Scuttling Between Past and Present

History and Public Policy students will surely find this piece from Sunday’s Gaurdian of interest.  In it, historian Andrew Davies attempts to contextualize the recent English rioting by reminding readers that “we have been here before.”

Scuttler Photo

The Ancoats scuttler Alexander Pearson, pictured in 1892. Photograph: Staffordshire Record Office

Andrew Davies is currently Senior Lecturer in Modern British social history at the University of Liverpool, and the author of The Gangs of Manchester.  When it comes to describing the “scuttlers” of late 19th century Manchester–violent, brawling gangs of young men–Davies knows whereof he speaks.  What’s fascinating about the Guardian piece is the attempt to speak directly to a contemporary public stirred to attention by disturbing public violence.  Davies won’t find many to disagree with him when he draws “a stark parallel with present-day responses to gangs” in describing the manner in which “scuttlers were routinely demonised by politicians and sections of the press. Victorian gang members were derided as ruffians, brutes, barbarians, savages and ‘juvenile terrorists’.”  What’s likely to generate more comments (indeed, they have–check the comments that follow his piece) are his twin policy assertions: first, that stiff punishments and deterrence did not work and, second, that the more “forward-thinking” and ultimately successful policy response was greater investment in “new facilities for education, training and recreation for youths” (most especially sports clubs).  Here Davies suggests that these lessons from more than a century past could and should be applied in the contemporary context.  Students (and others) interested in more might check out this interview with Andrew Davies conducted by Julie-Marie Strange for the Journal of Victorian Culture (August, 2010), which really raises the question of “doing history” beyond the university.

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