A correlation between young working class men and the desire to be well turned out has been standard protocol in relation to the various youth cultures this country has seen come to fruition throughout the years. Fashion and attitude have always been an integral part to many of the infamous youth sub cultures born on British streets, and it’s a known fact that the styles associated with the likes of Mods, skinheads, teddy boys and punks often went hand in hand with violence, carried off with an air of nonchalant, adolescent rebellion.
When we think of those diverse style tribes we’re often presented with the image of hundreds of parkas swarming across Brighton beach to engage in ritualised combat with a cluster of black leather motorcycle jackets, perhaps we may conjure up the thought of Oxblood Dr Martins and checked Ben Sherman shirts making waves to Jamaican reggae at blues parties with neatly shaved side partings resplendent in extremely short clipped hair. Or we may associate the Peter Storm cagoule and Adidas Stan Smith clad scallies that were born in late 1970s Liverpool, emitting a cheeky, accosting grin from beneath a perfectly formed mushroom wedge.
All of these examples are undeniably special in their own right, each holding their rightful place in the archives of British culture and style, often revived or inspirational to the modern day wardrobe. Each of those youth movements radiated the feeling of importance identity and belonging and the opportunity to relish a siege mentality of 'us and them', often leading to violence and disorder.
If we look back to the 1950s there were numerous young men who held a passion for the Edwardian dress sense that was coined by various London tailors after the Second World War. Together with American rock and roll music and an ethos of being young, boisterous and confrontational, they were to become known as 'Teds’ or, as the media dubbed them, Teddy boys.
It was from these beginnings that many people associate the birth of British youth culture, however, they’d be forgiven for being mistaken. Decades before a Teddy boy ever perfected a quiff, a lifetime before scooters, gleaming in the seaside sunshine were seen patrolling the promenades of Brighton, and a century before working class Liverpudlians planted the seeds of what would grow into a trainer shoe obsessed terrace phenomenon, the original style conscious youth culture was being played out among the cobbled, poverty stricken streets of Victorian Manchester.
Victorian Manchester was the heartland of the Industrial revolution, its skyline blanketed by a constant unhealthy smog and the innumerable chimney stacks of towering factories. The conditions were often below the poverty line with expansive numbers of inhabitants crammed into over filled and disease ridden districts such as Angel Meadow, New Cross, Miles Platting, Deansgate and Ancoats.
It was here among the squalid, working class cobbled thoroughfares and grey foreboding side streets that the unmistakable echo of brass tipped clogs could be heard clattering across the ground, creating a crescendo for all in the vicinity to hear. This sound was emitted from the soles of well dressed young men searching out confrontation with those of the same ilk. The term was known as Scuttling and was the anthemic sound of Manchester’s much reviled Scuttler gangs.
The Scuttler was a young, working class male, usually between the ages of 14 and 20, for whom everyday life revolved around territorial disputes, street fighting, local pride and street fashion. Scuttlers were often portrayed as hoodlums of the night, as ragamuffins and street urchins who held no regard for public order or discipline. However, to the Scuttler, being well turned out in the street styles of the time was paramount and the look would very often mimic the wealthier portion of Victorian society.
Just as their future cohorts would do, they adhered to a distinguishable look, identifiable by a number of garments and items that held as much relevance to them and their counterparts as the parka did to the Mod, or the beetle crusher did to the Ted. These quintessential items were centred around a heavy laden brass buckled belt, a statement on parallel with the Dr Martin boots of the skin head. With this being the most important item that no Scuttler worth his salt would be without, a heavy sense of one-upmanship was often prevalent and brass belts were sought out in the most intricate and exquisite designs, the quality and weight were essential, as the item was also used as a formidable weapon during scuttles between rival gangs. Being the most desirable element of a Scuttlers identity, relieving an adversary of theirs was seen as the greatest accolade achievable in the heat of fighting and the ultimate trophy to parade to enhance reputation.
The legs of a Scuttler would be shed in bell bottom trousers with a wide hem at the ankle, not so dissimilar to the trend that swept Manchester and Liverpool during the casual era to draw attention to the wearers taste in rare footwear, often imported from European away games. To compliment the bell bottom trousers, brass tipped clogs were the order of the day, completing the bottom half of the style conscious Victorian Mancunian street youth.
Along with these items, the other important insignia of the Scuttler included the all important donkey fringe. The donkey fringe was the hair cut of choice among the youths, proudly displayed even when the obligatory tilted cap was being worn. If this was the case, the cap was tilted back so that the hair was on constant display affording the disciples of this enigmatic lifestyle the knowledge that he too was a wanton partisan of the underground world of Scuttling. The ensemble was completed with luxurious silk scarfs regularly woven in elegant patterns or as an alternative, the muffler which was preferable in plain white. Each would be worn often in a knot around the neck, peering out through under the waistcoat or overcoat of the wearer.
Gangs such as the infamous Bengal Tigers, named after the main street in which their territory lay, the Meadow boys, from the district of Angel Meadow and the Bungal boys who resided in the area known as Ardwick, would vie for supremacy through fearful reputations but also the respect gained from their one-one-upmanship and street panache’ a trait echoed almost a hundred years down the line by the scallies, perry boys and later, the casual's for whom the lifestyle of style, fashion and fighting was a way of life.
There is an identifiable similarity between the cultural ethos of Victorian Manchester’s youth movement, and that of its numerous successors. The various styles that were worn to signify involvement and the feeling of belonging prove that throughout time the importance to look good and to be part of something has never ceased to fade.
Where now the modern structures lay over the original streets of that violent yet style-led era of Victorian Manchester, where the iron markets and filthy back streets were as much cat walks as the Carnaby Streets or Kings Roads of their respective times, linger the spectres of those charismatic Scuttlers, resplendent in their fashions yet almost forgotten in the tapestries of British history. They should be remembered and revered for the important and captivating bearing they had on the attitudes and ideals of so many after them, but most of all for being the catalyst from which the start of true British youth culture and style was born.
This article was first published in 2013