Protecting the Public from Gangs: Sheffield in the 1920s

by David Hamilton (January 2011)

A major problem for decent people living their everyday lives is the take over of towns and cities by violent gangs. This is usually compounded by weakness on the part of the authorities or, as now, fear of offending Political Correctness. This allows the gangs to develop and move into ilicit businesses and corrupt more young followers and harm innocent members of the public. The massive and exteremy violent LA gangs are infamous throughout the world but there is a similar proliferation in England and ignoring them does a lot more harm than dealing with the early manifestations. In Birmingham, England the local authorities have allowed gangs to develop and the consequences are that ordinary members of the public are put in danger.

There is a street in the city centre devoted to entertainment called Broad Street and on Sunday nights armed police often have to attend disturbances involving young gang members outside a venue and take guns and knives off them. They now have to use barriers that people have to walk through to detetect metal before allowing them into bars. The Broad Street manager does not see to know what is going on. He informed one of my assistants:

There are Police deployed outside Rococo on a Sunday night on a regular basis. They are not however armed with anything other than the normal telescopic truncheon, gas and the general equipment issued to all officers. Taser teams are occasionally used on Broad Street but not specifically outside Rococo. Armed police with machine guns and the like are always available. But that is a general facet of policing. When the knife arches go up we tend to get no knives at all. That's the idea of them, they scare people off!”

This was unheard of in England until quite recently but is becoming common with the image of the friendly English bobby long gone! Members of the public are unaware of the danger they are in because the local media keep it quiet to avoid spoiling the image of the city and the police try to avoid making arrests which allows it to thrive to the detriment of the population as a whole. There have been several incidents of ordinary members of the public being injured with beer glasses and they are at risk of being shot. (1)

A lesson from modern English hstory was Sheffield in the 1920s, which was terrorised by gangsters. They lived in cramped back to back houses in courtyards which sociologists use as an excuse for preying on other poor people, but joining a gang gives power, a sense of importance, of belonging to something, money, possessions, prestige and low women being available.

The Sheffield gangs waited outside factories on pay day and took workers' wages off them. Bookmakers operated outside factory gates with “runners” inside collecting bets for them and one made £75 to around a £100 each day even though it was illegal. Another popular form of gambling was “pitch and toss.” This is a simple form of betting that had no equipment to pack up and carry away. It was just tossing 3 coins into the air with the two forefingers and betting on the proportion of, say, heads that turned up.

The biggest “Pitching” site was on “Sky Edge,” a promontory that gives a panorama over the city and with well-placed lookouts or “Crows” raiding policeman could be spotted from afar. The head was a “towler” or “toller” because he made a toll of between 2/6d to 4-/- in the pound, on bets placed. They had helpers like “ponter”, “pilners” or “scouts” who were also called “pikers” or “crows” because they kept watch from strategic viewing spots and carried large sticks to prevent trouble. The business itself was a “joint” and the ring a “pitch” all these were paid well and were alert to police raids.

The game began on a shout: “Heads a pound” for the stake, and a return of “Tail it” when another matched the stake which was placed in the centre of the ring. The toll was paid by the better and into the Toller’s pocket. On Sky Edge it was three halfpennies flung by a “tosser”. The ponter picked them up and announced the winner. If unclaimed, the money doubled with each succeeding toss. If any thought there was a miss-toss they would shout, “barred!”

During the First World War with much work in munitions factories everything went smoothly but after the war with munitions work gone there was less money to go round so George Mooney, the leader of the Sky Edge ring, jettisoned his erstwhile associates from Park district where the pitch was. This led to a war for territory to avenge loss of profit and hurt pride. Bookmaker Sam Garvin formed a gang from Park and a gang war developed. Garvin was a promoter of bare-knuckle boxing matches in pub yards where fighters bound their knuckles with straw that was picked from wounds to the face between rounds.

