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Liverpool Street Gangs

News reports of street violence, perpetrated by those described as ‘callous, mindless thugs’ shock and disturb all decent people. But it was ever thus in Victorian England, and nowhere more than on the dark, narrow, cobbled streets and dockland haunts of Liverpool. Violent street gangs had been in existence in the Town since the mid-19th Century, Some would go on the attack for sectarian or racist reasons’; some for the purposes of robbery; and others simply for the pleasure they derived from inflicting brutality and violence on completely innocent people. Violence was often then as it is now, drink related, report from 1874, listed 1,929 pubs, 384 beer houses, and 272 off-licences, just in the centre of the Town. Crowds of thugs known as 'Cornermen' would loiter outside the doorways to pubs, and intimidate passers-by into handing over the price of a pint. If you did not pay-up, the least you would get was a beating.

On an August Bank holiday in 1874. Robert Morgan and his wife, Alice, spent the day on a trip to Birkenhead. Later on that day having enjoyed their outing they caught the ferry back across the river to the Pier Head. It was about 9pm that night that the couple met up with Robert’s brother, Samuel, near to the dock road. The three of them then walked up Tithebarn Street and on their way, dropped into a pub in Chapel Street for a nightcap.

Tithebarn Street 1843

When they left the pub at about 9:30pm, it was still light. They were surrounded by Cornermen. One, a man called McCrave, asked Robert if he had six pence for a quarter pint. Perhaps because they were on one of the major seven streets of Liverpool, Robert, felt safe enough to goad them. He said they wouldn't need to beg if they had a job? Even less wisely, Robert then turned his back on them.

Robert had only taken a few steps when one of the Cornerman delivered a punch to the back of his head. It sent him sprawling across the street. Samuel retaliated. He knocked one of the assailants down. The gang whistled for back up. Two other men Campbell and Mullen attacked Samuel and Robert. Robert’s wife was hit in the ear so hard that she went deaf. When Robert stopped moving, the gang fled down one of these side streets. Samuel tackled one but then McCrave pulled a knife. Distracted, and then attacked from behind, Samuel couldn't stop the gang’s escape. It was said that the police tried to intervene but too late. Robert bled out on the steps of a warehouse. Samuel returned to find an onlooker trying to revive Robert with brandy. But it was all too late.

The  police took control and PC Adam Green arrived and escorted Robert to the North Dispensary in Vauxhall Road. The coroner found his body shockingly cut and bruised. What appeared to be a stab wound was identified on the left side of his neck. Samuel set off to capture the assailants.

Kirkdale Gaol Liverpool
McCrave was arrested that evening and the other perpetrators were in custody within days, Mullen tried to escape to sea but was caught. The youths, who were all 17, were sentenced to death but Campbell was reprieved on account of his previous good behaviour, after petitions to the Home Secretary were made by their families. McCrave and Mullen were hanged at Kirkdale Gaol on 3rd January 1875.

The story, was soon labelled the "Tithebarn Street Outrage". After the Tithebarn Outrage, gang crime topped the political agenda. On the streets it was said some citizens took to taking Shillelagh (walking sticks that doubled as clubs) with them.

There where other street gangs, the Hibernians, Dead Rabbits and Cornermen, The ‘heirs’ of the Cornermen terrorised everyone from shopkeepers to seamen between 1884 and 1888. The ‘High Rip Gang’. The ‘High Rippers’ weapons of choice were knives. These, for obvious reasons, they called ‘bleeders’. Extremely violent, their main targets were lone Dockers and sailors. They sported a uniform of sorts, a tight fitting jacket and bell bottomed trousers held up by a thick leather belt. Like their predecessors, they could use their belts to lethal effect. A quiff of hair would protrude from underneath their muffler caps which were set at a ‘jaunty’ angle. Their sworn gang rivals were the Logwood Gang but there were also juvenile gangs such as the Lemon Street Gang. The gang’s new nemesis was a tough policeman known as ‘Pins’. The myth goes that he picked up a gang leader by the ankles and swung him around the surrounding gang, knocking them down like skittles.

His methodology was blunt:

“I grabs ‘em, I pins ‘em against the wall and I slaps ‘em a bit.”

Blackstone Street - Fulton St
The murder that gave the High Rip infamy, 'The Blackstone Street Murder' took place in January 1884. Five young men, aged between 18 and 20, allegedly assaulted two Spanish seamen shortly before 10pm on a Saturday night. One sailor was able to escape but the other, Exequiel Rodriguez Nunuiez, was said to have been repeatedly beaten with belt buckles, kicked and then knifed. One of the men identified as using a knife was 18 year old Michael M’Lean. One woman identified one assailant, a Patrick Duggan, as having asked to use her apron to clean his bloody hands. Another, William Dempsey asked for a brush to wipe the blood off his trousers. Police Constable 343 Evans, took the sailor in an ambulance to hospital. He was dead on arrival. The attending doctor said that because of his death came so quickly after the beating, there were no bruises on his body. He had died before they could form.

Five men were arrested and protested their innocence while naming others in the gang as guilty of the murder. During the arrests and investigation, various blood stained knives and items of clothing were found. At the trial, it was suggested the five were acting in self defence against the Spanish sailors. The judge was very sceptical of this in his summation to the jury. He pointed out that they each had admitted to taking part in the beating, if not the killing. It took exactly an hour for the jury to return to find M’Lean and Duggan guilty of ‘wilful murder ‘. Due to the age of the accused, they requested mercy. However, the Judge assumed the black cap and said they had been found guilty of “a murder of a very savage character”. He passed a sentence of death.

Duggan was reprieved and sentenced to ‘penal servitude for life’. M’Lean, aged just 18, protested his innocence one last Monday morning at Kirkdale Gaol. He was then hanged. It was not discovered until late in the trial that the Spanish sailor had had a knife on him. Therefore, his death may have been an accident in a genuine case of self-defence.

The public hysteria over gangs may have helped give a death sentence to an 18 year old who if not an innocent, may have been innocent of the charge of ‘wilful murder’.


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