Following the ratings success of Peaky Blinders, the lavish BBC drama depicting a Birmingham gang from the 1920s, TV commissioning editors are now scouring the local history archives looking for the next bunch of obscure provincial thugs who are just waiting to be repackaged as a DVD boxset.
To help them out, I’ve prepared a list of some likely contenders:
In the 1840s, Lincoln’s Cheesy Rollers (sometimes recorded as ‘Cheezy Rollers’, ‘Cheesy Rollerz’ or ‘Cheesy Rollers’) were a group of free-thinking working class mischief-makers who expressed their dissatisfaction with the ruling elite through the medium of dairy produce. They were not a gang in the strictest sense of the word due to the fact that, in the 1840s, the term ‘gang’ still referred to a type of hat.
The group’s modus operandi was fairly straightforward: under the cover of night they would surreptitiously roll an immense wheel of cheese to the peak of the city’s Steep Hill district, before letting ‘gravity’s faire judgment’ facilitate its impact into crowds of unsuspecting industrialists and other top hat-wearing toffs who gathered at the base of the city’s Steep Hill district.
The Cheesy Rollers captured the imagination of the masses, and were immortalised in a famous couplet by the poet Shelley:
I saw freedom o’er there
It had a whiff of camembert
However, popular opinion turned against the movement in 1848 when a huge Red Leicester en route to a gathering of the Anti-Factory Reform activists suddenly veered off-course and collided with a party of picnicking nuns. Wreckage recovered from the cheese debris proved that faulty tracking was to blame, but the gang were still rounded up, tried without jury and transported to faraway East Anglia, largely on account of its flat terrain.
Despite all this, their legacy endured. A century later, the American folk singer Woody Guthrie wrote ‘Ballad of a Cheesy Roller’ which featured the rousing chorus:
What’s that coming over the hill?
Is it a Gloucester? Is it a Gloucester?
The song struck a chord with impoverished farmhands of the Depression-era Midwest, despite their inability to fully grasp the concept of curdling. An abridged cover version of the song (which toned down some of the more overt political statements and pungent odours) was later made famous by Bruce Springsteen and Lulu.
Before the regulation of the dental industry in 1946, the city of Kingston-upon-Hull was a hotbed of lawlessness and poor oral hygiene. Numerous gangs of dentists fought violent turf wars, and none more viciously than the Teethy Whiteners. From their network of backstreet ‘teetheasies’, the gang would organise illegal cavity protection rackets and offer unethical dental practices like double-flossing and teeth tattoos (or ‘teetoos’).
The gang’s name was a reference to their favourite form of punishment, which involved forcefully whitening their victims teeth by using a special blend of peroxide and bicarbonate of soda. This would render the victim a social outcast as it was an era when tanned teeth were still the norm (and would remain so until the invention of James Coburn and the Bee Gees).
The East Midlands town of Leamington Spa is internationally famous for having the largest concentration of David Bowie fans outside of the West Midlands. For most of the 80s, however, its streets were terrorized by The Creepy Monsters, the successful merger of two already established Bowie tribute gangs, ‘The Scary Monsters’ and ‘The Super Creeps.’ Both gangs were heavily influenced by the same groundbreaking Bowie album, 1980s ‘Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps)’.
The gang – dressed in tawdry Pierrot costumes – would loiter around bulldozers, taunting passers-by with sinister chants of “I’m happy, hope you’re happy too” and “You’d better not mess with Major Tom.” As the situation escalated, Bowie himself personally intervened, making numerous peacekeeping visits to Leamington Spa despite his widely-publicized fear of Warwickshire. Alas, his efforts only encouraged the formation of other tribute gangs, including the Bowie/Jagger-influenced ‘Streety Dancers’ and the Bowie/Queen-themed ‘Undie Pressers’. By the end of the decade an exasperated Bowie took drastic steps to distance himself from their criminality and formed the band ‘Tin Machine.’
More recently, Leamington’s ruling council tried to put a positive spin on their David Bowie connections by twinning the town with Suffragette City, until they realised it had no basis in geography.
Long before the BBCs Great British Bake Off captivated an easily-distracted nation, this seemingly harmless prime-time pass time once had an altogether more sinister appeal. For decades, the sleepy Derbyshire town of Bakewell was home to illegal backstreet bake offs (or ‘bake-offs’), where muscular, barely-literate amateur bakers (or ‘bakers’) would compete against each other for cash, honour or yeast. Part of the same underground scene that introduced the world to bare-knuckle knitting and illegal jam distilleries, the bake offs became a focal point for illegal gambling dens run by gangs of unscrupulous ‘cook-makers’ (or ‘cookies’, for short). The most vicious of these were the Streaky Bakers, who often rigged the outcome of bake offs by breaking crusts, soggying bottoms and, quite literally, ‘cooking the books’.
Their name derived from the fact that they didn’t wear clothes.
The Oxford-based Bullingdon Club were a group of loathsome upper-class twits with an inflated sense of entitlement coupled with scary political ambitions. The author would like to invite any surviving members to a reunion bash that will be held at the base of Lincoln’s famous Steep Hill.
Cheese will be provided.