Canal Street in the 1880s: Ginger Liz, Cockney Jim and Dirty Alf

In the 1880s the Manchester Evening News published a series of articles which were then gathered together in a book called “Criminal Manchester.” One chapter is “Canal Street: Ginger Liz and Cockney Alf.”

You can download a PDF of the whole book here, courtesy of Chetham’s Library.

And here’s Chapter X about Canal Street:



Reprinted from the Manchester Evening News



I have described the life that hides itself in Charter-street, Deansgate, and Gaythorn, and in this, my concluding article, I shall cover the remaining ground that can properly be dealt with, though it is scarcely so prolific as the districts that have already been under notice.

Its area is much wider, however, though its special criminality is decidedly of an inferior order, and is so scattered that it loses much of the dangerous character which is developed when its component parts are comprehensively grouped together. It has many features peculiarly its own, and as it consists of three detached localities, these features are pretty distinctly marked in each. The districts are Canal-street, Ancoats, and London-road.

The first-mentioned is the worst of the three, and is of the Wood-street type, than which very few grades of life are lower. It is perhaps a terra incognita to nine-tenths of the inabitants of the city, and yet there is included within its limits enough vice to start any ordinarily-sized civilised town. It lies within a few yards of one of our principal thoroughfares, but is as far removed from it, socially, as the deepest crime from the most exalted honesty.

Lying at the back of the wood-yard in Oxford-street, which is almost opposite the railway station, Canal-street has really for some distance only one side composed of houses, as the canal runs flush with the roadway, from which it is separated by a low brick wall. The level of the canal is considerably lower than that of the street, and two or three locks mark the steep descent of the waters.

The single row of houses mentioned are, with one or two exceptions, thoroughly disreputable, and their open doors are at night time thronged with men and women, who sit on the steps and chaff any strange passer-by in a manner more pointed than polite. I was initiated into the mysteries of several of these places, and Irish Poll was introduced to me in an incoherent state of intoxication.

Her residence was a fair specimen of many others, being decently furnished, though without elaboration, and it orded a striking contrast to that of Dirty Alf, the front room of which was gorgeous with mirrors, mahogany, and mixed materials, from the gilded chandelier to the fanciful china ornaments.

Curtains of richest colouring were festooned over the window, and a soft yielding carpet invitingly sank under my feet. Luxury itself could not have asked for more, and every attention had been paid to the minutest details, the walls of the passage, or hall, perhaps, as the proprietor would prefer it to be called, being fancifully lined with a classic pattern in subdued chocolate colour.

The gaslights lit up all with their rich blaze; and a more perfect whited sepulchre I never saw, for Vice reigns triumphant here — criminality that can scarcely be touched upon. And yet a more productive centre of crime it would be hard to find, for here finds its way the money stolen from employer or other victim, and viciousness reproduces itself in many shapes.

Men may enter the street honest and may leave it thieves; for money that was not their own they have recklessly squandered, and the harpies have effected a change that too often leads direct to further roguery. I instance this house as it is only one of many others that are for some reason tolerated as part of our social fabric; and as affording a means of solution to the mystery of how respectable men -— young men especially — become thieves, apparently spontaneously.

Not professional thieves, stealing for the sake of getting a living without working, but secret pilferers from till or safe, obtaining means to gratify their sensual appetites. On the surface all is plain sailing for a long time, but at last comes detection, and the master to his horror finds his clerk or warehouseman is as despicable a felon as the poor wretch who makes Charter-street his home when not provided for by a beneficent Government in a comfortable gaol.

If the thousand upon thousand patient inquiries by the police as to where the culprit has resorted, and who were his companions, were but published, this Canal-street Palace of Sin and its facsimiles dotted over the face of our city, thick as plague spots, would show what a terrible agency is at work among us, recruiting, year by year, the ranks of the “dangerous classes” from our middle-class population.

Passing a glaring “vault,” which is doing a roaring trade, I found myself in Sackville-street, and Mac ushered me into the habitation of one of our most noted characters in certain circles, who has a connection with “crooked” persons that is exceedingly remumerative. Ginger Liz, as she is euphoniously called on account of her blonds hair, is a woman of middle age, still quick and active in her movements, and with a certain cunning and suspicious look about her face which baffles description.

There was nothing to attract attention in the room we entered, two or three women, and a man who looked liked a well-to-do mechanic, being its sole occupants. There was drink upon the table, and all present were taking “toothfuls” of whisky out of wine glasses. Ginger herself was seated on the sofa holding converse with the man, and as nothing of interest seemed likely to transpire I was quickly back into the street again.

I was curious to hear about the “Red ‘un’s” doings, and Mac “let on” at once: “Ginger, you see, sir,” he said, “is a real clever ‘un, and you won’t meet her equal all over the city. She is as fly and knowing as the whole boilin’ of us, and many a bloke down on his luck has she pulled up all square again. She’s a perfect godsend too when we’re jugged (locked-up), and knows every move of the court as well as Scotty himself (the slang name of one of our leading detective officers).

“When a good cross-man is taken in, and is dragged up at Minshull-street, she sees him as a visitor, or sends one of her women, and no matter what he wants she’ll let him have it. She’ll find two or three quid (sovereigns) for a lawyer, or she’ll “square” the prosecutor or bounce him.

“If he wants to alibi she’ll manage it first-rate, and if there’s any stuff (stolen property) to be got rid of while he’s in, she’s the woman to do the trick. She knows it’s all right with ’em, for they’ll pay her double when they’re out, and she mostly pulls ’em off even if they go to sessions or ‘sizes. She’ll get the best patterers (counsel) money can fetch, and she can put things together straight as a line if she’s let alone. The d’s have been down on her once or twice, but she ain’t been stopped yet.

“It’ll be hard lines for many a poor _____ when she’s shifted. She’s genuine metal, no kid (mistake).”

Mac sang the praises of this Genius of Minshull-street with a fervency that was in keeping with the subject, and no doubt Ginger is an invaluable ally to the thieves who find work for our worthy justices.

Richmond-street, narrow and squalid, runs at right angles to Sackville-street and parallel with Canal-street, and the dwellers in it are of the lowest class. The houses are poorly fitted up, and many women live in the same place. The visitors to these dens are colliers from outside and hard-working labourers from within the city who think drink and debauchery the only true pleasures provided for them, and behave accordingly.

I will only mention one of these, and that is where Cockney Jim reigns supreme when he is in town. In the back kitchen, furnished with the customary sofa, table, and chairs, far too numerous in proportion to the size of the room, were three women and the inevitable man, in this case an outsider “on the drunk.”

A quart bottle, nearly full of dark British brandy, graced the middle of the table, and a drunken, sodden wretch, clad in tawdry finery, with bleared eyes and scrofulous features, was pouring a glass of neat spirit down her throat. She drank the poison without winking, and helped herself to another, replenishing the glasses of her companions at the same time, for these women can drink with the confidence begotten of long practice, and never dream of spoiling their taste by polluting their mouths with water.

Their male “friend” was subdued and maudlin, but he seemed perfectly content with these Philistines, and glared jealously at us as if expecting we were about to deprive him of the comfort derived from the drunken endearments of these representatives of the gentler sex.

We left him to his fate, and as I could not see Cockney I again requested information from Mac. It appears that Cockney attends races and various other meetings all over the country, at which he picks up a satisfactory living, but one of his means of obtaining the “needful” is by one of the cleverest tricks that has ever been in vogue.

It is known as “ring-droping,” and is generally very successful when tried. Many will have been made familiar with it through newspaper reports, but for those who are still blissfully ignorant, I will unfold its mysteries. Provide with cheap gold rings, worth a few shillings, but stamped with a forged mark, and to an inexperienced eye of some value, a “sharp” and his confederate start out into the public streets.

