Gangs such as the Bengal Tigers (from Bengal Street in Ancoats), the Meadow Lads (from Angel Meadow) and the Grey Mare Boys (from Grey Mare Lane in Bradford) waged turf war in the 1800’s in Manchester, coming to a head in the latter part of the century. A ‘scuttler’ was a gang member, their allegiance shown by the style/colour of their neckerchief.

Manchester was at the centre of the industrial revolution, and the population exploded during the 19th century, with city centre becoming home to some of the worst slums thanks to the rapid industrialisation of the area. Angel Meadow was one such area of the city, which ran adjacent to Miller Street – Friedrich Engles called it ‘Hell on Earth’; very poor sanitation, no clean water and overcrowding adding to the hardship of day to day life. This area was just around the corner from Bengal Street, Ancoats where, in the mid 1880’s one of the most powerful gangs was located – the Bengal Tigers. My maternal great grandfather, James Cowan, was a member of this gang.

James was born in 1873, he was part of a large family of 7 children – 2 of whom, before they had reached their first birthday, had fallen victim to the high mortality rate in Manchester at that time.

In 1891 James lived with his family on Primrose Street, Ancoats – just one street over from Bengal Street. He was working as a cotton dyer in one of the mills

The other half of this story is William Willan, who was born in 1875, his mother was Hannah Jane Spencer (grandad Spencers Aunt – so on my paternal side of the family). William also came from a large family of 8, he was the eldest of the family and had 3 brothers and 4 sisters. His father, George, was an engineer. His mother, Hannah Jane, was a French polisher. George himself was a cooper – and a member of a gang called Bradford Street scuttlers.

It was 1892, the Bradford Street gang and the Lime Street gang were escalating, exchanging threats, insults and warnings; on Sunday April 17 these led to an all out ‘scuttle’ between the two gangs. The ongoing ‘tit for tat’ exchanges carried on after this Sunday, with tragic consequences. William held a long running grudge against another 16 year old, Peter Kennedy. Peter was a member of the Lime Street gang, but he had to walk through the Ancoats area each day due to the location of his job – this was enemy territory and just entering the territory was reason enough for a fight.

When Peter finished his shift he had arranged to meet four lads, so he was not on his own as he walked through Ancoats. They were also joined by 19 year old James Cowan, a member of the Bengal Tigers gang and his presence should have allowed for safe passage.
For whatever reason, on a Saturday afternoon in 1892, on the corner of Mill Street and Great Ancoats Street William Willan fatally stabbed Peter Kennedy.

William was arrested and, when Peter Kennedy died of his wounds two weeks later, was charged with murder. His case and trial was unusual because members of this own gang testified against him; normally this would not happen but it was thought that William had gone too far.

A witness for the prosecution was James Cowan, my great grandfather.

William was found guilty and the judge passed the death penalty, he was to be executed in Strangeways where he was held in a condemned cell.

I think Hannah, Williams mother, was force to be reckoned with; on Monday May 23 a solicitor was instructed to prepare a petition pleading for mercy, it stressed the prisoners youth but also put the question out that William might not have actually used the knife as there were other gang members who had taken part in the fight.

Thousands signed the 5 copies of the petition which was circulated in Ancoats and the adjacent slum districts.

The famous Manchester detective Jerome Caminada was also appealed to, Caminada had not been involved in the case but was intrigued as to why William had requested to see him. He visited William in Strangeways, from his own memoirs he says the scene remained with him for the rest of his life, as ‘the poor lad put his arms through the bars and implored me to save him, as tears ran down his face’. As Caminada left the prison he met a woman with a shawl over her head, she was Williams mother and she also begged Caminada to help her son.

Caminada joined the campaign for Williams reprieve and on 30 May 1892, his sentence was commuted to life in prison. William was released in 1900 and returned to his life as a cooper, living in Harpurhey.

In 1905 William married Florence, Caminada’s niece. Their son William Louis was born the following year.

William died on 12 June 1951 at the age of 75 and is buried in Philips Park.

James Cowan married on 10 June 1897, he had one daughter – my grandmother, and died at the relatively young age of 40 on 20 July 1914

The Gangs of Manchester, Andrew Davies