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Gangs in the United Kingdom

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Gang-related organised crime in the United Kingdom is concentrated around the cities of London, Manchester and Liverpool and regionally across the West Midlands region, south coast and northern England, according to the Serious Organised Crime Agency.[1] With regards to street gangs the cities identified as having the most serious gang problems, which also accounted for 65% of firearm homicides in England and Wales, were London, Birmingham, Manchester and Liverpool.[2] Glasgow in Scotland also has a historical gang culture with the city having 6 times as many teenage gangs as London, which has ten times the population, per capita.[3]

In the early part of the 20th century, the cities of Leeds, Bristol, Bradford (including Keighley) and Nottingham all commanded headlines pertaining to street gangs and suffered their share of high-profile firearms murders. Sheffield, which has a long history of gangs traced back to the 1920s in the book "The Sheffield Gang Wars",[4] along with Leicester[5] is one of numerous urban centres seen to have an emerging or re-emerging gang problem.

On 28 November 2007, a major offensive against gun crime by gangs in Birmingham, Liverpool, London and Manchester led to 118 arrests. More than 1,000 police officers were involved in the raids. Not all of the 118 arrests were gun related; others were linked to drugs, prostitution and other crimes. Home Secretary Jacqui Smith said it showed the police could "fight back against gangs".[6]

Increasingly, Britain's street gangs in certain inner city areas such as London and Manchester are becoming more of a cultural transmission of America's Crips and Bloods.[7][8] This is evidenced by identification with colours, hand signs, graffiti tags[9] and in some cases gang names, for example Old Trafford Cripz and Moss Side Bloods[10] or 031 (O-Tray-One) Bloods gang and ABM (All Bout Money) Crips.[11]

Debate persists over the extent and nature of gang activity in the UK,[12][13] with some academics and policy-makers arguing that the current focus of enforcement efforts on gang membership is inadvisable, given a lack of consensus over the relationship between gangs and crime.[13]

Gangs in major urban centres[edit]


According to one report,[14] Northern Ireland has over 150 active criminal gangs as of 2014. In Belfast in particular, a report in 2003 estimated there to be approximately 80 gangs,[15] most nominally sectarian, engaged in racketeering across the city.

An investigation in 2014 found that some gangs in Belfast were particularly hostile towards non-white residents of the city, with numerous cases of racially motivated violence, intimidation and extortion having been reported.[16]

Gangs in Belfast have been involved in people smuggling and human trafficking. Although the vice industry was previously mostly on the street, in recent years it has moved indoors to residential homes and hotels and formed closer links to organised crime networks. Trafficking gangs in Belfast, as in the rest of Northern Ireland, tend to be of Chinese or Eastern European origin, utilising local people as facilitators in their network.[17]

In 2014, three nights of violence in East Belfast lead to the Police Federation for Northern Ireland stating: "The gang culture has to be broken up so that people can go about their business without fear of being struck by a missile or intimidated."[18]

(See below for information about sectarian gangs in Northern Ireland associated with The Troubles)


The Peaky Blinders were a criminal gang based in Birmingham, England, in the late 19th century and, to a lesser extent, in the early 20th century. Philip Gooderson, author of The Gangs of Birmingham, states that the Peaky Blinders originated as a specific gang, but the term later became a generic label. An earlier gang known as the Cheapside Sloggers had evolved in the 1870s, and the term "Sloggers" (meaning fighters) had already become a generic local label for street gangs when the Peaky Blinders emerged at the end of the century in Adderley Street, in the Bordesley and Small Heath areas, which was an extremely deprived slum section of Birmingham at the time. The Peaky Blinders were distinguished by their sartorial style, unlike earlier gangs. Notable members included David Taylor (imprisoned for carrying a gun at 13 years old), "baby-faced" Harry Fowles, Ernest Haynes and Stephen McNickle.[19]

Early in the 20th century, one of the Birmingham gangs known as the Brummagem Boys (Brummagem being slang for Birmingham) began to spread their criminal network from the streets of Birmingham to around the country. Helped by greatly improved transport, for the first time, regional gangs were able to expand beyond the streets that bred them. The new connecting railway between Birmingham and London meant they could target the racecourse riches of the country's capital.[20]

Following the Handsworth riots in 1985, young people banded together in groups which soon turned to petty crime and robbery. By the late 1980s, the Johnson Crew, named after their Johnsons Café hang-out, controlled the drugs market and nightclub security across a large area of Birmingham.[21]

After a fall-out between members of the Johnson Crew, the Burger Bar Boys formed, taking their name from a Soho Road fast-food joint. This began a violent feud between the Johnsons and the Burger Bar Boys, which was resolved in a truce instigated by Matthias "Shabba" Thompson in 2010, with assistance from documentary maker Penny Woolcock. The process of forming the truce was captured in the Channel 4 documentary, One Mile Away.[22][23] Following the truce, violent crime fell by 50% in the B6 postcode area and 30% in B21.

