IN the 1920s and 1930s Glasgow had a major problem with gang violence.

Large swathes of the city were dominated by groups of young men to whom mindless thuggery was an everyday occurrence – a way of life.

There were gangs across Britain at the time – similar to those in the TV series Peaky Blinders – but the hardest gangs were in Glasgow.

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Not only were they involved in tit for tat violence with rival groups but they also ran extortion and protection rackets against terrified local traders who were forced to pay up or face the consequences.

Large parts of Glasgow, particularly the Southside and East End, were no-go areas for people, including the police.

The gangs, known variously as the Bridgeton Billy Boys, Kent Star, the San Toy and the Calton Entry, recruited from the ranks of the unemployed, who had nothing better to do than fight or steal. Many were run on sectarian lines – Catholic or Protestant – reflecting the historic divide in the city.

Membership bestowed a sense of belonging and self-respect on those without work. While the organised violence provided an antidote to the daily boredom of being


Gang members fought with a terrifying arsenal of hatchets, swords, machetes, knives, bottles, sharpened combs, and bicycle chains.

But the weapon of choice was the open razor.

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Light, easily concealed and lethal, it earned the roaming thugs their terrifying “razor gangs” title.

One of the most notorious gang bosses was Billy Fullerton, who was leader of the Bridgeton Billy Boys, which controlled large parts of the East End of Glasgow.

Under his command, it was the largest and most powerful of the city’s gangs by the 1930s.

He was a man whose reputation for brutality left much of Glasgow gripped by fear.

Fullerton boasted his gang had up to £300 at any one time from extortion (around £20,000 today) held in a bank account in Bridgeton.

In 1931, the Glasgow Corporation – the equivalent today of Glasgow City Council – realised it had to do something as the city’s reputation for mindless violence had spread across the UK, in particular, the power of the notorious Glasgow razor gangs had to be broken.

Glasgow Times:

It did something previously unthinkable and hired Englishman Percy Sillitoe as the new chief constable of the city’s police.

The 43-year-old promised an innovative approach to combating the thuggery – that would be later copied across the country.

Ironically, the man who would become known as the “hammer of the gangs” started life as a chorister in the private St Paul’s Cathedral School in London.

But he would soon prove to the people of Glasgow and its hardmen that he was no choir boy.

He had served in both the British South Africa Police, Northern Rhodesia Police and then the First World War in East Africa.

On his return to Britain, he rejoined the police rising through the ranks to become Chief Constable of Chesterfield, then Chief Constable of the East Riding of Yorkshire and finally in 1926, the Chief Constable of Sheffield.

There he was credited with breaking the stranglehold of the town’s criminal gangs, using what was euphemistically called at the time “reasonable force”.

This was exactly the kind of tough no-nonsense character that Glasgow’s city fathers were looking for.

Sillitoe’s first plan was to toughen up his own force for the battles ahead.

He once famously said of his force: “We are the biggest gang in Glasgow.”

Glasgow Times:

A phrase that would be copied by generations of police officers that followed.

He recruited the biggest and toughest cops in Scotland that he could find. Many came down from the Highlands and Islands and had an inbred loathing of what they saw as so-called “weegie” hardmen.

In the years to come, Sillitoe welded the City of Glasgow Police into one of the world’s most modern forces in their battle against the gangs.

It was already the second biggest in Britain outside the Metropolitan Police in London.

Detectives in plain clothes were given fast cars equipped with wireless radios to patrol the streets – the first-ever Flying Squad or Sweeney.

It meant when violence broke out they could be there in minutes to back up colleagues.

Sillitoe ordered the construction of police boxes throughout the city, one of which can still be seen in Buchanan Street.

He also devised “Sillitoe’s tartan”, the now-familiar black and-white-chequered braiding on police hats, which was subsequently adopted nationwide and then across the world.

Sillitoe believed that such caps helped police identify each other during riots involving the gangs.

His other innovations included the use of civilian staff in police jobs to free up cops for frontline duties and the recruitment of women.

The father-of-two also formed the first-ever fingerprint department and gave officers the right to retire after 30 years of service on full pension.

The message to criminals was blunt: “The biggest gang in this city IS the Glasgow Police Force”.

At times his teams of gangbusters were accused of using excessive force, but to Sillitoe the end justified the means.

His flying squad taskforce was quickly nicknamed “The Untouchables” by the press, after the elite unit put together in 1920s Chicago by FBI agent Eliot Ness to target Al Capone.

Sillitoe was prepared to use force to meet force in his quest to stamp out the razor gangs.

In 1936, trouble broke out when a Protestant gang paraded behind a flute band in Parkhead.

One of the members attacked a policeman with a spear.

Using their long riot batons, the police scattered the marchers backed by officers on horseback.

The road was littered with casualties and gang members were arrested and charged with causing a disturbance and assaulting the police.

There was a public outcry against what was perceived as police brutality and the mounted police were called “Sillitoe’s Cossacks” after the fearsome eastern European horsemen of the same name.

Sillitoe was also said to have used his influence to have gang members convicted by the courts then committed to mental institutions – what we would now be called psychiatric hospitals – where they remained beyond their sentences.

After their eventual release they were threatened with being permanently incarcerated in the terrifying centres should they be rearrested.

It was enough to cause some to quit Glasgow altogether.

The chief constable’s approach, “giving the gangs a taste of their medicine”, was widely praised and was not going unnoticed down south.

Although called the “hammer of the gangs”, there was more to Sillitoe’s ruthless policing methods.

No lawbreakers went untouched, regardless of reputation.

His detectives charged a large number of Glasgow councillors with corruption, leading to them being put on trial and sent to prison.

Many were accepting bribes

and backhanders in return for favours to local businessmen and criminals.

So many councillors were convicted at one stage that the government of the day threatened to take over the running of the council.

In 1942, Sillitoe was knighted, but his work was done in Glasgow and he quit his job the following year, commenting: “I had nothing left to give the city.”

By this time the power of the gangs had been largely eroded due to his zero-tolerance approach.

After a spell as Chief Constable of Kent, he was offered the job in

1946 of director general of MI5 and became the real-life equivalent of the fictional James Bond spy boss M.

Having beaten Glasgow’s notorious hardmen, he was seen as the best man to tackle the hard men of the Kremlin as Britain and its allies entered a cold war with the Soviet Union.

His reputation, however, was damaged by the 1951 defection of spies Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean to Russia, which showed that MI5 had been unaware and slow to act.

After quitting in 1953, he was made managing director of Security Express and launched the first-ever armoured cars.

A Glasgow Herald reporter, who interviewed him at the time, wrote: “Sir Percy had lost none of the presence that had been evident during his time in Glasgow.

“Even a bowler hat failed to disguise the quiet menace.”

Sillitoe also headed the International Diamond Security Organisation where he was tasked with combating a worldwide trade in stolen jewels.

Sir Percy died in August 1962 in Kent, aged 73. Probably the most famous and innovative police officer of the 20th century.

At the time of his death, the gangs were coming back into force in Glasgow. Ironically from the new housing schemes that had replaced the inner city slums which had been a breeding ground for the earlier violence.

But that would be a problem for others.