Patiently waiting until a likely victim a proaches, the “sharp” walks past him and suddenly stoops, and pretends_eaglerly to pick sopmething up. He has a ring in his hand, and, rising quickly, examines it with well-affected pleasure. The victim either stops out of curiosity, or else is detained by a direct appeal to congratulate the finder.

The confederate comes up, and, as an innocent passer-by, also stops, asks to look at the ring, finds that it’s marked, prizes it at £10 or £20, and offers to buy it for that money if the lucky-man will accompany him to his house. The said lucky man can’t, as he’s got to go to his work, and will lose his place if hes late. “He’s an honest man he is, and must want to make money out of the ring, so he’ll sell it there and then for a couple of pounds.”

The confederate is annoyed that the has not the amount on him, and expresses vexation that he should lose so good a bargain. The victim meanwhile has had his cupidity excited, he examines the ring, sees it’s all right, thinks what an ass the fellow must be to sell it for a mere song, and after a little parley pays the £2 and makes off with his treasure. The state of his mind after visiting a jeweller may be readily imagined.

Some twenty or thirty streets in the neighbourhood of Ancoats and in the district lying to the left of London-road, very near to the railway station, were visited by us, but it was rather hard to find thieves, though we did come across a few, scattered in courts and stray houses.

In Ancoats there is a contingent of foreign adventurers, Italian organ grinders, &c., who live in one or two large lodging-houses that are well kept and have few undesirable features. The poverty of the residents in these quarters is very great, and as Mac put it, “Where there’s poor people there’s thieves.”

This is true of many streets I inspected but the proportion of dishonest persons to respectable workers is so small that, practically, in Ancoats and London-road, crime is being strangled by its intimate association with elements inimical to it. Men, who work hard all day and earn little, feel savage at seeing good-for-nothing rogues, with plenty of money, hanging about the public-houses doing nothing but enjoying themselves, and accordingly they “round” on their neighbours, and put the police in possession of valuable information as often as possible.

“Ale-and-porter” work, stealing and working, is the mode of life followed by hundreds in these poor streets, and many a wretch finds his way to gaol for petty larceny, in spite of the character his unwary employer may be induced to give him.

After many nights’ wanderings I considered that I had at last come to the end of my tether, and in the slums off London-road I closed my acquaintance with the phases of life I had been studying. The impression derived from my extended visits is that so completely has the police organisation gained a mastery over the classes which live by nefarious transactions that the city has been cleared of the sharpest and most dangerous thieves, who have sought “fresh fields and pastures new,” where the hand of the Manchester detective cannot reach them.

That this is true is proved by the very few robberies of any importance that of late years have taken place in our midst, and that, when a more than usually daring attempt is made on life or property, it is made by strangers and not by genuine residents. There are, indeed, few large cities that can compete with our own in the systematic suppression of viciousness in all its forms, as shewn in the sketches of CRIMINAL MANCHESTER.


I suspect that the gay history of Canal Street stretches back much further than we know. With his lavish furnishings, Dirty Alf could well have been homosexual. Was the reporter hinting at that with his description? I’m not sure. Where did Dirty Alf’s nickname come from? Certainly not from his living conditions…

Just a hunch, but could working on the canals have been a way for “gay” men of the time to escape from their home town, be a little anonymous, and meet similar men? Others may have chosen to live near the canals for that reason. Pubs that turned a blind eye might have sprung up nearby.

The Rembrandt (known as the Ogden Arms until the 1960s) and The Union may have been “gay friendly” for much longer than we realise.

And anyone who was on the gay scene in Manchester prior to the 1990s will recognise the whiff of criminality that surrounded the area and scene in general. Hardly surprising when homosexuality itself was a criminal offence until 1967.

Oddly, none of the historic maps which I’ve looked at shows Canal Street extending any further west than Princess Street (which was formerly known as David Street). Yet the author talks about Canal Street being “at the back of the wood-yard in Oxford-street, which is almost opposite the railway station.” But then Richmond Street and Sackville Street are mentioned.

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