The first attack in the gang war was Mooney’s mob invading the home of William Furniss. As a reprisal Frank Kidnew was slashed 100 times near Sky Edge then helped to hospital where he was more worried about his ruined suit than himself. Then the Park mob returned the compliment with a visit to Mooney’s home and tried to smash their way in. The Mooney’s defended themselves with guns and one attacker George (Ganner) Wheyall was shot in the shoulder. Police found a double-barrel shotgun, a rifle, revolver and ammunition, which earned Mooney a £10, fine. These vicious tit for tat attacks went on through 1923 with Garvin’s mob attaining control while Mooney’s mob disintegrated with members fighting amongst themselves as well as against the Park Gang.

An attack on Mooney’s home on May 18th 1925, led to an elderly spectator being hit on the neck by a brick and several police officers getting medical treatment. The assailants escaped through tha labyrinthine passageways that were at the backs of the little houses in courtyards. Only one was caught and he received £1 fine for the old man and £6 for assaulting a policeman.

On Christmas Eve the Park mob stormed Mooney’s home. Sam Garvin and three associates broke in and terrorised not only Mooney but also his wife and six children. One thug ironically advised Mooney’s 15 year-old daughter: “We’ve, come to wish your father a merry Christmas.” Mooney escaped being carved up by hiding in a cupboard upstairs. He then left Sheffield for a year. The Park mob were now the ruling gang but still kept up the attacks. The following December (1924) they raided former Mooney follower William Furniss’s home firing bullets and throwing bricks through the windows, smashing up the house up and a visiting friend with chair legs.

After this attack, Chief Constable Lieut. Col. Hall-Dalwood stated that each year the police were finding it harder to uphold the law because they were having extra work put on them, and courts were reluctant to convict and even if they did punishments were too light. In an interview with the Sheffield Daily Telegraph on 7th May, Chief Constable Hall-Dalwood complained: “The public of Sheffield is paying rates for police protection which under the circumstances it cannot possibly get. In Sheffield we have to admit we are floating on very thin ice indeed and we have to admit that, unless more generally helped by punishment to fit crimes…Sheffield’s police force is utterly inadequate numerically to cope with the wave of crime that must necessarily follow in the wake of the unemployment situation.”

He added, “It is the boast of the really bad man that he gets the best run for his money in Sheffield. He would rather be caught in Sheffield than any other part of the country because, he says, you have to produce more evidence for the prosecution in a Sheffield court to get a conviction than in any other town in the country. Moreover, the convicted man in Sheffield is invariably pleasantly surprised by the light character of his sentence. What is happening is that we are making thieves.”

The Sheffield Telegraph contradicted him and alleged that often the wrong people were convicted. A few weeks later it again excused the situation and played down the gangs: “Although there are a number of gangs in conflict” the danger “has been over-exaggerated in some quarters and there is a noticeable tendency to attribute the slightest breach of the peace to activities of one gang or another.”

What did the authorities think? The response of Alderman Alfred Cattell to the warnings of the Sheffield Independent, the newspaper that backed the chief constable and had compared Sheffield to the violent parts of Ireland, was: “No, I never look at your papers.” J.P. Harold Fisher commented: “We have on the bench some J.P.s who grapple with the cases before them, but older magistrates possess more pluck than the recent additions.” He added, that he had been personally threatened as he walked through the city. The Sheffield Mail revealed that some members of the Corporation Health Committee were landlords of slum properties.

Councillor Moses Humberstone J.P. Took a practical approach: “I think they should not be fined or bound over, they should be locked up until we get the whole gang in prison.” Alderman Wardley J.P. Was living in the past: “I recollect 50 years ago, that gangs were in existence in the City that could swallow up the Mooney Gang.”
At a conference of clergymen, the vicar of St. Matthew’s told his audience: ”They are terrorising even the magistrates and other people, and the magistrates hardly dare sentence them to punishment.”

The effectiveness of the police was undermined by corruption and drinking. In January 1930 three constables and nine bookmakers were charged with bribery. It emerge that around twenty officers from the Brightside area had been getting regular payments of small sums to turn a blind eye to gang activities from 1922 to 1929. There was a lull for a year during 1925-26, when an honest plain-clothes officer refused all bribes. Three officers were actually prosecuted, but only one convicted and he was found not guilty. Three bookmakers received fines.