The increasingly collaborative relationship between the two gangs has led to some in the media describing them as more akin to a 'super gang', seeking to establish a greater national network of organised crime rather than controlling their post-code areas.[24] Other reports suggest both gangs are effectively inactive, and there is no 'super gang'.[25]

However, 20 shootings in mid 2015 onwards were linked to the feud between the Burger Bar Boys and the Johnson Crew, suggesting any truce is no longer active and the gang rivalry has been renewed.[26]

See also:


The history of Glasgow gangs can be traced back to the 18th century, although the first media recollection of Glasgow gangs was not until the 1870s with the acknowledgement of the Penny Mobs. It has been suggested that the rise in Glasgow gangs from the 1850s was a result of an influx in Irish immigration[27] which included those from traditional Irish fighting gangs such as the Caravats and Shanavests. By the 1920s many Glasgow gangs were widely viewed as fighting gangs rather than criminal gangs although there were widespread reports of extortion and protection rackets particularly in the city's East End and South Side.[28] By the 1930s Glasgow had acquired a reputation throughout Britain as a hotbed of gang violence[29] and was regarded at the time as Britain's answer to Chicago, the Scottish Chicago.[30] The gangs at this time were also referred to as Glasgow razor gangs, named after their weapon of choice.

One of Glasgow's most notorious gangs were the Billy Boys, a sectarian anti-Catholic gang, who were formed in 1924 by William Fullerton after he was attacked by a group of Catholic youths.[31] Many gangs in the East End of Glasgow were both sectarian and territorial whereas in other districts they were primarily territorial.

More recently an Evening Times report in 2008 stated that there were 170 gangs in Glasgow[32] whilst an earlier report in 2006 included a map showing the location and a list of Glasgow gangs.[33] Gangs in Glasgow mark their territory with gang tags or graffiti.[34][35]

Recent years have seen an increase in Asian gangs, particularity in the South of Glasgow. Asian gang culture, violence and crime in the city came to wider attention following the racially motivated murder of Kriss Donald by men of Pakistani origin in 2004.[36][37][38]


Street gangs in Liverpool have been in existence since the mid-19th century. There were also various sectarian 'political' gangs based in and around Liverpool during this period.[39] Dr Michael Macilwee of Liverpool John Moores University and author of The Gangs of Liverpool states, "You can learn lessons from the past and it's fascinating to compare the newspaper headlines of today with those from the late 1800s. The issues are exactly the same. People were worried about rising youth crime and the influence of 'penny dreadfuls' on people's behaviour. Like today, some commentators demanded longer prison sentences and even flogging while others called for better education and more youth clubs."

In the early 1980s Liverpool was tagged by the media as 'Smack City' or 'Skag City' after it experienced an explosion in organised gang crime and heroin abuse, especially within the city's more deprived areas.[40][41] At the same time several criminal gangs began developing into drug dealing cartels in the city, including the Liverpool Mafia, which was the first such cartel to develop in the UK. As drugs became increasingly valuable, large distribution networks were developed with cocaine producers in South America, including the Cali cartel.[42] Over time, several Liverpool gangsters became increasingly wealthy, including Colin 'Smigger' Smith, who had an estimated fortune of £200m[43] and Curtis 'Cocky' Warren, whose estimated wealth once saw him listed on the Sunday Times Rich List.[44]

It has also been suggested that distribution networks for illicit drugs within Ireland and the UK, and even allegedly some Mediterranean holiday resorts, are today controlled by various Liverpool gangs.[45][46]

A report in the Observer newspaper written by journalist Peter Beaumont entitled Gangsters put Liverpool top of gun league (28 May 1995), observed that turf wars had erupted within Liverpool. The high levels of violence in the city came to a head in 1996 when, following the shooting of gangster David Ungi, six shootings occurred in seven days, prompting Merseyside Police to become one of the first police forces in the country to openly carry weapons in the fight against gun crime.[47] Official Home Office statistics revealed a total of 3,387 offences involving firearms had occurred in the Merseyside region during a four-year period between 1997 and 2001.[48] It was revealed that Liverpool was the main centre for organised crime in the North of England.[49]

