TO the residents of the poor, densely-packed tenements of the Garngad area of Glasgow, his nickname was 'Hitler'. And three of them had such a loathing of him that they tried, without success, to throw him over a bridge parapet into the Forth & Clyde canal.

His name was James Robertson. He was a physically imposing figure, a former blacksmith who had served for two years as a constable in Dundee before joining the City of Glasgow Police in May 1933. He was just 23 when he was appointed as a beat constable in the Garngad, in the north-east of the city.

A new paper by Dr Andrew Davies, an academic at the University of Liverpool, says that Robertson's arrival in the run-up to that year's Orange Walk was the catalyst for a significant increase in local hostility towards the police.

Dr Davies, who has carefully studied the 'brutal conflicts' that took place between police and Garngad residents in the year after 'Hitler's' arrival, writes that his article demonstrates "that police violence was both pervasive and routine in the poorer working-class communities of interwar Britain." Politicians, the press and members of the judiciary sanctioned the use of violence to repress a community that had time and again been labelled as "lawless".

Any attempts in Glasgow to challenge police methods and officers' court-room testimonies received a 'highly punitive' response from the city's legal establishment, he adds. Those few politicians who dared take up working people's complaints were marginalised; mainstream parties refused to accept that British police could be capable of inflicting 'terror' on civilians.

Dr Davies, a reader in history whose main academic interest is the history of crime, published, six years ago, City of Gangs, a book about the Glasgow gangs of the 1920s and 1930s. He says the arrival of PC Robertson was in line with then-current force policy.

He writes: "The posting of such a physically intimidating recruit to the district during the build-up to the Orange Walk fitted with [Chief Constable Percy] Sillitoe's policy of meeting force with superior force. However, Robertson's intimidating manner, inflammatory language and undisguised disdain for Catholics [he was a Protestant] caused considerable disquiet. Within weeks of his arrival, local residents nicknamed him 'Hitler'."

Already by 1933, Hitler's name had become an oath: Dr Davies records that events in Germany had often made the front pages of Glasgow's evening newspapers, with one paper describing Hitler's domestic policies as 'brutal, oppressive and bellicose'.

On August 22, two of the three men who allegedly tried to deposit Robertson in the canal were jailed, for 60 and 30 days. The men denied the charge, one of them declaring that it would "need a crane" to throw a huge figure like the constable into the canal.

Other residents complained or testified about Robertson and the language he used towards them. One man on his way to chapel alleged that the constable had said, 'A bomb in that chapel would do no harm', though the man took it as a joke. One Labour councillor asked Sillitoe to transfer Robertson elsewhere, but the police were not minded to accede. Some Garngad residents supported Robertson, one asserting that 'half a dozen Hitlers' were required and that it was only a 'younger and irresponsible' element that objected to the constable's presence.

A police report detailed the dozens of cases of housebreaking, breaches of the peace, and assaults on civilians or police that had been brought to Northern Police Court, coinciding with Robertson's arrival in the Garngad.

In January 1934, two Garngad men were charged with assaulting Robertson and a second PC outside a fish supper shop. Robertson was off duty for 12 days.The two men denied the charges and eyewitness accounts backed them up, but they were convicted and imprisoned with hard labour. Sheriff Haldane referred to police difficulties in getting witnesses to support them in the Garngad, a place, he said, with a "rather notorious and unfortunate" reputation for lawlessness. His words prompted several letters of protest to the city's newspapers.

Two key turning-points in 'Hitler's' relationship with the Garngad came in large-scale outbreaks of disorder, on May 26 and June 9, 1934. They led to many arrests, writes Dr Davies, "but civilian witnesses at the trials that followed made repeated allegations of police brutality and falsification of evidence. PC Robertson featured prominently in their allegations." By this time, a local 'Vigilance Committee' was monitoring local arrests in the light of Robertson's conduct.

