The Fighting Gangs of London

The gangs of Victorian London posed a huge problem for the Metropolitan Police, and, for that matter, for many of the citizens of the 19th century Metropolis. In many people eyes, the gangs were uncontrollable, and had succeeded in turning certain parts of the Capital into no-go zones, where respectable, law-abiding citizens feared to tread, and in to which even hardened police officers ventured with trepidation.

In the early days of the investigation into the Jack the Ripper crimes, for example, there was a consensus amongst police officers, that the murders were the work of one of the local gangs who were operating various extortion rackets against the prostitutes of the district.

Indeed, Emma Smith, the first official Whitechapel Murders victim, had survived long enough to tell a doctor who treated here that she had in fact been attacked by a gang of youths.


But the gang problem had been occupying the minds of citizens for more than a decade when the unknown miscreant that we now know as “Jack the Ripper” launched his murderous reign in the district of Whitechapel; and, the newspapers had been highlighting the problem in their pages for many years.


On Tuesday March 14th 1882, The Pall Mall Gazette, published the following article, which took a close look at the extent of the gang problem in London, and featured an interview with a “reformed” gang  member:-

“About twenty years ago there was published in weekly numbers, at a penny each, a sensational, thrilling, and almost interminable romance, entitled ” The Wild Boys of London.”

It may be seriously questioned whether any book published of late years has been more frequently reissued, or more extensively read, than was that typical romance of the gutter which recorded the achievements of the Wild Boys.

The work drew its inspiration from Sue [this is a reference to the French novelist Eugène Sue (1804 – 1857), one of several writers who had helped establish the genre of the serial novel, and whose work, The Mysteries of Paris, had inspired The Wild Boys); but even that writer would probably have been shocked to recognise in the “penny dreadful” of the English metropolis an attempt at the style of writing for which he is famous.

The Wild Boys were precociously clever criminals. They picked pockets; they robbed shopkeepers’ tills, they were expert in all those means and methods of crime which the ingenuity of the London thief has yet invented. Their life was a wild revel diversified by imprisonment. They were at one moment living in luxury, and at another hiding in sewers; and over their characters and achievements some human creature, spurred on probably by “the intelligible feeling of hunger,” had in all apparent seriousness thrown the glamour of heroism and romance.

The front cover showing the wild boys of London.
The Cover of The Wild Boys of London. Copyright, The British Library Board.


The exploits of the London fighting gangs naturally recall this frightful work, which has doubtless served as a text-book of crime for the younger, generations of London roughs.

The Metropolitan police deny, with somewhat indignant emphasis, that any such gangs exist.

Ask a policeman in the New-cut about the gang which infests that district, and he says, in a manner which betrays the suspicion that you may be one of the sensational writers in question, that he “Never heard of it; it has all been written up by the newspapers; besides, it couldn’t be.”

If he is pressed, he will probably acknowledge that, “Down Vauxhall way, now, they are a rough lot, if you like.”

Similarly, at Leman-street, in Whitechapel, they refer you to Bow.

No gang ever exists in their own immediate neighbourhood; it is always to be found in some other division.

As a matter of fact, there are fighting gangs, which are often thieving gangs, in almost all parts of the metropolis.


To name a few of them only – there are the Bow-commoners, the Millwallers, the. Dove-row Gang, the Golden-lane Gang, the New-cut Gang, the Drury-lane Gang, the Lambeth Lads, and sundry others with equally unprepossessing designations.

If they are not known to the police in their corporate capacity – which perhaps is doubtful – individual members frequently have to be provided with lodgings in the cells.

They do not, however, as a rule go about in large bodies; that would give too much opportunity for their suppression.

They split themselves up into companies of three or four, which patrol certain assigned districts, and only combine on such grand occasions as a fire or a fight.


On most nights of the week detachments residing on the Middlesex side of the river straggle, rather than march, over Blackfriars Bridge, spend the evening on the Surrey side, and “work their way round” by Westminster at about half-past two in the morning.

Their operations, however, are by no means confined to the Embankment or its neighbourhood.

They are impartially distributed over the metropolis, from Bow to Paddington, and from Islington to Vauxhall.


The fighting gangs have an organisation almost as complete as that of the police.

Each gang has its captain, who, again, has his junior officers.

A certain order is invariably preserved, and the members of the band are under certain responsibilities as to the spoils; for the gangs are by no means organised simply for the purpose of fighting each other. That is a pleasant delusion which helps to reconcile the London public to the fact of their existence. The majority of the members of these organisations – youths whose ages range from about sixteen to twenty-two – are, plainly and simply, thieves.

There are bodies of young men who roam about at night simply for the sake of mischief, and whose playful violence frequently has unpleasant results; but, when the regular gangs fight, it is for mastery.

The Wild Boys fighting.
A Wild Boys Fight. Copyright, The British Library Board.


It not unfrequently happens that one set, bent on the extension of its territory, invades the district of another.

Then there has to be some sort of rectification of frontier, brought about by the usual process.

Recently there was such a conflict between the Dove-row gang and the Bow-commoners, in which the Dove-row gang came off victorious.

Such incidents as these, however, are mere episodes in the great epic of juvenile crime.


The object of the gangs is robbery, if necessary with violence.

“What do you do at nights ?” I said recently, to a youth who had been a member of one of these bodies of juvenile roughs. “What did they do? Why, they waited about, and if
anybody respectable passed them they tripped him up and robbed him.” “Did they use violence sometimes?” “He should think they did. They wore broad leather belts with heavy buckles on them.

Sometimes they carried sticks, but the belts were best. Oh, they took lots of things.” “What would they do if they took a watch ?” “Why, pawn it, to be sure. They often met in the mornings to reckon up what they had done the night before.

Many a time they robbed shop tills. One of them hid himself behind the counter and the others waited outside.

An illustration showing two wild boys attacking a man.
An Illustration From The Wild Boys. Copyright, The British Library Board.


No, their parents didn’t know much about it. Most of them had no parents. Those who had, generally left home and went to lodgings. They lodged together mostly, two or three of them in one place.

‘They didn’t read much; very few of them could read; p’raps one would read to the others sometimes, Didn’t know that they had ever killed anybody, but had many a time knocked people down.”


“Yes,” he said, in reply to another question, ” they fought other gangs now and then to see who was strongest.

Some of them had been in prison lots of times; they didn’t mind it much – they got used to it.

He had left them now, and was trying to lead a better life.”


The fighting gangs are mainly composed of lads who, if they have ever done any work, have found the conditions of labour neither sufficiently pleasant nor sufficiently profitable.

Utterly ignorant and untrained, they seem to see a kind of heroism in their present mode of life.

Their spirit is much the same as that which animated the buccaneer and the brigand.

Punishment merely hardens them, for the only thing which they regard as shameful is the want of “pluck” and endurance.


It is not merely during the last year or two that the gangs have come into existence.

On the contrary, many of them have existed for years,

They are the regular feeders of the vast criminal population of London.

When a thief has age or experience enough to stand alone he leaves the gang and embarks in private ventures.

An illustration of a burglar breaking into a house through an open window.
The Burglar. From The Wild Boys. Copyright, The British Library Board.


Probably his maturity comes upon him in gaol.

He is too old to go back to the gang again; the “Wild Boy” period has passed over, and he deserts the New-cut or Bow-common-lane for the obscurer haunts of habitual crime.”