In August 2007 the ongoing war between two rival gangs caused nationwide outrage, when innocent 11-year-old Rhys Jones was shot in the neck and died in his mother's arms in the car park of the Fir Tree pub in Croxteth Liverpool.[50] On 16 December 2008, Sean Mercer was convicted of the murder and ordered to serve a minimum tariff of 22 years by trial judge Mr Justice Irwin.[51]


London was the first city documented as the world's gang capital, followed thereafter by American cities such as New York City, Chicago and Los Angeles.[52] A number of street gangs were present in London during the 20th century many in the East End, often referred to as Mobs, including The Yiddishers, Hoxton Mob, Watney Streeters, Aldgate Mob, Whitechapel Mob, Bethnal Green Mob and the organised Italian Mob headed by Charles Sabini. The history of these gangs is well documented in "London's Underworld: Three centuries of vice and crime".[53]

On 21 February 2007, the BBC reported on an unpublished Metropolitan Police report on London's gang culture, identifying 169 separate groups (see Ghetto Boys, Tottenham Mandem and Peckham Boys), with more than a quarter said to have been involved in murders.[54] The report's accuracy has been questioned by some London Boroughs for being inaccurate in places and the existence of certain gangs on the list could not be substantiated.[55] The Centre for Social Justice identifies the Gangs in London website[56] as a useful tool in creating an overall picture of London gangs, as highlighted in the report "Dying to Belong: An in depth review of street gangs in Britain",[57] which was led by Conservative leader Iain Duncan Smith in 2009.

In February 2007, criminologist Dr John Pitts, from the University of Bedfordshire, said: "There are probably no more than 1,500 to 2,000 young people in gangs in all of London,[54] but their impact is enormous". There is no methodology to suggest where this number came from and how it was obtained. Furthermore, in December 2007 in a report written by Pitts on Lambeth gangs, he claims that the dominant gang (PDC from Angel Town) "boasts 2,500 members".[58] Probably a more accurate estimation for gang membership, although dated, can be found in the 2004 Home Office document "Delinquent Youth Groups and Offending Behaviour".[59] The report, using a methodology developed by American gang experts and practitioners, estimated that 6% of young people aged 10–19 were classified as belonging to a delinquent youth group, although based on the most stringent criteria this was 4%.

There is a modern history of London gangs dating from the 1970s although many of them developed from what Britain labelled as a sub-culture, which included punks, Rastas and football hooligans. Two well known subcultures that had violent clashes during the Notting Hill riots in the 1950s, Teddy Boys and Rudeboys, could well be labelled gangs in today's media. Amongst the current London gangs whose history does go back to the 1970s, there are the Peckham Boys and Tottenham Mandem all of which are predominantly or entirely black. Although native British gangs are still active in the capital, There are a number of historical Asian gangs in London too, many that were initially formed to protect their local communities in response to racist attacks from the native white population, gangs such as the Brick Lane Massive. In the past decade, Tamil gang violence namely in Croydon and Wembley have been active such as the "Wembley Boys" and the "Tamil Snake Gang.[60] Tamil Hindu gangs in London are also featured as one of the many major ethnic gangs in Ross Kemp's documentary on London Gangs.[61] In the London Borough of Tower Hamlets, the majority of the gangs are Bangladeshi, it is estimated that there are alone there are 2,500 Bengali youths affiliated to one of the many local gangs,[62] and that 26 out of the 27 gangs in the area are Bangladeshi.[63]. However the majority of Asians affiliated with gangs and organized crimes in London were recorded to be of Pakistani descent. Examples of Pakistani gangs in London can be found in Redbridge, Waltham Forest, Newham, Ealing, Brent, Hounslow, and Barking and Dagenham. Among ethnicity gang membership in London along by racial group from a gang database displays that 78.2% were Black, Whites made up 12.8% of gang members, Asians (Pakistani, Indian and Bangladeshis) accounted for 6.5% of gangsters, Middle Eastern/Arabs constituted 2.2% of gang members, East Asian/unknown-ethnicity made up under 1% of those involved in organized crime.[64]

London gangs are increasingly marking their territory with gang graffiti, usually a gang name and the Post Code area or housing estate they identify with.[9] In some cases they may tag the street road signs in their area with an identified gang colour, as can be seen in Edmonton.[65] This is not a new phenomenon and has been practised by many London gangs in the past although today it is a more integral part of the gang culture. Many gangs have a strong sense of belonging to their local areas and often take their names from the housing estates, districts and postal code areas where they are located. In some areas the post codes act as rival gang boundaries,[66] although this is not a general rule as there can be rival gangs present within the same postal area as well as gangs that occupy multiple postal areas. Gangs in London also use handsigns and gang tattoos to denote gang membership.[citation needed] Some gangs in London are motivated by religion, as is the case with Muslim Patrol.


