as their male companions. The whole episode ended with Rogers being arrested and brought before Mr Sheil at Westminster Police court. One young woman testified in his defense, swearing on oath that Rogers had collided with Mr Smead’s machine by accident.
The magistrate dismissed her evidence out of hand. Rogers, he said, was:
‘evidently one of those troublesome young roughs who could not let a decent person pass without interference, and he would go to hard labour for a month’.
He added that the lad was lucky it wasn’t the longer sentence that he would have preferred to hand down had it not been for the punishment meted out to him already by members of the club. It transpired that Rogers had been knocked against a wall and his head cut open by the angry cyclists that his ‘gang’ of ‘ruffians’ had chosen to abuse. It was justice of a sort and the magistrate made no effort to condemn the violence of the ‘respectable’ men of the cycle club.
[from Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, Sunday, May 11, 1890]
If you enjoy this blog series you might be interested in Drew’s jointly authored study of the Whitechapel (or ‘Jack the Ripper’) murders which is published by Amberley Books on 15 June this year. You can find details here: