The theme of the fourth annual FOBAH walk, which took place on Sunday 12th May, was Gangs of Digbeth. Meeting at the Custard Factory on Gibb Street, our lead on that rather damp afternoon was Chris Upton who proved to be a very enthusiastic and knowledgeable guide. With a good mix of age and experience in the group, we set off to explore the history of the area.
Our walking tour began by heading towards the Great Western Railway and the viaducts that loom large over the Bird’s factory. Although now home to recording studios, the fantastic artwork on display on walls and bridges hints at the gang culture and was an appropriate backdrop for our afternoon.
There were a number of gangs active in this area, the Allison Street Gang, Milk Street Gang and Barn Street Gang to name a few. Some names were recognisable, having passed these streets minutes before whilst walking from St. Martin’s.
Walking along Floodgate Street and River Street, a picture of the humanitarian efforts in the area was emerging. Joel Cadbury established the Birmingham Medical Mission in the 1870s, dispensing medicine and free food, and Floodgate Street School was opened in 1891. Many gang members were recruited through factories and having a school and medical mission would have given youngsters the opportunity to escape this life.
Our guide then took us up onto Fazeley Street, past the now empty Typhoo factory, and the offices of Fellows, Morton and Clayton, Canal Carriers. Next to their main offices stands a building made of Oldbury brick that once housed canal workers, then became a sweet factory, and later a boxing club. Boxing clubs were popular as they provided an outlet for gang members to vent their anger.
There is a long history of gang violence in Digbeth. During the Chartist Riots in 1839 a member of the Allison Street Gang was informing to the Police. Gang membership demanded loyalty and the traitor was hunted through the many pubs in Digbeth. During the riots, a crowd of 500 gang members congregated, throwing stones and bottles at the 14 Police Officers dispatched to calm the violence. Surprisingly only seven arrests were made – one being Julia Giblin who was found carrying stones in her apron! The 1870s saw further violence and ‘turf wars’ between rival gangs – the Barn Street gang and Milk Street gang to name two.
Family rivalry was often at the heart of the conflicts, but gang membership offered protection and identity. It also acted as an umbrella for illegal activity. Birmingham had a very limited Police presence throughout the 18th and 19th centuries and was ill-equipped to deal with the threat of the gangs, whose membership could reach up to 1000. As the Police presence increased in the centre of Birmingham, this pushed illegal activities to the outskirts, through Digbeth and out as far as the Pershore Road. Any unclaimed land would be used to carry out their illegal activity of choice – gambling.
Despite the closeness of the roads which were home to different gangs, the volume of pubs and the presence of back to back housing created micro communities in which gang cultures thrived. Some were more well know than others – the Peaky Blinders for instance, who were rumoured to have sewn razor blades into the peaks of their caps, are the subject of a new BBC drama due to air this Autumn, putting Digbeth on the map. Speaking to one member of FOBAH who grew up in Birmingham and was told stories of gangs in the Summer Lane area, I was reminded that local gangs were evidently part of the culture into the 20th century.
Digbeth remains a mixed area, with a very rich history. Gang culture, humanitarianism, industry and housing all in a relatively small area. The Digbeth Speaks project is working hard to record this important history and records of many of these organisations can be found in our archives.
Nicola Crews Alison Smith