In the 2017 se­ries of WDYTYA? An­drew Davies told Lulu about her grand­fa­ther’s shady past in 1920s Glas­gow. Here he ex­plores the crimes of the city’s gangs in their golden age

Who Do You Think You Are? Magazine - - CONTENTS -

Last Au­gust, in a mov­ing episode of Who Do You Think You Are?, Lulu was shocked to dis­cover that her grand­fa­ther, Hugh Cairns, had been a ‘fight­ing man’. Born in 1902, Cairns grew up in the tough Town­head district on the north­ern edge of Glas­gow city cen­tre. Dur­ing his twen­ties he served no fewer than five sep­a­rate stints in Bar­lin­nie Prison fol­low­ing con­vic­tions for breach­ing the peace and as­sault. Town­head had been a hot­bed of gang war­fare – fre­quently laced with sec­tar­ian an­tag­o­nism be­tween Catholics and mil­i­tant Protes­tant Orange­men – since the 1880s. The en­tries for Cairns in Bar­lin­nie’s ad­mis­sions reg­is­ters be­tween 1923 and 1928 record that his ar­rests tended to fall dur­ing the spring and sum­mer months, es­pe­cially in the march­ing sea­son when gang mem­bers at­tached them­selves to re­li­gious pa­rades.

No records sur­vive of the in­ci­dents that led po­lice to ar­rest Hugh Cairns. How­ever, the reg­is­ters of Glas­gow’s two pris­ons – Duke Street and Bar­lin­nie – con­tain rare glimpses of the lives of hun­dreds of young men of Cairns’ gen­er­a­tion. Most, like Cairns, came from Glas­gow’s im­pov­er­ished ten­e­ment dis­tricts. Too poor to pay the fines im­posed by mag­is­trates at the city’s po­lice courts, their re­peated re-ad­mis­sion to Duke Street or Bar­lin­nie al­lows re­searchers to track where they lived, and how they sought to earn a liv­ing, as well as to watch their bur­geon­ing crim­i­nal ca­reers un­furl.

Cairns must have earned a name for him­self on the streets dur­ing the 1920s, but some of his coun­ter­parts – and ri­vals – as fight­ing men made much big­ger rep­u­ta­tions. This was the decade when Glas­gow ac­quired its un­en­vi­able and en­dur­ing no­to­ri­ety as Bri­tain’s gang city. It was the era of Al Capone, too, and Bri­tish news­pa­pers de­voted fre­quent, front-page head­lines to the mur­der­ous ex­ploits of gang­sters in the USA. Against this back­drop, Glas­gow was some­times even la­belled the ‘Scot­tish Chicago’. But if Glas­gow was Chicago on the Clyde, who was the Glaswe­gian Al Capone?

In re­ports of gang strife in Glas­gow, one name cropped up more than any other: Billy Fuller­ton, leader of the Bridgeton Billy Boys. The Protes­tant gang took its name from Wil­liam of Or­ange, ‘King Billy’, and at their peak num­bered 800. They gath­ered nightly at Bridgeton Cross in the heart of Glas­gow’s East End, where they pledged their loy­alty to ‘King and Con­sti­tu­tion’ and swore their op­po­si­tion to Catholic fight­ing men like Hugh Cairns.

Con­trary to pop­u­lar be­lief, Fuller­ton did not hail from Bridgeton him­self. He was born in the ad­ja­cent East End district of the Cal­ton in 1906, mak­ing him four years younger

than Lulu’s grand­fa­ther. Af­ter leav­ing school aged 14, he served an ap­pren­tice­ship as a boiler-maker at a ship­yard only to be laid off at 19 once he qual­i­fied for adult wages. Af­ter a brief spell as a ship’s fire­man, he moved back in with his par­ents in the Cal­ton and found part­time work as a cin­ema at­ten­dant. His brav­ery in stand­ing up to rowdy filmgoers – some of them gang mem­bers – brought him to the at­ten­tion of the Billy Boys, who of­fered him ‘pro­tec­tion’ if he agreed to join them.

