‘the ugliest town in the world.’George OrwellThe labyrinth back alleys of Sheffield after the First World War meant home grown criminals could strike and vanish with ease. Boys that had grown up in inner city poverty had evolved into gangs that turned their urban environment to their advantage. Returning soldiers, now trained to kill, found unemployment lines instead of victory parades. Some had returned with bayonets and enemy guns and decided that if ‘civvy’ street wouldn’t pay, criminal life might.
‘Little Chicago’Sheffield’s gangland inspired 1920s nicknameJust 556 police were expected to keep a lid on a population of half a million. In 1921 nearly 70,000 men were jobless. The munitions factories that had supplied the massive bombardments of the war had declined with the peace. This fall in demand combined with a global steel depression. For an industrial city dependent on steel production, the effect was devastating.Sheffield’s 15,000 crowded back to back houses, with families sharing outside toilets, meant poverty and crime infected its cobbled streets and dimly lit courtyards. As the local paper, the Sheffield Mail, reported at the time,‘There is probably no city in the country where the housing problem is so acute as in Sheffield.’What passed for a welfare system was, not surprisingly, utterly overwhelmed. For many, one small glimmer of hope in such depressed times was gambling. But only gambling on the horses was legal.PITCH AND TOSSHuge sums of money were bet on the toss of a coin in a game called ‘Pitch and Toss’. Jack White, a publican from Barnsley, was known to regularly bet £50 on the single flip of a coin. It required just three coins to play, placed at the end of your fingers and tossed. With no equipment to set up and dismantle, it was cheap, quick and could easily escape detection. The number one site for games was on a hill called Skye Edge. Its location meant the gangs that controlled the game could easily see any approaching police. Hundreds of people would gather to take part.The organisers of the ring took 4 shillings in the pound as a toll paid, appropriately enough, to the ‘toller’. This would pay for the ‘pikers’ or ‘crows’, the lookouts that made sure the police or rival gangs were spotted in time. The main man in charge of the Skye Edge patch was George Mooney. And to enforce his patch, violence, even murder, was employed.But there’s one thing worse than a gangland boss controlling a city. And that’s two gang bosses competing to control that city. And between 1923 and 1928, that’s what spilt onto the streets of Sheffield. The steel city was about to earn another nickname, ‘Little Chicago’.
“There is only one way to deal with the gangster mentality. You must show that you are not afraid...The element of beast in man whether it comes from an unhappy and impoverished background, or from his own undisciplined lustful appetites, will respond exactly as a wild beast of the jungle responds – to nothing but greater force and greater firmness of purpose.” Sir Percy SillitoeSillitoe used trials to demonstrate strength. He took his officers to court to show prosecutors that they should no longer be afraid of handing out penal sentences.When the 6ft 2in police officer Loxley appeared in court next to a much smaller gang member covered in blood and bandages, it was intended to send a message. It was obvious the criminal had been assaulted, either during his arrest or in custody. But the police wanted to show the courts that the prosecutors should be emboldened to hand out more than just fines. In the Loxley case, the defendant was so badly beaten that his solicitor argued his client shouldn’t be charged with police assault, but attempted suicide.STEEL TO ROPE The Sam Garvin gang accused of William Plommer’s murder slept on wooden benches with wooden pillows as they waited for trial. None were given blankets. In all, ten men stood trial accused of murdering or aiding in the murder. They included the Fowler brothers and gang leader, Sam Garvin.The trial began on Tuesday 28 July 1925. As it unfolded, it exposed a criminal network that effectively ran the Sheffield underworld.The murder weapon, the bayonet, had never been found but a handful of witnesses said it was wielded by Wilfred Fowler. His brother Lawrence was said to have used a truncheon. There had been 50 witnesses at the scene. A further 30 experts were called.At the end, Mr Justice Finley sentenced three men George Wills, Amos Stewart and Stanley Harker to 27 years prison for manslaughter. The gang leader Garvin received 20 months for the assault he’d committed in the hope of having an alibi.The judge sent the two brothers to the gallows. Wilfred’s daughter visited him in his death cell at Armley Prison, Leeds, the day before he was due to die. On Friday 4 Sept 1925, Wilfred was hanged.Due to new evidence his brother Lawrence appealed. The Home Secretary rejected the appeal. Lawrence joined his brother at the end of a rope.
Over 8,000 people attended the funeral of William Plommer. His murder had caught the headlines and shocked the nation. Questions remain to this day as to the guilt of the brothers who hung for his murder.Jail finally caught up with old gang-leader George Mooney. He was sentenced for biting a man’s ear off on a train coming back from a race meeting.Sillitoe became known as the saviour of Sheffield. He earned his own nickname as Britain’s first ‘Gangbuster’. With the Sheffield gangs destroyed, he was sent to Glasgow to deal with the razor gangs. Local historian and author JP Bean argues that Sillitoe picks up too much of the credit for finishing off what his predecessor had started. But Sillitoe’s five years in Sheffield coincided with the end of the gangs. After five years of ‘knifings, shootings and razor slashings’ the gangs were smashed.After Glasgow, Sillitoe would go on to become head of MI5 in 1946. His cockney hard man ways weren’t liked but he was successful. During his time he dealt with the threat of Communist spying and exposed the Cambridge spy ring and the ‘atom spies’. He left after seven years. He then became head of the International Diamond Security Organisation. There he successfully stopped the smuggling of diamonds from Sierra Leone.Aged 73, the ‘gangbuster’ died at home in Eastbourne in 1962.