On the 27th the Sheffield Mail informed the innocent townsfolk: ”The leaders of these gangs and freebooters, men who live on the fat of the land. They are men of good appearance. They possess persuasive personalities and glib tongues. They use every possible art and device to carry on their nefarious business. At one moment they spend money freely as though it were water…the next they are grabbing a glass of beer from a man’s mouth. They are a nuisance and a danger to publicans –they break glasses, assault customers, smash windows, serve themselves beer and don’t pay for it. They work the confidence trick on inoffensive people, row with one another and demand drinks after closing hours. Everyone goes in fear of them and they know it. One of their pet methods of assault is to break a glass on the counter and attack a man’s face with the jagged edges.”

Their main income was the tossing ring and “All kinds of men are employed by the proprietors to deal with various classes of “business”. They have glib-tongued contricksters who can lay a man out as easily as rolling over a nine-pin. One of the principals has himself been a boxer. Others dress flashily, wear heavy gold watch-guards and display their wealth arrogantly. These are not ignorant ruffians. They are men who have calculated quite coolly and calmly the gains to be won by their terrifying outlawry. They are prepared to put up a stiff fight for supremacy. Strong measures will be necessary to beat them down.” Gangsters have families but the boundaries stop with their own – those outside the circle were fair game for bullying and robbing. Innocent people who went out after dark were waylaid. Men were robbed of their wages on their way home from factories; thugs smashed pubs up and demanded protection money; some picked-pockets while others went “Bottling” (mugging). Genuine bookies and their clerks were intimidated by protection rackets and, if they did not pay, would be beaten and robbed, their stands smashed and satchels stolen. Gangsters also took the winnings after races were run”.

A consequence of gangs thriving was that, then as now, young people looked up to them as heroes and emulated them. “Junior Gangs” were in their late teens and early twenties. (2) They made violent attacks on innocent members of the public and like their role models they carried knives, coshes and razors. A trick learnt from their heroes was for several to walk into a pub and demand free drink and cigarettes, while one outside kept watch. If refused they would smash up the bar by throwing glasses, bottles, stools at the mirror behind the bar, then assaulting landlord and any remaining customers. If the police were notified they would return and do it again. People were too frightened to testify against them but if any did the magistrates were lenient.

In August 1923 four innocent men who had been to a show at Sheffield Empire were attacked by four youths on Leopold Street, one was hit over the head with a bottle. That very evening a young woman was talking to friends when a gang of youths punched her in the face. She would not take any action. A stranger was walking along Cambridge Street and passed a young man who asked if he wanted to buy a ring. When he refused he was punched down then five more appeared. He ran into the Albert Hall. The scam was usually done by a pair preying on innocent people and trying to sell them rings. The accomplice would also start bidding to up the price. If they refused they were “mugged”, for their money and valuables. As today these gangs had girls too. A set up in Wellington Street in September was a girl screaming for help with a gang of youths around her. One appeared to punch her and when a passer-by went to her aid she and the gang jumped him. Taxi drivers were regularly threatened and intimidated and forced to take gangsters home free.

The Sheffield Mail of 21st September commented on it, “The whole proceedings have caused considerable excitement in the city, and a new cry has been raised for the suppression of gangs.” These were young men acting as clerks or shop assistants. “They debauch and gamble and have one or two young girls in their train who are prepared to sacrifice themselves body and soul to the ruffianly crowd who are their masters. Their chief income is derived from picking pockets and selling dud jewellery. A new epidemic appears to have broken out, it will be interesting to see what measures are taken to suppress the disturbances.”

The next evening (the 22nd) a stranger was attacked on Cambridge Street. A man asked him if he would buy a ring and upon his refusal punched him in the face and as he rose five other men attacked. He got away into the Albert Hall and called the police but no one was arrested.

The scam with dud jewellery was usually gangsters operating in pairs. They would seek out a victim and one approached to sell the ring and when the victim was examining it the other would approach and, pretending interest, offer say two shillings for it. Then pretended he had forgotten his money and this show often conned the mark into buying. If he were not interested he would be “mugged.” Like their role models the juniors carried various weapons including guns.

