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West Side Story in the Archives

Many of the themes of ‘West Side Story’ are reflected in the books and pamphlets on our library shelves, particularly the social issues such as inter-racial tensions, gang cultures and youth alienation. We hold some fascinating studies on juvenile delinquency (as youthful transgressive behaviours were termed) – including the 1960s pamphlet from which the above is taken. 

In naming the American gangs the ‘West Side Story’ groups, the pamphlet’s author seems to suggest that the musical (and afterwards film) was somehow responsible for encouraging juvenile crime in the second half of the twentieth century (1).  But, as our special collections show, juvenile delinquency was recognised as a problem in both Britain and the United States by the middle of the nineteenth century. In 1853, a sprawling 400-page study of the topic was published with fabulously descriptive chapter sub-headings, such as ‘Degradation of Delinquent Girls Greater than that of Boys’ and ‘Children Reared to Crime and Driven to it by the Poor Law System.’(2)

When author Arthur Morrison wrote an article called ‘Hooliganism’ in 1901, he confirmed that hooligans had been causing trouble of one sort or another for decades (‘under the name of rough, scuttle, larrikin, peaky-blinder…tough or hoodlum’). He recommended taking a tough line with young offenders. For Morrison, the best method of punishment (because cheapest) was whipping; the next best approach was to offer a long prison sentence; but his own radical proposal to stop young troublemakers from bothering the law-abiding masses was to send them all to a town of their own where they might, as he expressed it, ‘Hooliganise’ each other into extinction behind high walls. (3)  

Writing at around the same time as Morrison, Major Arthur Griffiths offered a more progressive interpretation. He highlighted the contribution made by a flawed prison system that had incarcerated young people in adult prisons during the nineteenth century, effectively giving them an apprenticeship to crime. Griffiths sketched out the case of one young Londoner who fell into petty crime as a child. Before hitting his teens the lad was the captain of a violent armed gang who drove about the city in a horse and cart, snatching trunks from the back of carriages. At the age of thirteen he was sentenced to death for stealing a watch and chain. Although his sentence was afterwards reduced, Griffiths used the case to illustrate the harsh treatment that was meted out to juveniles around 1900 (4).  He proposed rehabilitation rather than punishment, an approach that was increasingly fashionable as the twentieth century progressed.

By the interwar period, men and women investigating juvenile crime tended to assess the whole picture. The Young Delinquent (1927) even examined handwriting and physiognomy (example photograph of a delinquent type, aged almost fifteen going on 40, above) to pinpoint the causes of youth crime (5)London’s Bad Boys (1931) blamed bad housing and unemployment for adolescent bad behaviour although the study also highlighted the danger of the herd mentality and hero worship in drawing young men, in particular, into delinquent activity. At this time, cinema was starting to influence how young people socialised. In London it became fashionable to gather in cafes, usually run by Greeks or Italians: ‘Here the groups of lads meet, and it can well be seen how easily such gangs become menaces to society.’ (6) 

The idea of the gang as a potentially harmful influence (an idea with long roots stretching back to the late nineteenth century) ran parallel to popular concerns about isolated young people by the late 1950s. Social scientists in the 1960s focussed on the threat posed by ‘unattached youth’, loners, beatniks or outsiders who felt alienated by an increasingly consumerist society, disaffected by mainstream culture and angry at their elders’ stifling conservatism. More James Dean in ‘Rebel Without a Cause’ (1955) than Tony, Riff or Bernardo from ‘West Side Story’. 

Throughout the twentieth century, commentators blamed the decline of religious faith in cities like London and New York for the rise in delinquent behaviours. Less common was the idea that religion was directly to blame for juvenile crime; but that was precisely the argument of one Liverpool churchman who claimed he had ‘startling and unchallengeable facts and figures’ to prove that Catholicism and delinquency were linked. Both in Britain and the USA, he pointed out, most juvenile delinquents arrested had been to Catholic schools or came from Catholic homes (which statistic surely reveals more about mid-twentieth century urban arrest patterns than it does about the alleged criminal tendencies of young Catholics).(7)    

But what about the 'delinquents' themselves? In the mid-1960s an Essex pacifist organisation devoted their monthly newsletter to the topical issue of juvenile delinquency. One of their contributors was a local factory worker, and self-styled delinquent. Invited to have his say, his response was ‘I guess there is a whole lot of idiots talking a real lot of rot about it so I figure one more idiot won’t harm too much.’ He then goes on to pinpoint a ‘them’ and ‘us’ divide, see extract below. He blames the older generation for their ‘derelect [sic] errors of judgements and errors of action’, political errors (Hiroshima, racial injustice, ‘and all other kinds of injustice and hatred’) which had caused young people deliberately to disengage and disassociate themselves from their families and mainstream society. (8)

What is plain from the materials on ‘JDs’ in our special collections is the shift in emphasis over time. In the late nineteenth century most writers saw a rational purpose behind delinquent behaviour. It was usually linked to criminal activity (especially burglary and theft) and aimed at gaining money or power or both. By the time of ‘West Side Story’, this had changed. No longer chiefly motivated by material want, an ‘us’ and ‘them’ quality entered the argument, pitting adolescents against adults, the present against the past and the new against the old. This had become a civil war between the generations, illustrated throughout the second scene of the second act of ‘West Side Story’ both in the humorous lyrics of ‘Gee, Officer Krupke’ and in the character Action’s sharp recognition that: ‘To them we ain’t human. We’re cruddy juvenile delinquents.’


1. Alan McGlashan Civil War? (1966), p.3, in our Labour History Pamphlets Collection.
2. Mary Carpenter, Juvenile Delinquents (1853), in Labour History Collection Books.
3. All quotes are from Arthur Morrison, ‘Hooliganism,’ The Pall Mall Magazine, 1901, pp.195-6, in London Collection Pamphlets
4. Major Arthur Griffiths ‘A Chat About Juvenile Offenders,’ The Quiver, 1899, pp.939-40, in London Collection Pamphlets
5. Cyril Burt, The Young Delinquent (1927), in British Humanist Association Collection; the young man shown is described as coming from a rough quarter and of a superior intelligence. He was arrested for stealing from his employer before going on the run.
6. S.F.Hatton London’s Bad Boys (1931), pp.39-40, in London Collection Books
7. Rev. H.D. Longbottom, Creed and Juvenile Crime (c.1958) in British Humanist Association Pamphlets
8. Dave White ‘This is Why’ in Candis (July 1965), pp.8-9, in Journals Collection.

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