Turf wars

Glas­gow’s ten­e­ment dis­tricts were di­vided into a patch­work of gang ter­ri­to­ries dur­ing the 1920s. In the East End, gang con­flicts were both ter­ri­to­rial and sec­tar­ian. The Billy Boys were fiercely op­posed by Catholic street gangs such as the Nor­man Conks (‘Con­querors’), from Nor­man Street in Dal­marnock. In­cur­sions by mem­bers of one gang into the ter­ri­tory of an­other were in­tended – and met – as a di­rect chal­lenge. Ri­val gang­sters armed them­selves with bro­ken bot­tles, knives, bay­o­nets (cheaply avail­able from Glas­gow’s mar­kets), ham­mers and iron bars. A few car­ried ra­zors. In stark con­trast to Chicago, how­ever, where 500 gang­land killings were re­ported dur­ing the 1920s, Glas­gow’s gang­sters sel­dom killed each other or any­one else. They in­flicted ter­ri­ble in­juries, but their aim was gen­er­ally to scar their op­po­nents rather than mur­der them.

Else­where in the city, the sec­tar­ian ba­sis of gang for­ma­tion was less clearcut. In the Gor­bals, on Glas­gow’s South­side, gangs such as the Bee­hive Boys and the Stick­ers con­tained Catholic, Protes­tant and Jewish mem­bers, in keep­ing with the district’s cos­mopoli­tan pop­u­la­tion. The Bee­hive Boys were led by Peter Wil­liamson. Like Billy Fuller­ton, Wil­liamson ac­quired a fear­some rep­u­ta­tion as a street fighter, but the Bee­hive Boys were equally renowned for their ex­ploits as thieves. De­tec­tives viewed them as the largest net­work of house­break­ers in Glas­gow, and they stole cars in the city cen­tre to carry out smash-and-grab raids in sur­round­ing

La­nark­shire towns. The Bee­hive Boys saw them­selves as ‘clever’ gang­sters, driven by profit rather than sec­tar­i­an­ism. Billy Fuller­ton rose quickly through the ranks of the Billy Boys. He be­gan to or­gan­ise the gang’s trips to Rangers matches and then as­sumed re­spon­si­bil­ity for col­lect­ing the gang’s funds. Fuller­ton also proved his met­tle in a se­ries of street fights. This soon brought him to the at­ten­tion of the po­lice. His early court ap­pear­ances – re­ported in lo­cal news­pa­pers such as the Even­ing Cit­i­zen – fol­lowed ar­rests for dis­or­derly con­duct and breaches of the peace. His first con­vic­tion, in May 1926, came af­ter po­lice spot­ted him “at the head of a gang who were car­ry­ing sticks and other weapons, shout­ing and threat­en­ing as they marched along the street”. He was fined £5. This hefty sum – more than a fort­night’s wages for a ship­yard worker – was paid by his father.

Later that year Billy Fuller­ton was con­victed of as­sault. Glas­gow Sher­iff Court heard that Fuller­ton and an­other man had struck their vic­tim with a ba­ton and at­tempted to stab him with a sword. They were both jailed for three months, af­ter the sher­iff is­sued a stern con­dem­na­tion of “mean­ing­less” dis­putes be­tween Orange­men and Catholics.

Gang fights, or ‘ram­mies’, were by no means con­fined to the streets. The Billy Boys clashed with mem­bers of ri­val gangs in cin­e­mas and dance halls, in late-night brawls

Glas­gow’s gang­sters sel­dom killed each other or any­one else, but they in­flicted ter­ri­ble in­juries

in pubs and fish-sup­per shops and even in queues at the ‘buroo’, or labour ex­change. Glas­gow’s ship­yards were hit badly by the de­pres­sion of the 1920s. By 1931 a third of Glas­gow’s work­force was laid off and dis­tricts such as Bridgeton, the Cal­ton and the Gor­bals were blighted by poverty and ill health. Un­em­ploy­ment swelled the ranks of the gangs, and es­tab­lished gangs formed ju­nior sec­tions, mir­ror­ing the ap­pren­tice sys­tems pre­vi­ously op­er­ated in the ship­yards: as­pir­ing Billy Boys had to prove them­selves in the Derry Boys be­fore they were ad­mit­ted to the ranks of the se­nior gang.