“What is happening is that we are making thieves.”- Chief Constable Lieut. Col. Hall-Dalwood, 1925Chief Constable Hall-Dalwood was the man responsible for stopping the Sheffield gangs. He saw the problem as both a lack of police presence and a lack of prosecution in the judicial system. He complained that the punishments weren’t a deterrent to the crimes. He argued that small fines and light sentences meant that it paid to be a thief. Sheffield was becoming as good at making thieves as it had done steel.The police were often unable to secure willing witnesses as they couldn’t ensure their protection. After the derisory fines, it’s said that some gang members took taxis back to their gambling patches and immediately resumed business. It was rumoured that the prosecutors were being pressured by the gangs. And further that the police were corrupt. A few years later, three constables and nine bookmakers were indeed charged with bribery.His force was overwhelmed.THE SPECIAL DUTY SQUADFour days after Plommer’s murder, on 1 May 1925, Chief Constable Hall-Dalwood formed the Special Duty Squad. This soon became known as the Flying Squad. Like a similar unit set up in London to deal with the Birmingham racecourse gangs, it had a simple remit:Strike fast and hit harder.It was formed with four of the toughest police in the force. All of them were First World War veterans. Their leader was Sgt Robinson, an ex Coldstream Guard. Then there was PC Walter Loxley. At 6ft 2in, and nearly 20 stone, this former Artillery man was an immoveable force. P.C Herbert Lunn had been awarded the military Medal in France for saving wounded comrades under heavy enemy fire. Lastly, there was Jack Farrily. Before joining the army and the police, this Irishman had earned his money as a street-fighter.Chief Constable Hall-Dalwood used them to target the gangsters at street level. But such was his effectiveness and such were the political and criminal connections, that he was forced to resign. His Scotland Yard replacement, however, would turn out to be the country’s first ever gang buster.
GANG BUSTEROne of the first recruits the new Chief Constable Percy Sillitoe added was PC Pat Geraghty. At 6ft 5in, Geraghty was said to be able to pick up five tennis balls in one hand. Sillitoe also introduced the European Ju-Jitsu Champion Harry Hunter to train the force in self defence. After seven weeks, each man could deal with 60 methods of attack.And attack they did. The Flying Squad lived up to their name by throwing people through doors and windows. They rarely opened them first. To set an example, they started beating criminals in plain public view. They then took to taking them round back alleys. On one occasion they battered a criminal in a pub and the landlady fainted. The gangs had relied on brawn, not brains to make their money. On every level, they were now outmatched.“...these were not the brightest of men.”-JP BeanWith the murder of William Plommer, the stupidity of gang members would be their undoing. Wilfred and Lawrence Fowler hung around sitting on the steps of a chip shop near to where they’d beaten Plommer to death. When the police arrived, Lawrence Fowler admitted to hitting Plommer on the head.When the police took the brothers to their station they told them it looked like the assault could be very serious. So Lawrence changed his story and said he didn’t hit him.Sam Garvin was smarter. He’d immediately jumped on a tram, travelled a distance, got off and assaulted the first man he could find. His assault was to be his alibi.But his ploy failed. He and nine others, amongst them the Fowler brothers, were taken to West Bar Station.
Wrong place wrong time
'I reckon it spoiled me suit!’- Gang member Frank Kidnew’s defiant statement to police after being slashed with razors over a hundred timesOn top of gambling and confidence tricks, the gangs made their money wherever they could. Protection money was expected from pubs in order to minimise ‘breakages’. Some gang members would wait outside factory gates on payday to collect a cut of the workers’ wages. After a day of intimidation, gang members would take a taxi home. The driver would of course not expect payment.But as intimidating as the gangs were to the public, it was nothing compared to the violence they meted out to rival gang members.GAMBLING TO GANG WAROne Saturday night in April 1923, Mooney’s gang tried to make a pre-emptive strike on the Park Brigade. They attacked one, Bill Furniss, in his bed. Despite being severely injured from being beaten by hammers, he never reported it to the police. He didn’t want justice, he wanted revenge. The gang wars had started.Two days later one of the Park brigade, Frank Kidnew was leaving a tossing game. He was slashed with razors over a hundred times. Despite being interviewed by the police at the infirmary, he too refused to name names. His concern was only with how the razors and his blood had ‘spoiled’ his suit.So the Park mob retaliated by attacking the main man, Mooney, at his home. Mooney and his crew defended themselves with guns. One attacker was shot in the shoulder. When the police arrived, they found a double-barrel shotgun, a rifle, a revolver, and ammunition. Despite being in a fire-fight that wounded another man, Mooney was simply fined. His fine for possession of firearms was £10.During 1923, Garvin’s gang were in the ascendency. Mooney’s mob imploded.On 18 May 1925, Mooney’s home was again attacked. An elderly bystander was hurt and several attending police officers required medical attention. Only one assailant was caught. Again, there was only a small fine.On Christmas Eve, the Park mob stormed Mooney’s home. They terrorised Mooney, his wife and six children. Mooney escaped by hiding in a cupboard. After this, he fled Sheffield. He would not return for a year.With Mooney’s gang in decline, Garvin could have sat back and enjoyed the spoils. Instead, he became embroiled in a pointless killing that would cost him his empire, and his freedom.
