When worlds collide


Gangs such as the Bengal Tigers (from Bengal St in Ancoats, just off Oldham Road), the Meadow Lads (from Angel Meadow) and the Grey Mare Boys (from Grey Mare Lane in Bradford, Manchester) 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 the neckerchief they wore.

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 and notorious gangs was located – the Bengal Tigers. Our maternal great grandfather, James Cowan, was a member of this gang.

James was born in 1873, part of a large family of 7 children (2 of whom, before they reached their first birthday, fell victim to the high mortality rate in Manchester at this 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 Spencer’s aunt, our 2x gt aunt.)  Hannah married George Willan, they went on to have 8 children and William was the eldest.  William was also a member of a gang, the Bradford Street scuttlers.

It was 1892 and tensions between gangs were escalating and on Sunday April 17, a ‘scuttle’ went ahead between the Bradford Street gang and Lime Street gang.  Ongoing exchanges continued between these two gangs, with tragic consequences.  William, who was 16, 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 Ancoats every day, due to the location of his job – this was enemy territory and entering enemy territory was reason enough for a fight.

When Peter finished his shift, he arranged to meet four lads, so he was not on his own as he walked through Ancoats.  They were also jointed by 19 year old James Cowan (great granded), a member of the Bengal Tigers gang.  His presence should have allowed for safe passage.

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 from his wounds two weeks later, was charged with murder.  His case and trial was unusual because members of his own gang testified against him (gang members were supposed to maim, not kill)

A witness for the prosecution was James Cowen, great grand dad.

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.

North Devon Gazette 24 May 1892

Oxfordshire Weekly News 25 May 1892

Manchester Times 3 June 1892

Aberdeen Press and Journal 1 June 1892

Penrith Observer 17 May 1892

The case was given lots of coverage thought England;  Hannah, Williams mother must have been a force to contend 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.

Philips Park Cemetery – Willan Plot


The Gangs of Manchester : Andrew Davies

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