The Gangs Of London

Throughout the latter half of the 19th century, London as a whole had a terrible problem with the gangs that infested the streets of the Victorian metropolis.

In the early days of the Whitechapel murders, for example, there was a belief amongst the police and public alike that the crimes were, in fact, the work of one of the East End gangs.

Although this theory was dropped in the aftermath of the murder of Mary Nichols – which took place on August 31st, 1888 – the threat posed to ordinary and law-abiding citizens, not to mention to the police who struggled to keep law and order on the streets, was a very real one, and was frequently commented on by the newspapers of the day.

The St James’s Gazette, on Wednesday, April 13th, 1898, published the following article, which took a close look at the problems and dangers posed to the citizens of London by the groups of young ruffians who were infesting the Clerkenwell district of London:-


In my journalistic perambulations about our great city, it has been my fortune to come in for a row or two. Indeed, it would be more than a little strange had this not been the case, considering how persistently in my search for entertaining and novel matter, I have found my way into the roughest quarters and mingled freely with the lawless and criminal classes.

Yet I am bound to say that the so-called  “dangerous” section of society is harmless enough so long as you do not interfere with it.


I have a very vivid recollection of spending an exceedingly pleasant, not to say convivial, evening with a company, every member of which was a professed thief, and at least one had been on his trial for killing a man. But no attempt was made upon either my person or pocket, for was I not present under the special protection of one of the clique who owed me a debt of gratitude?

“Honour among thieves” may perhaps not be a very substantial thing, but the most hardened criminal rarely forgets a kindness, and the memory of it – slight though it may have been – will make him your staunch friend who will stick to you in the tightest corner, against odds never so heavy.

However, with these gentry I have never had any trouble; the occasional scrimmage I have got into has been with quite a different class, a class which the public is only just beginning to recognize constitutes a very serious pest.

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


Certain districts are infested by gangs of young ruffians who make a practice of patrolling the streets nightly, insulting, assaulting, and robbing, and generally making things exceedingly unpleasant for all but the most vigorous and determined citizens.

Of late their doings have attracted a great deal of attention; members of such gangs have constantly made their appearance at the various police courts charged with serious offences, and
the efforts of the authorities to put them down have been redoubled, without as yet any marked success.

I propose to describe who and what these young scamps are, their modus operandi, and where and how they proceed to put it into effect.


Although I had for a long time been aware of the existence of these prowling gangs, it was not until a short time back that I gave any very special attention to the subject.

Then occurred an incident which naturally aroused my interest.

Walking home late one evening through one of the streets leading off the Gray’s-inn-road, my progress was barred by a knot of youths standing in the middle of the pavement. There were a round dozen of them, and as I approached I noticed from a distance that several pedestrians, amongst them one or two women, had been hustled out into the muddy roadway. There the gang of beauties stood, and there they stayed until I was a couple of yards off.


I continued to advance, expecting that when they saw the bold front which I presented to them they would open out a passage. They didn’t. On the contrary, using language of the
most obscene character, they closed round me and jostled me. Being strong and active, I gave a couple of good hard shoves and sent two of them reeling, and then the whole gang got exceedingly “nasty” and went for me. Sticks were brandished, and I heard some mention of a pistol—but didn’t see it. I collared one fellow and, using him as a battering-ram, dashed him with all my force into another’s waistcoat. Neither of them came on again.

Then I hit out right and left, three times I think, and something went down each time, and then – I was clear and walking towards the Gray’s-inn-road in order to find a constable.

As one was not in sight at the moment and my foes had quickly disappeared, I was not inclined to wait, so went home.

And there the matter ended.


Since then, however, I have been investigating the whole matter.

The assault which was not committed upon me was a trifling matter compared with the crimes committed by these gangs which one so frequently reads about.

Almost every district has gangs of its own which terrorize the neighbourhood and fight among themselves.

For instance, in Clerkenwell, which has recently become so notorious in consequence of the constant appearance of members of these fraternities in its police court, there are two famous gangs, known respectively as the “Lion” gang, which operates outside the Lion beerhouse, and the “Pooley” gang, which takes its name from Port-pool-lane, and which is recruited from Leather-lane and its choice environs. Then there are the “Chapellers,” who hail from Chapel-street, Islington.

Each of these gangs, whose members vary in age from thirteen to twenty years, has its “bosses,” whose authority is recognized and whose commands are implicitly obeyed.

These “bosses” are not erected formally, but attain their position in virtue of their extra daring and general capacity for command.


In each district, there is a particular spot which the various gangs regard as a sort of general rendezvous.

In the district to which special reference has been made, the Sadler’s Wells Theatre, in Rosebery-avenue, is undoubtedly the plague-spot.

There the “Chapellers,” the “Lion” gang, and the “Pooley” gang are wont to meet and hatch their mischievous plans.

Inside the theatre, of course, they are obliged to observe a certain amount of decorum; it is outside, after the show is over, that the ructions so frequently commence.

One might think that the fact that these gangs all regard decent citizens as their enemies would prove a bond of sympathy between them. But this is not so; on the contrary, the deadliest enmity exists, and leads to conflicts of the most savage and brutal description.

Very often the merest trifle sets two gangs at variance. There may previously have been no open animosity between them.

Then perhaps a “Chapeller,” rambling around, gets into a quarrel with one of the “Pooley” gang on the latter’s own ground; the members of the gang quickly come to the rescue of their comrade, and the unfortunate “Chapeller is lucky if he gets away with no more serious injuries than can be inflicted by a fist or a boot. Smarting from his injuries, he reports the occurrence to his mates.

The fouler gang speedily take it up; “the bosses give them their orders, and the gang “go to war” against the “Chapellers.”


Sanguinary and often fatal combats ensue.

These are no ordinary “turn-ups” between a number of street urchins, but battles in which the combatants fight, if not to kill, at least to seriously maim one another.

The weapons they use leave one in no doubt as to their intentions. Pistols are quite common; knives equally so; and the members of the gang who are not thus armed, content themselves with carrying clubs loaded with lead, iron bars, and bits of lead-piping. That they use them, too, the records of the police courts show only too well.

A short time back, it will be remembered, a little girl was shot dead in one of these encounters; while at the last sessions one young ruffian was sent to penal servitude for six years, while his two companions received shorter terms of imprisonment, for a grave assault upon a police-constable. The assault was committed with a most murderous bowie knife.


These faction fights are not always confined to neighbouring gangs; for instance, the Clerkenwell boys occasionally march over Waterloo Bridge and make it hot for the lads who similarly infest some of the districts across the water.

Of course, these conflicts between rival factions are not allowed to proceed; the police interfere; but to arrest any of the offenders is by no means child’s play. Individually these youths feel the greatest dread of a policeman, as indeed they do of any able-bodied resolute man.

But in numbers they apparently dread nobody, and thus it is that the police have such a difficult and dangerous task when they have to stop such young ruffians from battering one another about and terrorizing the peaceable members of the community. Like most cowards, they are utter brutes when they can be so with immunity, and, having knocked a man down, will proceed to kick and bludgeon him with the greatest gusto, and utterly regardless of the consequences.”