Archiver > SCT-GLASGOW > 2006-05 > 1147494851

From: "John Duncan" <>
Date: Sat, 13 May 2006 14:34:11 +1000

In 1931 Captain [later Sir] Percy Sillitoe was appointed Chief Constable of Glasgow.
Previously he had established a reputation in Sheffield, England, as a "gang buster" and in his autobiography "Cloak Without Dagger", he attributes his choice "to the city being over-run by gangsters terrorizing other citizens and waging open war between themselves in the streets".

The Glasgow Police Force was the largest in the country after London, with 1,500 men. He adds that these men had to believe that he would support them in the measures they took to quell troublemakers, and the general public had to be persuaded to side with the police.

Glasgow had been worried about its gangs of rowdy youths for many years but it was not until 1924 that, according to Captain Sillitoe, they came under the rule of "hardened criminals"
In particular he had to deal with several notorious gangs in the Bridgeton area, the Billy Boys [a Protestant gang], the Norman Conks [from Norman Street, where many Roman Catholics lived], The Dale Street Boys, The Redskins and the Baltic Fleet, from Baltic Street.

Other Bridgeton gangs were the Bluebell, who went around attacking dance halls, the Stickit and the Nunnies from Nunneaton Street.
All of them used hatchets, swords and sharpened bicycle chains; open razors were a frequent weapon and a favourite was razor blades stitched into the stiff peaks of caps, which then became deadly weapons.

Was it the Bluebell gang who attacked our community dance-hall in Quarryknowe Street, Parkhead, in the early 1930's ?
At the time, I was advised that this attack was payback for an incident involving Catholics throwing stones during an Orange Lodge Funeral - or was this just nonsense talk from one wee wean to another?

The novel "No Mean City", the classic book about life in the Gorbals during the 1930's, was written by a Gorbal's unemployed barber
Alex McArthur and H. Kingsley Long - a Londoner, and it did much to sully Glasgow's image in the 1930's and is supposed to have been based upon the exploits of the Bridgeton gang; the Billy Boys.

The real reason for the notoriety of the Billy Boys might be attributed to the fact that they were more noisier than others, and that their presence on the streets was more noticeable.
Their favourite song went along these lines-sung to the tune of "Marching through Georgia" :-

"Hello, Hello, we are the Billy Boys,
Up to our knees in Fenian blood,
We'll never, never, die,
For, we are the Billy Boys"

Billy Fullerton was the leader of the Billy Boys, and during a friendly game of football on Glasgow Green in 1924, with the Kent Star-a Catholic gang from the Calton- he had the misfortune to score a goal against the Kent Star.
After the game he was attacked with a hammer and wounded in the head.
Upon his recovery, Fullerton raised a gang, eight- hundred strong, recruited from as far away as Airdrie, Coatbridge and Cambuslang.

The Billy Boy's favourite lounging spot was at Bridgeton Cross, and they usually ended a day of loafing by standing stiffly to attention to loudly sing the National Anthem:-

"God save our gracious King,
Send him victorious,
Happy and glorious
God save our king."

The Billy Boys did not go into housebreaking as other gangs did. They raised the money for court fines, etc., by ambushing rival gangs on their way home with their 'buroo' money [social security payments from the Bureau of Employment], and those shopkeepers who declined to contribute to their cause had their windows kicked in.

The Catholic Norman Conks were the deadly enemies of the Billy Boys, who taunted them by marching every Sunday morning up Poplin Street and down French Street, which two streets were located on either side of Norman Street, to reach the Church of Scotland.
Sir Percy Sillitoe describes in his book, what took place on Catholic holy days and saints' days when the Billy Boy's parade went straight through Norman Street:-

"As soon as the distant strains of his offensive music were heard by the Conks, they manned all upper windows, and even the roofs in their street, and when the Billy Boys' band tried to march past, it was met with a downpour of bricks, missiles, buckets of filth, and broken glass.
If the Norman Conks could have made boiling lead, I am sure they would not have hesitated to use that too. It was certainly all that would have been needed to complete the picture of a medieval siege."

The power of the gangs was not broken until one leader was given twelve months' imprisonment, from which he emerged "a broken man", and another, fifteen years for culpable homicide.
Other problems Sillitoe had to deal with were caused by the mass marches of unemployed which could have led to riots, and the activities of the I.R.A [Irish Republican Army] who were using the city as their supply headquarters.

In later years, several men claimed to have assisted in bringing about the demise of the street gangs.
Sir Percy Sillitoe with the strong backing of his police officers.
But the Rev. J. Cameron Peddie of Hutchesontown Parish Church went down a different road by setting up clubs where boys were taught plumbing, carpentry and joinery.
And there is no doubt in my mind that, because of these street gangs, Dr G.C. Cossar set up his boy's club in the Calton and organised the sending of boys to serve on farms in Australia and New Brunswick.

The Governor of Barlinnie Prison, R.M.L. Walkinshaw, also took an interest in the gang members who regularly turned-up at his Gaol, and many former prison inmates attended his funeral when he died from injuries received when he fell from the Glasgow to Stranraer boat train.

I was born into the Calton on the 3rd of May, 1926, and, as if to hansel my reluctant entry into this cruel world, this day also heralded the beginning of one of the biggest General Strikes in the history of Britain.
The strike began in the coal industry and spread to railways, road transport, iron and steel, and building and printing.
The T.U.C. [Trades Union Congress] threw its support behind the miners, the general strike lasted only nine days, but the miners stayed out for nearly six months.
A negotiated settlement was reached, with the government taking an active role.

During this General Strike some of the gang members upheld the law and order and carefully preserved the certificates of appreciation given to them for this community action at the end.
Billy Fullerton later commanded a Fascist unit of two hundred which was used to break up Communist street marches.
Many former gang members completed their WWII war service with good records, and when Billy Fullerton died peacefully at home in 1962 at the age of fifty-six, a turn-out of one thousand people escorted his cortege from Brook Street via Crownpoint Road to Riddrie Cemetery.

To commemorate the event, this poem was written by Edwin Morgan:-

"Bareheaded, in dark suits, with flutes
and drums, they brought him here, in procession
seriously, King Billy of Brigton, dead,
from Bridgeton Cross; a memory of violence

No, but it isn't the violence they remember
but the legend of a violent man
born poor, gang-leader in the bad times
of idleness and boredom, lost in better days,
a bouncer in a betting club, a quiet man at last, dying
alone in Bridgeton in a box bed."

The most disturbing chapter in Sir Sillitoe's autobiography includes an account of his breaking the "graft" ring among Glasgow's Bailies. In the course of his decade in Glasgow he was responsible for no fewer than five magistrates being sent to prison for corruption.
He adds that the Rt. Hon. Tom Johnston, then Secretary of State for Scotland, warned him that if other people were detected and convicted it might be necessary to put in a Commissioner to act in place of the Corporation [City Council].

If it can be said that Glasgow was at its peak in the 1890's, it was certainly far below it in the 1930's, but was this Glasgow's fault?
The whole world was suffering from the Great Economic Depression after the 1914-1918 World War, and it took another World War in 1939 -in some crazy way- to bring prosperity to some.

As I grew up in the East End of Glasgow in the 1930's, I knew nothing of street gangs, and was never afraid to travel through its slum and other economically deprived areas in complete safety, both by night and day.
I have been advised that street gangs have again been formed in Glasgow and that it is dangerous to travel through some areas -so why is the Glasgow Corporation not looking for another Sir Percy Sillitoe?

John Duncan, Melbourne, Australia.

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