Sir Percy Sillitoe broke Peaky Blinders-style gangs in Sheffield and the razor gangs of 1930s’ Glasgow, but warned that unless poverty, unemployment and poor housing were tackled, such problems would simply return, writes Tom Wood.
By any measure it was a good result at the High Court in Glasgow the other week. Six members of Glasgow’s Lyons criminal family convicted of a list of brutal attacks against city rivals, the Daniel family. A long, complex and expensive trial had followed a long and difficult investigation.
Not before time you may think, this particular gang war has been fought for nearly 20 years, with an impressive body count, but it’s far from simple. Feuds between criminal families, or organised crime groups (OCGs) as we now like to call them, are hard nuts to crack.
The crimes usually occur within the closed world of criminals, so word often doesn’t get out. Evidence and witnesses are hard to find. Many ordinary folk don’t want to get involved for fear of reprisals or the gut feeling that whoever got hurt probably had it coming.
I may have been reading ‘the news’ about the recent trial, but it wasn’t new. I have just finished writing an account of one of the most infamous crimes of the 20th century, the Ruxton Murders of 1935. The murder and dismemberment of a glamorous doctor’s wife and her maidservant was the scandal of the mid-war years.
A supporting character is this fascinating story was Sir Percy Sillitoe, Chief Constable of Glasgow, best remembered today for introducing the now world-famous black-and-white checked hat band but who should be credited as the architect of Scotland’s modern police service.
Sillitoe was a renowned gang buster, who got the chief’s job in Glasgow because of his record in Sheffield where he dismantled the city’s violent gangs (the original Peaky Blinders). He repeated his success in Glasgow, crushing the razor gangs of ‘No Mean City’ fame and, in so doing, won the city fathers’ gratitude and a free reign to introduce radical police reforms that echo to this day.
The gang-busting techniques that Sillitoe used would no longer be acceptable to our liberal sensitivities, suffice to say that he developed his tactics as a young trooper in the South African Mounted Police in the early 1900s.
But there are still lessons to be learned from old light on new problems. After his success, Sillitoe warned of the huge corrosive cost of crime and that any respite from the gangs would be temporary if the causes were not tackled.
He predicted that if poverty, unemployment, poor parenting education and housing were not addressed the problems of gangs and their crimes would prove endemic, recurring time and again. Sadly history proved him right.
The blood fued between the Lyons and Daniels clans is the latest in a long sorry line of gang wars but it will not be the last. In the meantime, the battle between these two groups will not end with their sentencing, it will simply swap venues from the streets of the west of Scotland to our prisons.
The Prison Service now faces a torrid time both protecting the convicted men from attack by other inmates and other inmates from them. Maximum security prisoners are both problematic and expensive.
Over what is sure to be long sentences, the convicted men will cost millions to secure and protect, money that could be better invested on improving the rehabilitation chances of the majority of non-violent prisoners.
As Sillitoe warned nearly 100 years ago, the roots of gangs and organised crime lie deep in the community. Law enforcement can win a respite but that is all.
Tom Wood is a former deputy Chief Constable and writer. His latest book ‘Ruxton – The First Modern Murder’ is out now