‘NO MEAN CITY’
Believed to be the site of a former leper colony, Glasgow’s most deprived district, ‘The Gorbals’ lies on the south bank of the Clyde, close to the city centre. Towards the end of the 18th century, it was redesigned to be an elegant residential neighbourhood for the Protestant middle classes. But then there was a mass immigration of Highlanders, Europeans and most problematically, Catholic Irish migrants. The first gang activity was recorded around this time. Their weapon of choice was the simple stone.
As the mansions of the middle classes became the tenements of the working classes, landlords let standards slide. By the 1920s, it was, quite simply, a slum where one in three was jobless.Worse, religious rivalries ripped the city apart geographically and most infamously, along football lines. In the East were the Catholic, Celtic supporters, and in the West, the Protestants and Rangers supporters.When the worldwide Great Depression hit in 1929, Glasgow, already suffering, went down for the count. The gangs ran riot. They recruited from the all too numerous unemployed. There were six times as many gangs in Glasgow as in London. And the drunks, the doorstep lenders and the penny prostitutes, then witnessed a new type of gang emerge:
THE RAZOR GANGS
In 1934, Alexander McArthur an alcoholic, unemployed baker sent some writing to a publisher. His graphic descriptions of 800 strong gang wars settled with the slash of a razor led to a tabloid journalist joining him. Together they wrote the seminal novel, ‘No Mean City’. Its title came from the Bible. The story was fictional. But it’s tale of the bloody rise of Johnnie Stark, and his crowning as ‘Razor King’ of a Gorbals gang, was straight from the streets.The book’s sex and violence meant it was banned from Glasgow bookshops but it became a national bestseller. Its author, however, drank away his royalties, and then downed a bottle of disinfectant, before trying to drown himself. He survived both the bottle and the drowning and was found unconscious. He died soon after. His funeral was attended by just two people. Both were reporters.
By the time he died, however, the ‘Glasgow hard man’ image had been well and truly born. And the razor gangs he had recorded would become inextricably linked with the image of his home city.
The "Razor Gangs" Legacy
In 1942, Sillitoe was knighted. Sir Percy Sillitoe often spoke of Billy as a skilled fighter and an ingenious leader. Perhaps this was intended to boost Sir Percy by showing he hadn’t fought just any old criminal. The effect, however, was to mythologise his adversary. Later generations often confused the fictional Johnnie Stark (from ‘No Mean City’) with the flawed and only occasionally heroic Billy.The man himself died in poverty in 1962 aged 57 years in a single roomed tenement home just north of Bridgeton Cross.He was given a spectacular send off including flute bands as around 1000 marched in his funeral cortege. He was buried in the cemetery at Riddrie in an unmarked grave.COPPING A CARMONTWhen the razor gangs threatened to resurface in the 1950s, Lord Carmont, a city judge started handing down severe sentences. In one series of court sittings in Glasgow he passed sentences of up to 10 years, and in total 52 years, on eight men.For Glasgow knife carriers, being sentenced by him became known as ‘copping a Carmont.’By May 1954 Lord Carmont told the High Court in Glasgow he thought the city’s record of crimes of violence was improving. It was; but not for long.
FRED WEST DID WHAT?Fred West, the serial killer and child sexual predator used to sell ice creams in the Gorbals in the early 1960s. It is not clear if he used the opportunity to prey on children though he did run over and kill one in his van.In 1961, slum clearances and major regeneration, together with a sustained criminal crackdown, helped clear away the environment that had helped the gangs grow. But though the San Toi Boys of the razor gang era are gone, their descendants, the ‘Toi’ gangs are still active in Glasgow.And scars are still worn by some as badges of honour. The most sadistic is the ‘Glasgow smile’. The victim has both sides of his mouth slashed back to the ear leaving the impression they are grinning from ear to ear.AND NOW?In 2002 the World Health Organisation declared Scotland as one of the bloodiest nations in the Western World and Glasgow the murder capital of Europe.In 2007 there were 73 murders in the Strathclyde Police force area, 40 of which involved knives.Knife crime levels in Scotland were 3.5 times higher than in England or Wales.Karyn McLuskey, head of Strathclyde’s Violence Reduction Unit said knife crime was endemic and dated back to the ‘razor gangs’ of the 1920s.Since 2008, however, she spearheaded a Violence Reduction Scheme and nearly 500 gang members from eastern Glasgow engaged with it. Violent offending has fallen by 46%. Gang fighting is down by 73%. And weapon possession, still including still razors sometimes, has dropped by 85%.Glasgow is no longer the murder capital of Western Europe but the ‘booze and blades’ epitaph is hard to shift. Visitors should still be wary in certain parts of Glasgow, a place where there are more scarred faces than anywhere else in Britain.
THE HAMMER OF THE GANGS
Percy Joseph Sillitoe, the Gangbuster, became the Chief Constable of Glasgow in 1931. He went there after a stint sending down the serious offenders of the steel hard city of Sheffield. He believed Glasgow was "a city being overrun by gangsters terrorising other citizens and waging war between themselves in the streets".Sillitoe fought fire with fire and recruited the toughest men he could find from the Highlands. Given basic training and uniforms, their brief was simple. Take down the gangs. The ‘boot and baton’ approach of the now 1,500 strong Glasgow police force meant they became known as "the biggest gang in the world".But Sillitoe didn’t just use brute force. He introduced radio cars, police boxes, a modern fingerprint lab; and the chequered band round cop caps - now used throughout the world - is called the Sillitoe Tartan because he introduced it to help identify police officers, even in riots.Sillitoe wouldn’t just wade into the middle of a fight. His police waited till both sides had worn themselves out. Then they would wade in to sweep up the survivors.And if he couldn’t arrest Billy Fullerton for violence, he would take him down another way.
Sillitoe first arrested Billy Fullerton in the late thirties. Billy, fond of the drink and of his family image, was parading through the streets with forty of his followers whilst cradling a baby in his arms. So Sillitoe arrested him for being found drunk in charge of a child. He was jailed for 10 months. Sillitoe then confiscated £600 from Billy’s bank account draining the financial lifeblood of the Billy Boys.On release Billy formed a 200 strong Glasgow branch of the Mosley Black Shirts. Billy’s attacking of communists (by belief, anti nationalist) all fitted with their image as defenders of the faith, and their nation. In reality, they were thugs who had found in Moseley a new paymaster and Moseley had found much needed bodyguards. But when the Fascist leader was interned, Billy signed up for the navy as World War II broke out. There, he served with distinction, as did many other Billy Boys.However, on returning to Glasgow, he went onto form Glasgow’s own branch of the Ku Klux Klan. On top of the predictable anti-Semitism, and with few racial minorities to attack, Catholics were once again targeted.
‘Can yer Maw sew? Get her tae stitch that!’The gangs became infamous for their use of the straight or open razor-one where the blade folds into the handle. But the intention more often than not wasn’t to kill. It was intended to disfigure by slicing open the face. And it wasn’t just razors they used. They used coshes, hatchets, hammers, sharpened bike chains, petrol bombs, and if they ran out of those, there were always the razor blades stitched into their caps and lapels. And as some ambushes started with the chucking of human waste, it can be said that they would use literally anything.A small consolation to the slum dwellers of Glasgow was that the gangs had a code where only other gang members were targets.But crossfire casualties were not uncommon.On the afternoon of the 3 March 1934 a group of about 500 blue scarf, rosette wearing Rangers supporters were gathered at Bridgeton Cross station. They were waiting for a train to take them to the match. But among them was a hardcore of Billy Boys. Then onto the platform arrived a train carrying Celtic supporters. The two sides hurled nothing more than abuse until a Billy Boys man called John Traquair burst onto the train. He set upon the first men he could find–slashing one with a razor and punching another.
A police manhunt ensued and John Trequair was charged with mobbing, assault and rioting. Found guilty, his sentence surprised everyone used to lenient sentences for Protestants. He was jailed for four years. A 40,000 petition appealing achieved nothing. It was a sign of things to come as both police and the judiciary cracked down hard.Billy continued to spark gang violence by marching his gang into Conk strongholds. After one bruising encounter in Norman Street, nearly every Billy Boy was injured, either by the Conks, or the police. The only Billy Boy to escape without injury was the big drum player. He had hid inside his instrument.But such blatant public battles were starting to concern the authorities. Sectarian violence was about to be dealt with at street level by the gangbuster, Percy Sillitoe.
The Key Figures
In 1930s Glasgow, gangs dominated the streets. There were the Bowery Boys, the Redskins (so called because of their red, raw scarred faces), the San Toi (Protestant), the Shamrock and The Tim Malloys (both Catholic), the Bingo Boys, the Govan Team, the Baltic Fleet and there was even a fighting female gang of pickpocket prostitutes called the Nudies.But one stood out. And it was their high public profile that would ultimately lead to their downfall.THE BILLY BOYSBilly Fullerton was the sole leader of what was originally called the Bridgeton Billy Boys. He founded them in 1924. He claimed they were started after he was beaten up by a Catholic gang after beating them at football. The traditional view of an honourable man defending his family and faith has recently been debunked by historian Dr Andrew Davies. Dr Davies believes Billy was a cowardly fascist who beat his wife – an act for which he was jailed in 1930.No one disputes the fact, however, that his gang terrorised Glasgow’s east end throughout the 1930s.The Billy BoysFashioned themselves as almost paramilitary. They wore a uniform of sorts, marched and paraded with their own bands, and ended each day with ‘God Save the King’.They had a junior training section, the Derry Boys which prepared young lads for the senior ranks. Members paid a weekly levy.This was used for, amongst other things, supporting members recently released from jail who were in need of food and clothing.
THE NORMAN CONKSOne of the main Catholic razor gangs to stand up against The Billy Boys operated out of Norman Street. The ‘Conk’ was a shortened from the word ‘conqueror’. Hence they were one of the few gangs to have a historical play upon words by essentially calling themselves ‘The Norman Conquerors’.Their territory was marked by shamrocks painted on the walls. They are said to have attended Billy Fullerton’s wedding. But instead of chucking confetti, they hurled bottles.The Norman Conks had links with the early IRA who used the city as their supply point. The IRA, however, relied on the gun to settle disputes and their main target was the police and army.THE FIEND OF GORBALSSome men were so brutal that even the razor gangs wouldn’t have them.One was Patrick Carraher. Born in 1906 into a decent working class family, Carraher was described by Scottish crime writer, Reg McKay as going ‘off the rails as soon as he could walk.’By 14, he was in borstal. The brutal prisoner regime of knifings, scaldings and lynchings was like coming home for him. Where others used prison to learn how better to make money from crime, Carraher learned only how to hurt. By 32, he’d ‘stabbed, slashed and gouged his way through life’ and unlike the gangs who primarily fought against each other, he fought anyone. Arrested for killing someone, he escaped the gallows on a technicality and then escaped being called up for the Second World War because of a bad chest. After an ‘orgy of violence’ he was again arrested and wasn’t released until after the war.When Carraher killed a returning serviceman, the gallows finally caught up with him and on 6 April 1946 Patrick Carraher was hanged in Barlinnie Prison.