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
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.
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