Lt.Col.Hall-Dalwood told the Mail on 23rd January 1925, “We have broken the rings up. We have made numerous raids and brought the men before the magistrates, and we, as police, can do nothing more. So far as hooliganism is concerned, it must be well known to everybody who reads the papers that we are bringing in men sometimes three or four times a week for these offences. Whenever the law is broken we bring men before the magistrates. We are handicapped by the fact that the prosecutors are sometimes got at and we cannot bring our witnesses, but we do everything in our power.”

The Sky Edge was a high promontory and well watched by sentries so the gambling ring was safe from police raids. But as the Sheffield Mail explained the magistrates were passing lenient sentences on such as the “large batch” the police caught at Tinsley but the highest fine was only forty shillings. On leaving court the offenders hired taxis and went straight back to resume gambling. They could rake in up to £40 a day! The Quarter Sessions that week had sentenced members of the Park Brigade to the second division, an easier prison regime than hard labour which was “like sending them to Scarborough.”

The turning point was 1925. On September the third and fourth, the Fowler brothers Wilfred and Lawrence were hanged for the murder of William Plommer. Plommer, a labourer and father of four, was not involved with the gangs and had no criminal convictions but was a brave, possibly foolhardy man. There had been a fight the previous evening between Wilfred Fowler and another and Plommer had made them fight to rules and man to man. Fowler was a Garvin boy, so next evening Garvin and two others made threats against Plommer. Then they caught a tram to the Wicker area in Sheffield and attacked another with razors and a cosh. Meanwhile the Fowlers and others attacked and murdered Plommer. The weapon was thought to be a bayonet. Plommer had manfully but foolishly left his house to fight each of the six one by one. They surrounded him and got him down.

They appealed against their conviction and this was heard on April the 18th 1926 in the Court of Criminal Appeal in London and was dismissed. Defence lawyer Mr. J.W. Fenoughty obtained statements from people and wrote to the Home Secretary Sir William Joynson Hicks with new evidence on Lawrence Fowler. Then two days later he wrote again requesting the Home Secretary to advise His Majesty King George V to grant a reprieve. The devastating reply arrived on 1st September:

“Sir, … I am directed by the Secretary of State to inform you that he has given careful consideration to all the circumstances of the case, and I am to express to you his regret that he has failed to discover any grounds which would justify him in advising His Majesty to interfere with the due course of the law.”

It was signed by the Under Secretary of State for Home Affairs.

The Daily Mail observed on August 20th, “We may hope that the dismissal by the Court of Criminal Appeal of the application for leave to appeal made by the brothers Fowler, found guilty of the murder of a man in Sheffield in brutal circumstances, will have the effect of striking fear into these gangs and breaking them up. Hicks also wrote to the Sheffield authorities asking them to quell the gang attacks!

On the 1st of May 1925, four days after Plommer was murdered, Chief Constable Hall-Dalwood formed the Special Duty Squad. This was the four hardest men in the force. Sgt. Robinson, the leader, had served in the Coldstream Guards; P.C. Walter Loxley 6ft 2in, 19 stone 8lb a war-time Royal Garrison Artillery, in France; as had P.C. Herbert Lunn, who won the Military Medal at Bullecourt for rescuing wounded under heavy fire; the fourth was P.C. Jack Farrily, a hard Irishman, experienced in street fighting. Their orders were to harry and beat the gangsters up.

Prosecuting Solicitor, G.H. Banwell told a court Sergeant Robinson and P.C. Lunn were instructed to prevent the gangs gathering in the City. They became known locally as the “Flying Squad” and were first named in court on September 21st, 1925 in a case over the Junior Park gang. Sgt. Robinson said that serious complaints had been made of members of the public being kicked around a fairground by the gang: “That is why we are on special duty breaking up these gangs.”Two gangsters were locked up – one for six months, the other for three.