The first recorded gangs in Manchester were "Scuttlers", which were youth gangs that recruited boys and girls between 14 and 21 years of age.[67] They became prominent amongst the slums during the second half of the 19th Century, but had mostly disappeared by the beginning of the 20th century.[68] In the mid 1980s, a growth in violence amongst Black British youths from the west side of the Alexandra Park Estate in South Manchester and their rivals, West Indians living to the north of the city, in Cheetham Hill began to gain media attention.[69] The city has sometimes been dubbed in the media as 'Gangchester' and 'Gunchester'.[70]

The gang wars in Manchester first gained national media attention in the Guardian newspaper on 7 June 1988. In the article, Clive Atkinson, deputy head of Greater Manchester Police CID said, "We are dealing with a black mafia which is a threat to the whole community".[71]

The gang culture spread into many deprived areas in South Manchester.[72] A gang-related crime occurred on 9 September 2006, in Moss Side, where Jessie James, a 15-year-old schoolboy was shot dead in the early hours of the morning. His shooting is said to have been the result of a mistaken identity for a rival gang member. To this day his murderer(s) have not been found.[72]

In April 2009, eleven members of the Gooch Gang were found guilty of a number of charges ranging from murder to drugs offenses. The Gooch Gang had a long-standing rivalry with the equally well known Doddington gang. The Gooch gang operated with a tiered structure. On the top were the gang's leaders, Colin Joyce and Lee Amos, and below them were members controlling the supply and distribution of drugs to the street dealers at the bottom. The gang was earning an estimated £2,000 a day, with street dealers allowed to keep £100 a day for themselves. After 2001 when Joyce and Amos were sent to prison on firearms charges, there followed a 92% drop in gun crime in central Manchester.[73] Official gun enabled crime figures show a 17% reduction in Manchester when comparing 2005/06 (1,200 offences) and 2006/07 (993 offences). However, this was followed by an increase of 17% in 2007/08 (1,160 offences) compared to 2006/07.[74] In 2009 shootings were reported as falling by 82% compared with the previous year.[75]

In addition to gun gangs, Manchester is also home to the Inter City Jibbers, an element within the city's main hooligan gang that uses football hooliganism as a cover for acquisitive forms of crime. According to former Manchester United hooligan Colin Blaney in his autobiography 'Undesirables', members of the gang have been involved in serious forms of crime, such as drug smuggling from Latin America and the Caribbean, carrying out armed robberies and committing robberies on drug dealers.[76] In an interview with Vice magazine, members of the gang spoke of connections with Liberian drug smuggling cartels and convictions for offences including armed robbery, credit card fraud and sale of class A drugs.[77]

Drug gangs[edit]

A number of the criminal gangs in the United Kingdom specialize in the importation, production and sale of illicit drugs. Of the 2,800 gangs identified within the United Kingdom it is estimated that 60% are involved in drugs.[78] Amongst them are the Yardies, also known as Posses in America, who are generally associated with crack cocaine. In 2003, it was reported that Yardie drug gangs were present in 36 of the 43 police force areas in England and Wales.[79] One of the more prominent were the Aggi Crew in Bristol.

In 1998, six members of the Aggi Crew were imprisoned after being found in possession of over £1 million worth of crack-cocaine.[80]

There were raids across the city which was the latest phase of Operation Atrium, launched in 2001 to clamp down on drug-related crime in Bristol by disrupting organised gangs. More than 960 people have been arrested in the past 18 months.[81] In 2009 Olympian and judo expert James Waithe was convicted of drugs offences, having been an enforcer for drug ring that made £50 million annually.

