Modern news reports of street violence, perpetrated by what we, quite rightly, describe as ‘callous, mindless thugs’ shock and disturb all decent people. But it was the same in Victorian England, and nowhere more than on the dark, narrow, cobbled streets and dockland haunts of Liverpool.
In fact, violent street gangs had been in existence in the Town since the mid-19th Century, as well as more politically or sectarian-motivated gangs, such as ‘The Hibernians’. Some would go on the attack for what they might describe as ‘ideological reasons’; some for the purposes of robbery; and others simply for the pleasure they derived from inflicting brutality and violence on completely innocent people.
Later, during the 1870s, the brewing families in Victorian Liverpool, who owned and operated breweries and chains of public houses and beer-houses, were certainly making a great deal of money: A report from 1874, listed 1,929 pubs, 384 beer houses, and 272 off-licences, just in the centre of the Town. However, the brewers also created and exacerbated the social and criminal problems of the Town; giving gangs like the ‘Cornermen’ an opportunity for violent crime.
These crowds of thugs would loiter outside the doorways to pubs – and there really was one on every corner of Liverpool; and intimidate passers-by into handing over the price of at least one-pint. If you did not pay-up, the least you would get was a beating.
By the start of the 1880s, however, the number of gangs of violent thugs was growing considerably; with names like the ‘Regent Street Gang’, who claimed that particular thoroughfare as their sovereign territory. Woe betide anyone who, quite literally, crossed their path.
There were also the ‘Roach Guard Gang’ and ‘The Dead Rabbits’, both made up of Catholic youths. They were thieves and robbers, who were also exceptionally territorial. They simply enjoyed fighting – and the more brutal the battle the better. They fought with other gangs, over territory and pride, or ‘just for the hell of it’! Any ordinary passer-by who happened across such a battle could suddenly find himself drawn unwillingly into the mêlée, and getting stabbed or mutilated as a result.
Both of these gangs had counterparts by the same name operating in the streets of New York, as did many more gangs from the Town. This means that these disaffected and violent youths, coming over from Ireland after the Great Famine, were taking their prejudices, practices, and pastimes over to the New World from Liverpool.
Then there were the ‘Logwood Gang’ who, as their name suggests, carried long, heavy sticks, or small logs as their weapons-of-choice; using these as cudgels to belabor their victims about the head and shoulders.
But perhaps the most notorious of all the Liverpool Gangs was ‘The High Rip Gang’.
Their particular targets were dockers and dock workers, and they were quite ‘professional’ in their methods. After identifying their target, they might track him for days or weeks, just to establish his routes and routines. Then, and especially on pay days, they would pounce, assault, and rob these innocent workmen. They thought little of using the severest levels of violence on their victims, even hacking or kicking them to death.
These gangs terrorised the Town, and scandalised the nation.
And Liverpool also had its child-gangs, often organised by older, more experienced thieves – not unlike the ‘Bill Sykes’ or ‘Fagin’ characters in Charles Dickens’ story, ‘Oliver Twist’. Mostly, the gang members would be young boys who were following the loutish patterns set by their older brothers, or even their fathers. Whilst some were violent, and would assault and rob people, mostly they were burglars: Such gangs as ‘The Housebreakers’ and ‘The Lemon Street Gang’: who could easily slip through even the smallest of open windows.
This latter gang in particular was made up of family members or gangs of ‘mates’; many of whom had run away from home, preferring a life of adventure on the streets of Liverpool. Conditions at home must have been dreadful though, if this was their preferred way of life!
But the gangs did not get it all their own way: sooner or later the Law would catch up with them and, when it did, it was vicious in its retribution.
Children and younger boys could be sent, for a number of years, to ‘Industrial Schools’ such as the notorious establishment at Kirkdale, where the regime was strict, punishments were brutal, and living conditions were harsh. Or worse, to serve time aboard special training ships moored in the river Mersey. Conditions on board these vessels were difficult indeed, with the added inconvenience of being on board a tethered, confined, wooden prison, were harsh discipline was a way of life. All of this was perfectly in tune with the desire for ‘punishment and retribution’ so prevalent in Victorian times.
As well as incarceration, flogging was used on younger offenders; using either Birch Rods or a Cat-O-Nine-Tails. A ‘Birch’ was, in fact, a number of long, leafless, hazel or willow twigs, bound together along only part of its length. This could often be up to four feet long. It was usually administered, with considerable force, on the bare buttocks of the offender, although sometimes on the bare back or shoulders.
The ‘Cat’ was a much more vicious instrument of punishment. This consisted of 3, 5, 7, or 9 lengths of cotton cord or thin leather, each strand with a knot tied in it, near the end. Again, this was always administered on bare skin, usually the buttocks but also the back and shoulders.
Of course, flogging was also used on adults, and indeed, flogging of men was still being carried out as late as 1962, although public flogging was abolished in 1830. The birching of young people was only abolished in 1948; except on the Isle of Man, where it was in use until 1976.
Of course, the death penalty was fully in force, and not just for murder, but for pick-pocketing, sheep stealing, and burglary. Up to the middle of the 19th century children, often as young as seven years old, could also be executed by hanging.
But neither hanging nor flogging seemed to deter the thugs who were members of Liverpool’s vicious street-gangs; these punishments kept being meted out, but the gangs kept forming and continuing their violent ways. Until the outbreak of World War One: Now these young men were being sent overseas, in uniform, where they would experience for themselves what it was like to be on the receiving end of vicious assaults – only this time with bullets, mortars, bayonets, and mustard gas.