There had been frequent assaults on the police by gang members but the “Squad” were specially selected hard men who wore plain clothes and were instructed to go into the pubs used by gang members tell them to get out or beat them up.

The way “The Squad” dealt with a brawl at the Red House, Solly Street on 14th September, 1925 shows the methods they used. In court, “Ganner” Wheywell’s lawyer, Harry Morris, asked P.C. Lunn: ”What Wheywell has done to you, you paid back with 4,000 per cent interest?” Lunn replied: ”I do not look at it like that. I only did my duty, knowing the man as I do. Then under further questioning: “These men have been ganging together. No licensees in Sheffield want them. They will only serve them through fear. We have had enough of gangs.”

Mr. Barnwell then asked,”Are you one of the Flying Squad?” “Yes”… “And your main duty is that of a sort of disturbance queller?” “Yes, principally.”

Mr. Morris explained that Wheywell had summonsed first and this was in the nature of a test case. There is a system of assaults on these men. But that would be a substitution of an alleged gang terrorism by the police.”
The Doctor who had treated Wheywell at the Royal Infirmary said that his patient “had four fairly large bruises, was dazed and looked as if he had been knocked about.”

Under cross-examination Wheywell described “the Squad” as having launched a “cowardly assault.” The landlord gave evidence for Wheywell and said he did not mind them using his pub. He added that he had not called the police but: “The Sheffield police have told me I must not serve these men. It is through no complaint of mine.”

The case went to the Sessions where the three “Squad” members were acquitted and Wheywell given three months hard labour! The Recorder warned, without conscious irony: “The police must be protected from acts of violence.”

Gangs are usually then as now around a family or close associates – the nucleus. In a case of 11th July the Recorder asked, ”How do you become a member of these gangs?” Albert Foster replied: ”Well Sir, I have known these men for years, from being a boy. As a matter of fact we have been boys together.”

On the 25th of November two defendants appeared in court after being heavily beaten in custody. One Windle was in facial bandages with blood-stained clothes and scarf. In answer to questioning by Harry Morris the defence solicitor: “No, it was through falling.” On another occasion a woman shouted at the police from the gallery: “You’re as bad!”

After six months of the Special Squad Hall-Dalwood had to resign apparently from ill-health but blamed “evil attempts” to undermine him and “insidious influences from outside.” He had had constant conflict with Sheffield Watch Committee to get his force brought up to strength and also to get magistrates to give stronger sentences.

He was replaced by Captain Percy Sillitoe who had served in the South African police. Though Hall-Dalwood had formed “The Squad” it was Sillitoe who became famous as the “Gang breaker” and went on to tackle Glasgow’s “Razor gangs.” He finished his career as Director-General of MI5. He visited America to advise J. Edgar Hoover on combating Chicago’s more stylish gangsters.

Sillitoe followed where Col. Hall-Dalwood had led and made important innovations like adding P.C. Pat Geraghty who was 6ft 5in tall and could pick up five tennis balls in one hand. Sillitoe had the “squad” trained in Ju Jitso by European champion Harry Hunter. To support the magistrates Sillitoe went to the court cases to back his men and take responsibility for the sentences. His first appearance was on 28th September. It was over the arrest of a husband and wife for fighting each other. When a crowd had gathered and tried to free them. The “Squad” were as bad as the gangsters but with indifferent authorities had to take illegal but drastic measures to restore order to the city and protect innocent people.

In his autobiography “Cloak Without a Dagger” captain Sir Percy Sillitoe gave this insight into human nature: “There is only one way to deal with the gangster mentality. You must show that you are not afraid. If you stand up to them and they realise you mean business they will knuckle under. The element of beast in man whether it comes from an unhappy and impoverished background, or from his own undisciplined lustful appetites, will respond exactly as a wild beast of the jungle responds – to nothing but greater force and greater firmness of purpose.”




Recommended reading:

The Sheffield Gang Wars, by J.P.Bean (D&D) Publications.2004

Cloak Without Dagger, Sir Percy Sillitoe. (Cassell.) 1955

Sir Percy Sillitoe, A.W.Cockerill. (W.H. Allen.) 1975

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