Chris Sullivan explains how the tabloid panic about knife crime today is a repeat of the 1950s and wonders when we’ll actually do something about the real causes.
“This film portrays starkly the development of a young criminal, an enemy of society at 16. Our Judges and Magistrates, and the Police, whose stern duty it is to resolve the problem, agree that its origins lie mainly in the lack of parental control and early discipline. The problem exists – and we cannot escape it by closing our eyes. This film is presented in the hope that it will contribute towards stamping out this social evil.”
The above might have been written today in 2020 with reference to inner-city knife crime, but it wasn’t. It was penned in 1954 to introduce a movie billed as The Slasher in the US, in reference to the Teddy Boy razor gangs of the mid-50s, whose favourite tool was the cut-throat razor. In the UK, the picture was released the year before as Cosh Boy, inspired by the Teddy Boys’ nickname for another favourite weapon – the cosh. The movie was re-released on 20 January 2020.
Starring James Kenney and Joan Collins, the film – re-released last month – tells the story of 16-year-old delinquent youth Roy Walsh (James Kenney) and his street gang, who run amok in post-war London. It’s all there – absentee father, no prospects, slum accommodation, boredom, poverty; in fact, all the ingredients for a lively criminal gang culture whether it be the Irish in 19th Century New York, the Jews and Sicilians soon after, or the Moroccans, Ethiopians and Somalis in London today.
what the papers don’t say
In Cosh Boy the hoodlum, Walsh, is the victim of poverty caused by World War Two while other gang members – or rather their parents – have often been the victims of conflict in their home country, often victims of prejudice. They come from entirely foreign environments, can’t speak English or help their children with schooling, and don’t comprehend this big modern city of London. The children can’t find work so their kids, bullied by others, form gangs. This new fraternity becomes their new family, their play and their work.
An accurate dramatisation of more recent London gang culture is Top Boy, created and written by Ronan Bennett and set on the fictional Summerhouse estate in Hackney, east London.
In the Headlines
Just as today, back in the mid-50s when Cosh Boy was released, the headlines of every newspaper heavily condemned what would now be called “gang culture”: War on Teddy Boys said the Sunday Dispatch. MPs Ask About Teddy Boy Gangs led the Daily Sketch. Stop Hooligan Gang Menace wrote Empire News, while the Daily Mirror ran with Flick Knives, Dance Music and Edwardian Suits.
If you were to believe the headlines back then, gangs of razor-wielding, working-class teenagers in unusual clothing roamed the streets ready to strike – and the same goes today. As I write, the front page of the London Evening Standard reads: London Knife Crime Hits Record High with More than 15,000 Offences in a Year. Just a few days before, the newspaper devoted some six pages to the ongoing saga.
This half-century of sensationalism is a tried and trusted means of selling newspapers, intended to both scare and reassure those Brits who don’t live in the cities that they are safe and nicely tucked-up in their semi-detached homes with the 2.4 children, a middle-of-the-road vehicle and a golf club membership.
Moreover, a Home Office study that showed that, in London, for every 100,000 people, there were 169 knife offences in 2018-19. In 1994, there were 242 knife-related deaths nationally and last year it had risen to 282, roughly in line with the rise of population. When the British Crime Survey started in 1981 other crimes such as burglary were double that of today.
The Reality and the Reporting
Just as in the 1950S with Teds, and the 1960s with Mods and Rockers and skinheads, these crimes mainly take place around housing estates and are more about territory than drugs.
My 15-year-old-son, who lives in north London, confirms this. “It’s all about estates like Elthorne near Archway and Queens Crescent in between Kentish Town and Chalk Farm,” he says. “If someone from another gang goes through their area it’s considered an insult, so you get attacked. It’s not so much about drugs as they say. It’s more about being part of this bigger group for protection so someone doesn’t steal your bike as they did mine. Or your phone as they did my friend.”
“When I was a kid in the 70s and even the 80s there were gangs everywhere,” Suggs, the lead singer of Madness, tells me. “Coming out the tube in Camden you had to look over your shoulder as there were gangs from Somerstown, Andover Estate, Queens Crescent, Agar Grove all wanting to bash your head in. It wasn’t safe. I don’t think today is much different, to be honest.”
What is different – criminally so in my opinion – is the emphasis on knife crime. Just as in America where the average Joe is told he must have a firearm to protect against the 14-year-old Mexican kid who might nick an apple off his tree, so do the youth of the UK today think that they have to carry a blade to protect themselves.
Tabloid reporting of knife crime has exacerbated the situation. If you’re a teenager who keeps reading of his peers who carry knives, what are you going to do but carry one? Survival of the fittest or survival of the better armed.
I grew up in a town controlled by gangs and I saw this happen. The newspapers are stoking the fires in order to up their readership, just as press baron William Randolph Hearst did when he promoted the Spanish American War in Cuba in 1898 by fabricating stories of atrocities. This was the beginning of Yellow Journalism and it’s got progressively worse ever since.
The Problem and its Cure
Anxieties about gang culture and crime go back to the late 19th Century as gangs of young men congregated in districts that, like today’s local authority estates, were devastated by penury, ill-health and unemployment.
In Manchester in the 19th Century, the fights between local gangs such as the Bengal Tigers from Bengal Street Ancoats and the Hope Street gang from Salford made front-page news. Stabbings occurred on a daily basis while one gang battle in May 1879 involved some 500 youths. The Hoolihan Family firm from south-east London made nationwide headlines in 1898 and coined the term ‘hooligans’.
Many of these young gang members were the children of immigrant Irish Catholics who worked the worst jobs, for the worst wages in the worst cotton mills, and lived in the most appalling slums without heating, water or sanitation and suffered intense racial prejudice.
Today, the black and ethnic minority population of London are the main targets of deprivation and unemployment. In the past decade under Conservative rule, black youth have particularly suffered and, as recent elections have shown, the UK is a country where open bigotry now seems to be accepted, even often applauded.
In the past, gang activity was partly eradicated by the development of The Boy’s Club movement which targeted the cities’ most hard-pressed areas. The clubs worked with bored 12, 13 and 14-year-olds and got them into craft training and, most of all, football which served as an alternative form of competition between lads from different streets and neighbourhoods. One such Lads Club was St Marks (West Gorton) Football Club, which later became Manchester City football club.
Every young person needs somewhere to hang out that’s safe, where they can do something and speak to someone and get the support they need which they might not get at home.
Since the Conservatives came to power in 2010, overall spending on youth services has fallen by £737 million or 62%. 3,500 youth workers have lost their jobs and 140,000 clubs for youth closed down for good. What kid can afford £20 to go to the cinema, £10 to go to a gym? So they hang out on the streets and get up to mischief.
Cosh Boy is available now including on Blu-ray/DVD, BFI Player, iTunes and Amazon Prime. Top Boy can be seen on Netflix.