Fuller­ton’s rep­u­ta­tion made him a con­stant tar­get for the au­thor­i­ties. In April 1932 he ap­peared at Glas­gow Sher­iff Court charged with com­mit­ting a breach of the peace and as­sault­ing the po­lice. Fuller­ton was adamant that he had been framed. His solic­i­tor told the court that he “had been ap­pre­hended by the po­lice on no fewer than thirty-five oc­ca­sions… but in most of these it was found that there was no ev­i­dence against him”. But on this oc­ca­sion Fuller­ton was not so for­tu­nate, and was sen­tenced to 12 months with hard labour. Go­ing straight Upon his re­lease from Bar­lin­nie Prison, Fuller­ton vowed to go straight. He told

Thom­son’s Weekly News, “This last spell [in prison] has sick­ened me. I have now got two lit­tle girls – aged four years and fif­teen months – and of their sakes, if noth­ing else, I am fin­ished with the Billy Boys.” Fuller­ton pleaded to be left alone by his for­mer en­e­mies as well as by the po­lice. “If I get a job,” he de­clared, “the first thing I will do is look for a dif­fer­ent house in a dif­fer­ent district – far away from the cen­tre of the city and the gangs.”

Jobs were hard to come by, how­ever. Billy Fuller­ton was un­em­ployed for three-and-a-half years fol­low­ing the sale of his life story to the

Weekly News. He moved his fam­ily for a time to Shet­tle­ston, a calmer neigh­bour­hood in the East End of Glas­gow with fewer gangs, but the district was too quiet for him and he re­turned to the Cal­ton, where he sup­ple­mented his dole money by run­ning dances on be­half of the Billy Boys. By Oc­to­ber 1935 Fuller­ton once again went to sea, leav­ing his for­mer East End fief­dom to the up-and-com­ing gen­er­a­tion of Derry Boys, led by Jimmy ‘Killer’ McKay.

Un­like Al Capone, Billy Fuller­ton never amassed great wealth. Whereas Capone spent his win­ters at his mag­nif­i­cent re­treat at Palm Springs in Florida, Fuller­ton never left Glas­gow’s East End. At the time of his death in July 1962, he was liv­ing in a one-room ten­e­ment flat in Brook Street in Bridgeton.

The Times de­scribed the scene as more than 1,000 peo­ple crammed into Brook Street on the day of his fu­neral: “A flute band played Come to the Saviour as the plain cof­fin was car­ried from the com­mon en­try of the ten­e­ment. Fore­most on the banks of wreaths on the cof­fin was a huge cush­ion of marigolds, roses and other flow­ers, across which the metal let­ters pro­claimed: ‘To our one-time leader’.”

Like Hugh Cairns, Billy Fuller­ton was a prod­uct of his en­vi­ron­ment. Glas­gow was the most con­gested city in Bri­tain dur­ing the 1920s. Along with poverty and over­crowd­ing, un­em­ploy­ment too was more wide­spread in Glas­gow than in any of the ma­jor English cities. For des­per­ate young men from Town­head or the Cal­ton, Bridgeton or the Gor­bals, gang mem­ber­ship pro­vided the sense of pride and be­long­ing that the world of work could not.

Mem­bers of the pub­lic flee from a gang fight in Toll­cross Road, Glas­gow, 1933

The gangs’ vi­o­lent acts, sec­tar­ian and other­wise, were con­demned in news­pa­per ar­ti­cles

Lulu’s Glaswe­gian grand­fa­ther was a mem­ber of a gang

Billy Fuller­ton led the Billy Boys, but 1,000 peo­ple lined the streets when he died

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