Andrew Davies is a social historian, and senior lecturer at the University of Liverpool. His book, Gangs of Manchester, explores the underworld of the scuttler, violent youths who formed neighbourhood based gangs in working-class areas of Manchester. Following his lecture at the Manchester Art Gallery earlier in the year, we talked to Andrew about his cameo appearance in a play based on his book, his historical interests in crime, and the importance of history to explore present social issues.

How did you come to study the social history of Manchester?

I grew up in Northwich, 25 miles outside of Manchester. My family became very friendly with some of the Manchester families round about so I developed that kind of affiliation. I did my history degree at Cambridge in the early 1980s and decided to stay there to do my PHD. I really wanted to work on a modern social history project and I decided that I wanted to do some oral history, which I had never done before, but I really liked the prospect of it. I thought I’d better pick a city as a case study and so it was partly a sense that I quite fancied living in Manchester for a couple of years doing the academic work during my PhD.

I was also very influenced by a book called The Classic Slum by Robert Roberts. Roberts was born in Salford in 1905 and wrote an astonishing book, which was part special history based on his own research, part memoir, and part oral history. My mum had given me that book when I was eighteen and she had grown up in a dockland community very much like the one that Roberts grew up in and she gave me this book and said, ‘Read that, that’s like my childhood’. Even though she’d grown up in the fifties she said that the book captured what it was like. So there were lots of personal reasons for picking the research topic as well as a little bit of an academic way in through Robert Roberts.

Your lecture at the Manchester Art Gallery was centred on your book, Gangs of Manchester, and you painted a rounded picture of your interest in working-class crime in the late 19th century, social historian, where do your other historical interests lie?

In recent years my work has been very much in the history of youth and crime and disorder so I’ve got a cluster of interests there. The other sort of research interest I’ve got is in the social history of leisure and what we might call popular culture. My PHD project was actually on leisure in everyday life, going right back to some things that I picked up in the Robert Roberts book, and I retained an interest in that, and the projects overlap all the time. When I was reading about Manchester and the Salford scuttlers, some of the episodes I was reading about had taken place in music halls so that interest in leisure and interest in crime overlaps in lots of interesting ways.

Although you’re a historian of crime, you don’t seem to use the word crime or criminal to describe scuttlers or scuttling in your book, Gangs of Manchester. Do you think scuttlers were criminals, or were they products of their environment, or a bit of both?

I think the problem with the word criminal is that it’s so loaded and if we only write about people of the past as criminals, we tend to produce a one-dimensional portrait of them. It’s a real issue if you’re doing this kind of research because lots of the records that we have were generated within the criminal justice system so we are getting glimpses of peoples lives at the moment they’re in trouble. I always tried to do the research baring in mind that this young person who was before the magistrates in 1894 was also somebody’s son, somebody’s brother, somebody’s workmate, possibly somebody’s sweetheart. Although the sources don’t always give you easy ways in to finding out that additional information I think it’s important to look and to flesh out the portraits where you can. The risk if you don’t is that you end up reproducing some very negative stereotypes. So avoiding that sort of loaded language is deliberate.

You mentioned at the end of your lecture about the wider community engagements you are involved in, what kind of projects have you worked on?

The most exciting project that I’ve done was the play Angels with Manky Faces. The group that wrote and produced the play are called MaD Theatre Company, who are based in Moston in North Manchester.

I went along to see a MaD performance for the first time and was absolutely blown away by it because they styled themselves as a working-class theatre company who write and perform the plays for other working class people, and I thought that was quite interesting as a way of defining yourself and your intended audience. They clearly had really strong Manchester roots and the first play that I saw I thought was really hilarious, I thought it was politically very acute, was absolutely filthy; I hadn’t seen anything quite like it.

That was around the time that I’d just finished the manuscripts for the Gangs of Manchester so it hadn’t been published yet but I had this 500-page typescript. I approached Rob Lees from MaD Theatre Company at a FC United game and said, I’ve seen this production and I really liked it and I’ve got this history book that you might be interested in taking a look at. We ended up working together for a year or less during the academic year 2008-9.

Angels with Manky Faces. MaD Theatre Comapny
Angels with Manky Faces. MaD Theatre Comapny

The Gangs of Manchester so it hadn’t been published yet but I had this 500-page typescript. I approached Rob Lees from MaD Theatre Company at a FC United game and said, I’ve seen this production and I really liked it and I’ve got this history book that you might be interested in taking a look at. We ended up working together for a year or less during the academic year 2008-9. Their two scriptwriters wrote the play and then I was on hand to talk about all the historical detail, work with the costume designer, talk to the young people in the group about the research and where it had come from so they got a sense of it.

They coaxed me into performing in one of the films which was hilarious so I played this slightly hoity-toity journalist who’d come up from London and who had been horrified by sights of revelry on the Oldham Road on a Sunday night. They got me typing on an old typewriter in the props department, and they got me bashing out this commentary in time with the drumbeat of New Order’s Blue Monday, which is the soundtrack at the opening. It was daft on one level but it was really funny on another.

Do you think history has a current and relevant role in young people’s lives today?

I think that if you can present history in a way that students of all ages can relate to I think it’s a really good way of fostering that interest. It’s also a chance to tap into a pride in place, people have a sort of pride in the community that they come from, history is a way of fostering that but that sense of identity is a way of promoting and engaging with history as well. That was very noticeable with some of the younger people in MaD. Some of them said to me very frankly that they really didn’t enjoy history at school; they just didn’t think it had anything to do with them, whereas they could use Angels with Manky Faces and see the historical-modern connections with it.

What are you working on at the moment?

I’m doing a bit more work on the late 19th century and what I’m interested in now is what happens when young people from socially elite backgrounds get in trouble.

I’m particularly interested in an episode involved in the Bullingdon Club in the 1890s, a group of students get involved in something that’s basically window smashing in the quad of their own Oxford College. Had they been young people from Ancoats smashing windows at the mill where some of them worked they would have been jailed. I’m interested in what happens when these elite young men break the law by committing criminal damage. At the moment what’s fascinating me is an intervention by the Lord Chief Justice Clark who’s one of the most senior figures in the legal establishment who intervenes on behalf of these young people saying they really shouldn’t suffer criminal sanction because they’ve got a great future ahead of them and the criminal justice system shouldn’t want to damage that.

I’m interested in how punishments are often shaped according to the person as well as the criminal act they have committed, and how punishments are tailored accordingly. I think that social history is useful because these cases have a lot of resonance today, and I think it can help you to ask some difficult questions about the present. Historical antecedence is in itself a way of asking some difficult questions that need to be asked now.

To find out more about Andrew Davies and the Gangs of Manchester: