Part One: Young Raiders Posse
Street gangs have for many years attracted adult condemnation, however, the notion of the ‘gang’ was largely absent from post-war Britain. The rejection of gangs was down to the American stereotypes, portrayed by the motion picture industry, which bore very little resemblance to the delinquent youth groups of the United Kingdom. By the 1960s deviant youth groups here were labelled as sub-cultures by sociologists and criminologists such as David Downes[i].
“America owns the gang, while Britain has traditionally been the home of subcultures.” John Muncie[ii]
Noel ‘Razor’ Smith joins the two favoured academic terms in his book Warrior Kings: The South London Gang Wars 1976-1982[iii], placing his competing subcultures of south London firmly within the context of youth gangs. During this period the Labour government had striven for full male employment and Smith’s youth gangs seemed to be motivated much more by violence, reputation and territory with a lesser need for financial gain. Smith’s memoirs tell us of a south London torn up by gangs of young people who pledged allegiance to numerous subculture gangs such as the Rebel Teds, Skinheads, Mods, Rockers, Soul Boys and Smoothies. They fought one another on the streets, parks and council estates, often over minor slights, frequently bloody but very rarely fatal. Weapons were a feature of these battles and it was common for bicycle chains, knuckle-dusters, lead pipes and razors to be carried by participants. There were a host of south London gangs including the Battersea Teds, from the Patmore Estate, Mitcham Skinheads, Clapham Junction Rebels, Tilson House Job and The Flash Pakis from Tooting. Contrary to popular belief subculture gangs, with the exception of National Front mobs and Skinheads, included non-whites. There were Black Teddy Boys, such as Black Bill of Tooting, Olly the Cat of Streatham and Jester of the Shepherd’s Bush Rebels to name a few exceptions. Another gang, the New Park Dreads were a multi-racial group of soul boys, with two of the leading members being brothers of Irish heritage. New Park Dreads were notorious, they were thought to be the first group of this period to carry knives, and they were also responsible for a murder at a Streatham wine bar in 1977. During the 1970s a travelling fun fair pitched up on Tooting Bec Common during the summer and was a draw for the south London gangs. Here there were reported incidents whereby young people had been stabbed during fights between rivals. A man known as Barry Louvane was said to be a top gang tattooist at the time who had a shop in Garrat Lane near the Arndale Centre in Wandsworth. He was believed to have probably done tattoos for every south London gang of the 1970s from his parlour, which local gang affiliated youths classed as neutral territory.
Noel ‘Razor’ Smith was part of a gang based around Balham, south-west London. Known firstly as the Sinclair Mob, taking their name from Sinclair House, they fought instinctively with rival youths from other estates and would try and gain victories by beating a rival gang on their own territory. Those that carried knives mitigated with the same excuse as young people today, for protection. Reporting assaults and even minor wounds sustained during these gang fights was generally not the done thing, as also remains the same today. The group reputation counted for a lot and as collective identities developed so did the importance of showing it off by daubing agreed gang names on walls, having the correct clothing and appearance to identify with your gang and even gang tattoos on the necks and arms stating gang names and other acronyms associated with your subculture identity. Razor’s gang were Rebel Teds, a revival of the 1950s Teddy Boys, and a later split within the Sinclair Mob led to his faction becoming known as the Balham Wildkatz. Violence was said to have taken place entirely amongst gang members, or those identifiable as being from rival sub-cultural movements. When they clashed they acted as though the general public did not exist yet their escapades helped fuel panic and fear as a result of some very large scale clashes. By the end of the 1970s Razor describes south London as a dangerous place for young people because of the large number of sub-culture gangs which were present. It was perceived to have escalated to a point whereby youths couldn't even go down the shops without some other teenager with a rival identity wanting to stab them or knock them out on sight. In the end, like the posses that followed, Razor and his peers also progressed into crime for financial gain. He became an armed robber, a career criminal, notching up 58 criminal convictions and spending almost 33 years behind bars.
In the early 1980s Wayne Rowe, also known as Fathead after a reggae musician, was drawn into the lifestyle of drugs, guns and gangs on the Stockwell Park estate in south London where he and his peers formed a gang called the Wakod Posse, a crew of about eight, including Wayne, that grew to number as many as fifty. The Wakod Posse had followed the Raiders Posse, a crew set up by the elder brothers of some of the Wakod members. A succession of crews and posse’s formed in Brixton and Stockwell during the 1980s which contributed to its reputation as a dangerous place, they included the aforementioned Raiders and Wakod posses, the Hangman Posse and the 28’s. As Wayne recalled “There was no leader of our crew, though certain individuals always thought they had the final say. But mostly we got along just fine with each other and with the other posses. Inevitably, this changed when individuals started to make money from drugs. Envy and greed set in, and you had to protect your interested.”[iv] The generation in which the 1980s posses developed was by many accounts driven by rising youth unemployment, and whilst there is a myriad of reasons that people become involved with street gangs, many of the earliest accounts contend that it was a financially motivated decision. “I remember what it was like to be out of work, trying endlessly to get jobs with no success. I was so broke that I didn’t have any money to put in the electricity meter. When the credit went down to 20p and I had no one to lend me money, I felt I had no choice but to rob someone”[v] said Wayne. Sir Kenneth Newman, who became commissioner of the Metropolitan Police in 1982, made tackling street crime, including robbery, one of his number one priorities. When it came to handing over to Peter Imbert five years later he conceded that during his term in office, robbery, including knife point robbery, drugs and organised crime had worsened and there had undoubtedly been a growth in gratuitous violence[vi]. Robbery and muggings by urban youth become a folk demon applied to the street gangs of the 1980s by the national media. From the beginning of Noel ‘Razor’ Smith’s gang wars to the establishment of the Wakod Posse there was a 47% increase[vii] in robbery offences reported to police in England and Wales – more than half of the reported offences took place within London.
By 1987 recorded robbery offences exceeded 50 per day in the capital, many of which were carried out using a tactic derived from the United States, known as ‘steaming’. The American-style crime trend involves gangs of up to 30 people swarming into a shop or through a bus, or underground carriage, and stealing en-masse. The large numbers alone ensure that victims are engulfed and other members of the public are unable to stop them. Shops and the London transport network became the most affected targets of such gangs. Whilst youth gangs were causing street robberies to spike, older mainly British born criminals were causing a blip of their own, pushing up figures for commercial robberies of banks, security vans and building societies by 74% just in London, from 370 in 1983 to 644 in 1987[viii]. The biggest of these robberies was the Brinks-Mat gold bullion raid of 1983, with an estimated coup of £26million. The general consensus among true crime authors is that these cash and bullion heists funded the growth of Britain’s drugs trade with the youth gang robbers becoming the shop floor retailers. A street crime campaign was set up by the Metropolitan Police to combat rising street robbery and snatch thefts in 1987 focusing on the inner city districts of Brixton, Stoke Newington, Hackney, Tottenham, Notting Hill, Kilburn, Peckham, Battersea, Lewisham, Holloway, Wembley, Streatham, Walworth and West Ham. These were the forces worst hit policing divisions, Brixton was particularly bad and had almost twice as many recorded offences as second placed Stoke Newington. The British Transport Police mounted their own special operations on the London Underground network to prevent steaming, focusing on twelve identified gangs[ix]. By using video footage of offences police in London were able to identify and apprehend 320 gang members during 10 months of targeted work in 1988. The gangs targeted were known to the police by names such as the West Kensington Massive, referring to the West Kensington housing estate in Hammersmith and Fulham, Stamford Hill Posse, DMC Posse from north and east London, Junction Boys and the KGP. As part of the work to crack down on steaming an attempt was made to address the culprits via JBC, a small north London pirate radio station, after police said they’d established a link between another north London station and an outbreak of steaming in which London Underground passengers were terrorised by 200 steamers going home after a concert in west London[x]. Despite all their efforts, street robbery in London would continue to rise annually over the next eight years almost doubling in volume.
Whilst steaming gangs made headlines the concept of gang violence was absent. Variously the articles relating to gang violence in the 1980s were reserved for football hooligans and racially aggravated violence, the latter related specifically to the targeting of Pakistani, Sri Lankan and Bengali residents at the hands of white British youths in areas such as Somers Town, Ilford, Tower Hamlets and Newham. In April 1984 young Asians and whites battled one another outside the Duke of Edinburgh public house in east London. It followed a series of attacks and counter attacks involving Asians and whites in Newham, later leading local Asians to form the Newham Seven Defence Committee. At the Duke of Edinburgh approximately 50 Asian youths, angered at a series of attacks during the day, marched with bricks, bottles and iron bars on what they believed to be the headquarters of the white youths responsible. Seven Asian youths who went on trial were given the name the Newham Seven, four of whom were found guilty of fighting and making an affray, three white youths were also found guilty of similar charges[xi]. It became referred to in popular media as the trial of the Newham Seven. The book We Dared[xii] written many years later by a self-confessed East End criminal contended that the Newham Seven were a well-known criminal gang in 1980s Newham. Ten months after the Duke of Edinburgh brawl the Young Raiders Posse in south London were about to set a new tone for street gangs in Britain. Whilst they had participated in economically motivated crimes, such as robbery and burglary, their generation heinously found solace in carrying out acts of gratuitous violence, and it did not matter whether or not the victims were other gang members.
In January 1985, two young girls, both 16, were returning home from a pop concert at 2am in south London. As they walked home along Brixton Road they were pounced on and frogmarched to an underground garage area on the Stockwell Park estate. As the girls were dragged to the garages, they were robbed of money and jewellery. Then even more harrowing, several young boys queued up to rape the two girls, squabbling among themselves as to who should go first. Although it’s unthinkably appeasing, police said that the girls were just in the wrong place at the wrong time. They were systematically degraded. One of them was raped 30 times whilst the other was raped 15 times on the concrete floor of the garage area. They were also forced to perform oral sex. Neither girl offered resistance out of fear. Mrs Myrtle Mbatha said in mitigation for one of the accused that their parents found it hard to instill proper sexual attitudes because television films and newspapers showed young men how easy it is to treat young women in a degrading way. In the preceding decade there had been a 150% increase in the volume of rape cases heard by courts[xiii]. When the girls were finally freed they ran to nearby Brixton police station. Seven teenagers between the ages of 14 and 17 were charged in relation to this vile enterprise. They resided on the Stockwell Park estate and were collectively known as the Young Raiders Posse. Each of the youths was known by their own street moniker. There was 17-year-old ‘Private Gripper’ who had previous convictions for theft and for burglary. He and an 18-year-old clerical officer nicknamed ‘Star’ or ‘Sugar Gee’ were said to have helped the girls dress and leave after their ordeal. A 17-year-old electrical engineer nicknamed ‘General Smiley’, with previous convictions for robbery, was accused of being the gangs’ leader. The two younger boys, aged 14 and 15, also had previous convictions for arson, burglary, violence and possessing a loaded airgun. Lastly, there was an 18-year-old known by the nickname ‘Flash’, he was the only person charged who did not claim that the girls were willing participants. He was also the only member of the group to express remorse, admitting one charge of indecent assault.
The youths chatted and laughed among themselves during the three-week trial at the Old Bailey in 1986. One of them when asked if he was sorry replied: ‘Not particularly’. The four older members of the gang were each found guilty of one rape charge against each girl. They were sentenced to seven years’ youth custody, which entailed transfer to prison at the age of 21. Relatives in the public gallery wept and gasped as the judge sentenced them. The two younger boys, who were found guilty of one rape charge each, were given three-year sentences under the Children and Young Persons Act. No emotion was shown by the defendants as the verdicts were announced. The Recorder of London, Sir James Miskin, told the court that the deterrent sentences "must express society’s horror of the mounting volume of man’s inhumanity to women". The much publicised case stimulated further debate on sentencing of rapists and led to MP’s calling for greater consistency, whilst criticising the diversity and inequity of judiciary policy at the time. Figures from 1984 showed that 325 defendants were sentenced at crown courts for rape, with 297 being custodial sentences. Almost two-thirds (63%) of sentences were for between two to five years whilst around one-in-twenty (6%) were for more than five years. Following the case of the Young Raiders Posse, David Mellor, then Home Office minister, urged the Lord Chief Justice to issue new guidelines on sentencing rape cases, including increasing sentencing bands for aggravated rape including gang rapes, multiple rapes, attacks on the very young and those marked by a high degree of violence[xiv].
During the tenure of the Young Raiders a new generation of juvenile street collectives began to spread outward from local epicentres across inner London. Around Brixton there were groups in nearby Stockwell, Kennington and Tulse Hill using names such as the Punishers and the 28s. Other areas of south London saw their own version of this occurring around centres such as Peckham, Deptford and New Cross. Whilst this was going on, north of the River Thames quite possibly the beginning of one of London’s most infamous street collectives was taking shape.
Click Here for Part Two: The Farm
[i] Downes, D. (1966). The Delinquent Solution, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul
[ii] Muncie, J. (1999). Youth and Crime, p.160, London: Sage
[iii] Smith, N. (2008). Warrior Kings: The South London Gang Wars 1976-192. London: Apex.
[iv] Rowe, W. (2004). ‘Fifteen of my friends were shot dead...only prison saved me’, Mail on Sunday, 21 November, p.62.
[vi] Greig, G. & Hogg, A. (1987). ‘Steamer mobs bring a vicious new dimension to street crime’, The Sunday Times, 5 July.
[vii] Home Office: Statistical Publication (1984). Total Notifiable Offences in England & Wales
[viii] Greig, G. & Hogg, A. (1987). ‘Steamer mobs bring a vicious new dimension to street crime’, The Sunday Times, 5 July.
[ix] Tendler, S. (1988). ‘Underground action over steaming’, The Times, 16 August.
[x] Leppard, D. (1988). ‘Carnival gangs face hit squads’, The Sunday Times, 21 August
[xi] Keel, P. & Tirbutt, S. (1985). ‘Seven convicted in ‘racism’ trial’, The Guardian, 11 July.
[xii] Woollard, D. (2003). We Dared. London: John Blake.
[xiii] Court Reporter (1985). ‘Rapists get seven years for act of inhumanity’, The Guardian, 19 November.
[xiv] Travis, A. (1985). ‘Rape guidelines urged by Mellor’, The Guardian, 22 November.