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Crime and Punishment
on 19 December 2008
Gangs with knives, the occasional firearm, judges too soft, sentences too lenient and innocent bystanders maimed, injured and murdered. Not the gang culture of the early 21st century but the reality of Manchester in the late nineteenth century where stonings and stabbings (even of policemen)were far too common and prison kept the riff raff off the streets until they served their two, four or six month sentences to return to their violent pastime of "scuttling".
The problems faced then remain unchanged now, youngsters with too much time on their hands, the practice of obscene communications (long before Channel 4!) undermining social respect, teenagers (girls as well as boys) being involved in what they perceived as peer approved behaviour and, above all, the ready availability of alcohol in the days before the introduction of limited hours. If ever proof of "four generations and back to clogs" were needed, 24 hour licensing provided it.
Although there were some racial and religious elements involved, the gangs were (as today) largely territorially based. Many of those in their early teens claimed to be adults in order to avoid a five year sentence to the Reformatory School, where discipline was strict, rather than the inside of Strangeways where the maximum sentence for assault by an adult was likely to be six months or less.
Underpinning it all lay the English tradition of fighting for the sake of it (the beer merely increased the incidence). For many living in the city which coined the term "Acid Rain" as early in 1872, it was the only energetic outlet of drab lives and much of it was mischievous rather than criminal in intent.
The introduction of alternative forms of recreation such as Lads' clubs and the Boys' Brigade played a part in changing attitudes and activities. Ultimately it was discipline (either in the form of military service or, in many cases, marriage) which saw young men drained of their capacity for violence and finally settle down.
There was a large degree of self interest against change. Rather like the saloon keeper in High Noon, publicans were less interested in keeping law and order as keeping their customers (however bawdy) happily supplied with alcoholic beverages.
What is perhaps surprising is that ideas of how to punish offenders were as diverse as now. Not all judges considered jail as the first option, many recognised the need for social reform and the introduction of social and legal structures which could be respected by all sectors of society.
Andrew Davies has written a first rate history of late nineteenth Manchester and Salford, evoking a culture which was still prevalent in the early 1950's in the schoolyard and society as a whole. What's more he has made it readable and lively while maintaining the highest level of scholarship. Well worth buying. Indeed, a bargain.