Evil faces of Glasgow's gangsters revealed

GROWN men wept as the coffin of Billy Fullerton was led through the streets of Bridgeton and the Gorbals where his infamous razor gang had once held sway.

The leader of the Billy Boys was revered as a champion of local people, who defended them from attack and provided his own version of the welfare state in the 1920s and 1930s when times were hard.

But new research has shattered the myth of Fullerton and other gang members as Robin Hood-style figures who protected their own communities and did not pose a threat to ordinary people.

According to Dr Andrew Davies, of Liverpool University’s history department, the gangs that made Glasgow famous as No Mean City were organised criminals who preyed on the communities they claimed to protect, extorting money from shopkeepers, publicans and passers-by and amassing a fortune as a result.

Dr Davies, who is gathering information for a new book on the gangs, said:

"The present-day perception of the gangs as only ever fighting among themselves and not posing a threat to the local community is quite misguided. They liked to portray themselves as representing or defending a community, a street or a religious group, but can also be seen as preying on members of the community they claimed to represent."

The gangs divided their territory into collection areas with different members having responsibility for extorting money from shopkeepers, publicans and illicit back street bookmakers in their patch, he added.

"It’s claimed [the Billy Boys] were demanding money from publicans. In some cases it was as much as 5 a week, and this was at a time the average weekly wage for a manual worker was between 3 and 5. An allegation that surfaces in the early 1930s was that threats were made against publicans’ families - if the publicans didn’t pay up then other members of their household would be assaulted as a form of reprisal.

"If you think there’s any credence in these stories - which I do - you can no longer depict the gang members as being semi-Robin Hood figures."

The gangs claimed they were collecting money to help pay fines of gang members and look after the families of those who were sent to prison. Police at the time would tell magistrates there was no point fining a gang member as a local shopkeeper would simply end up footing the bill.

But Dr Davies said: "It wasn’t simply an ad hoc response to a need to pay fines. It was a sort of organised crime and was a regular, money-making operation."

Cinemas and dance halls were also places where gangs could raise money. Gangs would take what they called "subscription lists" to dances. "One member of a gang called Kent Star claimed he could raise as much as 20 in one night by taking a subscription sheet around local dances, which is an impressive sum for the day," Dr Davies said.

"There may have been some people who paid voluntarily because the gang was seen as protecting members of that religious community, but also I can imagine it would have been quite difficult to refuse. The Billy Boys would accost people at Bridgeton Cross and demand money, something like five shillings. That’s a hefty portion of a manual worker’s weekly wage to be obliged to give up."

Fullerton, who died in 1962, founded and led the Billy Boys - which had 800 members at its height - during the 1920s and 1930s, before joining Oswald Mosely’s British Fascists and starting a Glasgow branch of the Ku Klux Klan.

"He claimed the gang would have as much as 300 at any one time held in a bank account in Bridgeton. That’s an impressive sum for the period," Dr Davies said.

A spokesman for Glasgow’s Lord Provost said the city was "vastly different" today.

"Glasgow has changed significantly from those days in terms of physical geography, social structure and its economic basis," he said.

"There are still problems with young men, but I think the difference is that in the 1920s and 1930s, when they talked about gangs, it was organised gangs. When we talk about gangs today it’s eight guys out for a drink.

"While we don’t deny there are still problems we have to address, we’re working very closely with the police to tackle all these issues as we have done all those 70 years."

However, while the gangs may be gone, the song of the Protestant Billy Boys still reverberates round the terraces of Ibrox, and there are many who remember their fights against the Catholic Norman Conks gang, such as the particularly bitter clashes at Fullerton’s wedding and the riot when he led an Orange march into the Conks’ stronghold in 1935.

Glasgow’s legendary chief of police, Sir Percy James Sillitoe, who was dubbed "Scotland’s Eliot Ness", was credited with destroying the gangs in the late 1930s, but members insist the Second World War was the reason they disbanded.

After being told about Dr Davies’ research, Allan MacRobert, 58, whose father, also Allan, was a leading member of the Billy Boys, said: "I thought Billy Fullerton looked after old folk and all that in Bridgeton, but now you’ve got me thinking.

"It could have been fear rather than respect."

Mr MacRobert, who lives in Ayrshire, said the top gang members may have been gangsters, but for his father and most rank-and-file members it was simply about a liking for violence.

"I’ll be blunt with you - my dad just hated Catholics, so he was in the Billy Boys to fight them," he said. "Most of the likes of my dad, they just loved to fight. They were the equivalent of English soccer hooligans nowadays. They just loved to have a barney in the dance halls and that. My dad didn’t have an unbroken bone in his body and he was quite proud of that. He wasn’t a big man, he was only about 5ft 7in or 5ft 8in, but he was tough as old boots.

"Rangers and the Billy Boys were his life."

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