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Roslin Place and Burnside Street near Garscube Road in Cowcaddens, Glasgow in the 1920s. Dr Andrew Davies: “Gang culture always emerges in the midst of poverty and economic inequality”
Research at the University of Liverpool has revealed how gangs modelled on the American underworld emerged in 1920s and 30s Glasgow.
Dr Andrew Davies, from the University’s Department of History, searched police files, legal records and thousands of press reports to investigate the realities behind Glasgow’s reputation as the ‘Chicago’ of Britain.
Modelled on Hollywood gangsters
He uncovered the stories of some of the city’s most notorious gangsters, such as Billy Fullerton, a one-time leader of the Bridgeton Billy Boys. Fullerton and his rivals modelled themselves on Hollywood gangsters played by actors such as George Raft and Paul Muni in the 1932 film Scarface.
Dr Davies said: “Glasgow is by no means the only British city with a history of gang formation. Liverpool, London, Manchester and Birmingham were all plagued by gangs and ‘knife-crime’ during the late nineteenth century. But Glasgow’s gangs appear to have been more persistent than those elsewhere and they became particularly notorious during the 1930s.”
Of all Britain’s major cities, Glasgow was the worst hit during the Great Depression. Its two staple industries, shipbuilding and heavy engineering, fell into steep decline after the First World War. In 1936, more than 85,000 of the city’s workers were unemployed.
Under Billy Fullerton’s leadership, the Bridgeton Billy Boys ran ‘American-style’ protection rackets, terrorising shopkeepers and publicans
Gangs such as the Billy Boys, the Kent Star and the South Side Stickers recruited significant numbers of young people who could not find work. Religious sectarianism was also an important factor. Gangs saw themselves as defending their communities, although their raids on each other’s territory did a great deal to inflame local antagonisms.
Dr Davies said: “Researching gang formation gives us a window onto the condition of society. What it tells us is that gang culture always emerges in the midst of poverty and economic inequality. Young men, especially, turn to gangs for companionship, but also for kudos and excitement.
“The Bridgeton Billy Boys figure very prominently in the archival records. They were a Protestant gang, with around 500 members, and they dominated the city’s East End.
“Under Billy Fullerton’s leadership, they ran ‘American-style’ protection rackets, terrorised shopkeepers and publicans, and waged endless feuds with the district’s Catholic gangs. Fullerton was very conscious of his public image, and gave interviews to the press in which he claimed that the Billy Boys were not ‘real’ criminals. He also insisted that they were family men, who looked after the wives and children of those members who were jailed.
“Fullerton depicted his followers as honourable gangsters, but the reality was very different. Many of them had been convicted of theft, and assaults on women.
“The archival records show not only the criminal careers of gang members, but also the impact their activities had on their parents, wives and children. These were desperate times and gang membership offered young men a sense of purpose. Its consequences, however, were frequently tragic: lives blighted by violence and intimidation and families torn apart.”
The research is published by Hodder and Stoughton in a book called City of Gangs: Glasgow and the Rise of the British Gangster.
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