In the nineteenth century, Manchester was one of the most dangerous places to live in England. Known as the ‘capital of crime’, the streets of the city’s sinister underworld were teeming with thieves, con artists and prostitutes. There were gin palaces, illegal beer houses and brothels on every corner.
Since the opening of the first mill in 1780, Manchester had experienced unprecedented change. The Industrial Revolution brought tremendous prosperity and wealth for some, but grinding poverty for the thousands of workers who flocked into the world’s first industrialised city to work in factories and textiles mills. The stark contrast between the lives of the rich and poor was observed by Friedrich Engels, who summed up the harsh reality in The Condition of the Working Class in England in 1844: ‘Everywhere barbarous indifference, hard egotism on one hand, and nameless misery on the other’.
In the 1840s, some 400,000 people were crammed into back-to-back tenements in the city centre, with no running water and poor ventilation. The unpaved streets were filthy with stagnant pools of animal and human waste. Diseases, such as cholera and typhus, swept through the tightly-packed communities bringing illness and death in their wake. Engels described the district in graphic detail: ‘Here are long, narrow lanes between which run contracted, crooked courts and passages, the entrances to which are so irregular that the explorer is caught in a blind alley at every few steps…the most demoralised class in all Manchester lived in these ruinous and filthy districts, people whose occupations are thieving and prostitution.’
The rookeries at the heart of the city were notorious for all sorts of crimes, including pickpocketing, forgery, violent assault and garrotting. Some of the worst slums were around Deansgate, one of the city’s main thoroughfares. Dubbed ‘Devil’s Gate’ in the contemporary press, the wide street had fashionable shops, businesses and warehouses, but these soon gave way to a much more disreputable district.
Along the filthy pavements of Manchester’s underworld, expert swindlers played out their well-rehearsed tricks for cash, ragged children begged for pennies, and ‘distressed’ women lured respectable gentlemen into dark alleys, where they would be attacked and robbed by gangs. The black market flourished, with ‘flash houses’ full of thieves, receivers of stolen goods, and highly-skilled ‘cracksmen’ (burglars), all of whom would disappear into the labyrinthine streets before a police officer had time to blow his whistle.
Official police returns confirmed the high incidence of crime. In 1866, there were some 13,000 arrests, half of which were for drink-related crimes, such as drunk and disorderly behaviour, brawling and criminal damage. Theft and pickpocketing were the most common offences, with people stealing food, clothing and household goods, either for their impoverished families, or to sell for profit. One twelfth of arrests were for prostitution and the police estimated that there were 325 brothels, housing some 800 sex workers. By 1870, the number of arrests had doubled and the crime rate per capita was 1.86, which was four times higher than in London during the same period, confirming Manchester as the ‘crime capital’ of Victorian England.