Study on Victorian youth gangs inspires stage play

Research at the University of Liverpool into the activities of the ‘scuttlers’ – one of Britain’s earliest youth cults – has been adapted for theatre performances in Liverpool and Manchester.

The play – called Angels with Manky Faces – is inspired by the work of Dr Andrew Davies, who explored Victorian archival records that detailed more than 30 years of territorial battles between young gang members on the streets of Manchester. 

Gang fights during the period were known as ‘scuttles’, and as many as 500 young people would take part in pitched battles between rival gangs.  ‘Scuttlers’ were easily identified by their fringed hair, tilted caps, patterned scarves and bell-bottomed trousers.

Dr Davies, from the University’s School of History, said: “The battles would often take place on the streets or in the music halls of Manchester and were motivated by the excitement of the fight and the status it gave participants, both as groups and individuals.  Scuttlers fought with knives and the buckle ends of their belts, and severe injuries were so numerous that hospital staff during the period claimed they were overwhelmed.”

The work was published in a book called Gangs of Manchester, and inspired the Manchester based MaD Theatre Company to tell their own story of some of the most notorious ‘scuttlers’, through a combination of stage performance and film.

Rob Lees, Artistic Director of MaD, said: “Andrew was able to tell the story of what happened to Victorian gang members once they entered the criminal justice system, but the archive records are very limited on other aspects of their lives. Through the play we explore what they may have been like as sons, daughters and ‘sweethearts’, as well as how Victorian gangs compare to contemporary youth cults.”

The company employed photographer and filmmaker, Paul Cliff, to develop short films to complement the stage performances and demonstrate the similarities between youth gangs in the past and present.  The actors – dressed in Victorian costume – tell the story through modern-day language and perform to the music of popular Manchester bands. 

Paul said: “We approached well known Manchester musicians to play cameo roles in the films.  Mike Joyce of The Smiths was the first to take part, and Clint Boon from Inspiral Carpets, re-recorded the song ‘This is How it Feels to be Lonely’ specifically for the play.”

Clips from the films, which also star Coronation Street actor Graeme Hawley, will be shown at a public event at Liverpool’s Bluecoat Chambers, where Dr Davies will talk about the research and Rob Lees will introduce some of the characters from the stage play. 

Angels with Manky Faces takes place at:
Unity Theatre, Liverpool
8.00pm, Wednesday, 22 July and Thursday, 23 July 

University staff can purchase tickets for the Unity performance at discount rate from Staff House, Abercromby Square.

Library Theatre, Manchester
Wednesday, 19 August to Saturday, 22 August (times vary)

For tickets please telephone the theatre box office on 0151 709 4988 (Unity) or 0161 236 7110 (Library Theatre)

Notes to editors:

1. The University of Liverpool is a member of the Russell Group of leading research-intensive institutions in the UK. It attracts collaborative and contract research commissions from a wide range of national and international organisations valued at more than £93 million annually.

2. MaD is one of Manchester’s most innovative theatre companies. Using a mixture of tragi-comic writing, film and digital imagery to explore pressing social questions, MaD provides a platform for the creative talents of the people of Greater Manchester.

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