THE PRINCESS STREET MURDERAccounts differ as to what caused William Plommer to be fatally targeted. One source suggests he’d helped a lady rebuff the unwanted advances of a Sam Garvin gang member. Another has Plommer witnessing the Sam Garvin Park Brigade inflict a vicious beating on a Mooney man, Liversidge. After they’d finished, Plommer helped the man to his feet. Local historian JP Bean states that it was, in fact, Plommer helping up a beaten to the floor Sam Garvin man, Wilfred Fowler, which caused offence.Plommer’s helping hand was seen as an insult to the gangster’s wounded pride.Whatever the cause, Wilfred and his brother Lawrence Fowler, along with eight others, tracked Plommer through the streets. More gathered for the final assault. Estimates vary as to how many attacked Plommer. Some suggest six, others twenty. All agree Plommer stood alone.The unarmed Plommer was beaten with pokers, coshes and a piece of lead on a string. He was also beaten with ‘Life Preservers’. These weapons, often chair legs hollowed out and filled with lead, were intended to inflict injury, not death. This time, however, they would not live up to their name.Bleeding heavily, Plommer tried to crawl back home. As he dragged himself through the streets, he was pounded repeatedly. When others came to his aid they found Plommer had severe head injuries and two great wounds resembling bayonet thrusts through his stomach and side.He was taken to the Royal Infirmary. Within minutes, he was dead.
Meet the Gang
GEORGE MOONEYGangster George Mooney, 33, ran a highly lucrative and illegal pitch and toss betting ring at Skye Edge above Sheffield: Every single gamble kick-backed a percentage to him.But when his criminal empire suffered from a fall in earnings during the depression, he slimmed down his operation. He laid off some of his scouts, minders and henchmen. So they formed a rival gang called the Park Brigade. They were led by his onetime number two...SAM GARVINSam Garvin, 43, had amassed a string of convictions and prison sentences for assault, illegal gaming, con-tricks and theft. A professional criminal, his other commercial activities included a sideline as a promoter of pub-yard bare knuckled boxing matches.He was first convicted in 1904 but his criminal connections didn’t stop him being in with local politicians. When some of the first decent council houses were built in Sheffield he got one of the few available. And when everyone else was in the depths of the depression, he was driving a three litre Bentley saloon.
THE JUNIOR PARK GANGThe seemingly easy money and untouchable status of the main gangs meant many teenagers wanted their lifestyle. Without the stature of their ‘heroes’ they were more likely to be armed with ‘knives, coshes and razors’. Some accounts state they had firearms as well. Their scams were more subsistence stuff such as pick-pocketing and selling dud jewellery. They would try to sell rings to a couple. If the couple didn’t buy, they were beaten and mugged for their money.In August 1923, four men were attacked by a gang of youths and later a woman was punched in the face. The boys would work in pairs or packs and target individuals or couples. But being in a gang was as much about thrill seeking as it was about being a profitable professional criminal. A favourite activity was to leave one of the gang on the entrance of a pub and the rest enter. They demanded free alcohol and cigarettes. If refused, they smashed the pub to pieces. Either they got their kicks through drinks or through violence and vandalism.When they tried to disrupt a fairground, they found someone who would kick back harder. They would be the some of the first to come up against the Flying Squad.THE FLYING SQUAD AND SILLITOEThe biggest and the baddest of the local police were seconded to form The Flying Squad. They were drafted in by a new inspector with a tough reputation and even tougher CV. The 38-year-old Chief Constable had left England to become a trooper in the African Police. There he worked for a tough and brutal regime which kept control over the native tribes. He brought the same methods to bear on the Sheffield gangs.Sillitoe’s men wore plain clothes. They were fighting men but they fought with intelligence. They hurt the gangs where it hurt most. They went into the pubs, the gangs profit centres and meeting places and told the landlords to refuse gang members service. If they didn’t, they’d lose their license. As subsequent court cases showed, the landlords weren’t happy to be placed in the crossfire. But they were luckier than the targets of the Flying Squad. Some court cases had defendants turning up in bandages. Sources suggest they were beaten whilst in custody.WILLIAM PLOMMERWilliam Plommer was a 34 year old Scots soldier. He came to Sheffield after the First World War to find labouring work in the steelworks in order to support his family. He had absolutely no connection with the gangs. But the death of this father of three at their hands would herald their demise.