Asian drug gangs, usually of Pakistani, Bengali, Tamil and Indian descent are also present in the United Kingdom. Bangladeshi gangs are found mostly in Tower Hamlets. Notable Tamil Hindu gangs include Harrow Tamils and Wembley Tamils. In London, Indian gangs are mostly concentrated in Southall, Brent and Harrow. However Asians of Pakistani descent have been recorded to have the highest number of Asian gangs in the United Kingdom. Notable Pakistani gangs in the United Kingdom are often associated with the importation and distribution of heroin. Examples of Pakistani drug gangs in the United Kingdom outside of the major urban centres can be found in Bedford, Redbridge, Waltham Forest, Newham, Luton,[82] Middlesbrough[83] and Oldham.[84] Drug squad officers in 2003 claimed that Asian gangs were actively seeking to corner the heroin market.[85]

In other reports it has been suggested that Turkey replaced Asia as the most important transit point for heroin, and it is estimated that 80% of heroin intercepted by British authorities belongs to Turkish gangs.[86] A recent spate of murders in London in 2009 have been linked to a heroin drugs war involving rival Turkish and Turkish-Kurdish gangs in north London.[87] It is believed that the feud is between two organised drug gangs, the Turkish 'Tottenham Boys'[88] and the 'Bombarcilar' or 'Bombers' from Hackney. The Bombers were led by Abdullah Babysin who was said to be Britain's largest importer of heroin, he was convicted in 2006.[89]

Organised crime groups[edit]

Britain has a number of traditional organised crime firms or local British crime families. Some of the most well known include the Kray twins, The Richardson Gang and Terry Adams Clerkenwell crime syndicate in London. Outside the capital there are the Noonans in Manchester, Thomas McGraw from Glasgow and Curtis Warren from Liverpool who are amongst some of the most infamous.[citation needed]

In more recent times the emergence of organised crime groups from outside the United Kingdom has increasingly been documented in British media. Some organised crime syndicates that are known to operate in the United Kingdom include the Triads, Russian Mafia, Albanian Mafia and the Rathkeale Rovers.[90][irrelevant citation]

Sectarian gangs[edit]

Sectarian, or 'political' gangs have featured in British cities such as Liverpool in England, Glasgow in Scotland and Belfast in Northern Ireland. Belfast has been the capital of Northern Ireland since its establishment in 1921 following the Government of Ireland Act 1920. Since its emergence as a major city, it had been the scene of various episodes of sectarian conflict between its Roman Catholic and Protestant populations. These opposing groups in this conflict are now often termed republican and loyalist respectively, although they are also referred to as 'nationalist' and 'unionist'.[91]

The most recent example of this is known as the Troubles - a civil conflict that raged from c.1969 to the late 1990s. Belfast saw some of the worst of the Troubles in Northern Ireland, particularly in the 1970s, with rival paramilitary groups forming on both sides. Bombing, assassination and street violence formed a backdrop to life throughout the Troubles. The Provisional IRA detonated twenty-two bombs, all in a confined area in the city centre in 1972, on what is known as "Bloody Friday", killing nine people.[91]

The IRA also killed hundreds of other civilians and members of the security forces. Loyalist paramilitaries the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) and Ulster Defence Association (UDA) claimed that the killings they carried out were in retaliation to the PIRA campaign. Most of their victims were Roman Catholic civilians unconnected to the Provisional IRA. A particularly notorious group, based on the Shankill Road in the mid 1970s became known as the Shankill Butchers. In all, over one thousand five hundred people were killed in political violence in the city from 1969 until 2001.[91] Part of the legacy of the Troubles is that both republican and loyalist paramilitary groups in Belfast have become involved in organised crime and racketeering.

Debate surrounding the impact of gangs[edit]

The Runnymede Trust suggests that despite the well-rehearsed public discourse around youth gangs and 'gang culture':

We actually know very little about 'gangs' in the UK: about how 'a gang' might be defined or understood, about what being in 'a gang' means... We know still less about how 'the gang' links to levels of youth violence.[92]

Professor Simon Hallsworth argues that where they exist, gangs in the UK are 'far more fluid, volatile and amorphous than the myth of the organized group with a corporate structure'.[13] This assertion is supported by a field study conducted by Manchester University, which found that, 'most within- and between-gang disputes... emanated from interpersonal disputes regarding friends, family and romantic relationships', as opposed to territorial rivalries, and that criminal enterprises were 'rarely gang-coordinated... most involved gang members operating as individuals or in small groups.'[13]

Cottrell-Boyce, writing in the Youth Justice journal, argues that gangs have been constructed as a 'suitable enemy' by politicians and the media, obscuring the wider, structural roots of youth violence. At the level of enforcement, a focus on gang membership may be counterproductive; creating confusion and resulting in a drag-net approach which can criminalise innocent young people rather than focusing resources on serious violent crime.[13]

See also[edit]


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