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 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.

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:

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!

(1) http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/england/west_midlands/4010485.stm


(2) http://uk.news.yahoo.com/5/20101222/tuk-olympics-hopeful-locked-up-for-robbe-45dbed5.html

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