In the first case, Robertson and another PC arrested labourer Patrick Kelly outside the fish shop. Newspapers reported that a mob surrounded police officers and looted shops. One police witness said Garngad Road resembled 'a village in France after a bombardment'. Police reinforcements were called. Robertson and other officers were injured, and seven men were sent for trial at the sheriff court.

On June 9, further disorder broke out after the arrest of one of the men who had tried to throw 'Hitler' into the canal the previous year. Nine arrests were made. Of the total of 16 arrests, all but two were Catholic. But a letter published on June 12, signed by 50 Garngad 'ratepayers and shopkeepers', protested the 'unwarranted assault' by police on residents on June 9, many of them elderly or disabled, and called for some tact on the part of the police. Dr Davies says the letter "effectively re-cast the latest outbreak of disorder in Garngad Road as a police riot."

By the time Robertson testified at the trial of the first seven prisoners, he had, he said, been 'promoted' to the inquiry department at Northern Police Office. The force was adamant that he had not been transferred as a result of complaints, but needed a 'rest' after being injured more than once.

Garngad witnesses strongly disputed police accounts at this first trial but, says Dr Davies, judicial sympathy - the sheriff was, again, Haldane - clearly lay with police. However, "Faced with the stark choice presented by Haldane - police tyranny or mob tyranny - the jury opted for the former". Not guilty verdicts were returned against all seven accused.

"While 'Hitler' had been moved in part for for his own safety ... it is hard to avoid the conclusion that his notoriety had become a problem for the procurator-fiscal," his paper says. "Transferring Robertson to desk duties promised both to help to pacify the district and to remove a difficult line of cross-examination for police witnesses at future trials."

But the stakes were still high at the trial of the nine accused from June 9. Both the fiscal and Sheriff MacDiarmid, says Dr Davies, made little attempt to hide their contempt for defence witnesses. All nine were convicted, with sentences ranging from four months to 12 months.

Later, three witnesses who had spoken of Robertson's actions during the second riot were convicted of perjury. Later still, eight people who had testified on the trio's behalf were themselves convicted of perjury and jailed for months. Four of them were mothers with young children.

These latter convictions prompted allegations of miscarriage of justice, accompanied by humanitarian appeals for a reduction of the women's sentences. Glasgow councillor Jean Mann and Independent Labour Party (ILP) MP John McGovern campaigned vigorously for the women to be freed, a campaign fuelled by sympathetic articles in the press. A petition in support of a call for an inquiry into police brutality attracted 9,000 signatures. One woman, Mary Kelly, was freed after completing half her sentence, but a child she carried in prison was later still-born.

Violence between Garngad residents and police in the 1930s, writes Dr Davies, was reciprocal, but beat PCs, confident in the backing of Sillitoe, the fiscal and the judiciary, “meted out summary punishment with little fear of sanction”; and the beatings they received were nothing compared to the injuries inflicted by police batons.

“PC Robertson was exceptional in his incivility and the ferocity of his violence,” he said this week, “but he retired in 1965 with an unblemished record. In Glasgow police lore, his exploits were celebrated decades after his retirement. Police reminiscences, related years afterwards, lend substance to allegations that were strenuously denied in the 1930s.

“The ‘democratizing impulse’ spoken about by historians of the interwar years in Britain,” Dr Davies adds, “was barely evident in Gardgad in the 1930s; and local people were not permitted to speak as victims of miscarriages of justice.

"One thing that struck me as I did the research was that interviews with the families of the jailed mothers provided rare glimpses into the home lives of families living in the Garngad. This was a close-knit community – lots of the women’s children were being looked after by relatives who lived very close by – but these were really tough times. Many of the men were long-term unemployed, and the on-going friction with the police made their already hard lives even tougher."

He adds one final, revealing point: so tainted had the name ‘Garngad’ become, so damaged had its reputation become, that in 1942 it was renamed Royston.

‘Police violence and judicial bias in the age of mass democracy: Glasgow, 1933–1935’, can be read online, free of charge, via a link on Dr Davies' website: