Memories of murder and terror in war of the gangs

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Gang warfare is nothing new, although what they fight about has changed. Sheena Hastings reports on the Sheffield Gang Wars.

TODAY. urban gangs are rarely out of the news, and their rivalries were implicated in recent disturbances in London, Birmingham and Manchester.

Enmities are intense, and in places violence is rife, with many a shooting or knife attack ensuing from a member of one group being seen peddling drugs on a street supposedly “owned” by another. Where poverty exists, too often gangs enjoy a reign of terror that can bring misery to the lives of thousands or ordinary law-abiding citizens who just happen to live in the same neighbourhood.

The slums of Sheffield in the 1920s were as bad any to be found in England at that time. Cobbled courtyards and dimly-lit backyards were lined with row upon row of back-to-back houses which were dirty, insanitary, overcrowded hovels where several families might share one outside toilet. At a conservative estimate there were 15,000 such dwellings in Sheffield in 1923.

Unemployment was also rife, with 69,000 men out of a total population of 512,052 out of work. In 1921, when the Board of Guardians – the body responsible for administering the Poor Law and giving financial relief – went £100,000 into the red, relief to the poor was reduced; three years later, there were further reductions when the Guardians ran out of cash altogether.

Munitions factory work ended and efforts to create other jobs didn’t amount to much. Even the drinking habits of Sheffielders suffered, so the police found few drunks to arrest. One business was booming, though: to the unemployed working class gambling seemed to offer the only shred of hope. It was thought that in 1923 around 90 per cent of the working class population betted or assisted others in betting. Off-racecourse betting was illegal, but the ban was difficult to enforce. In the very poor East End and Park areas of the city, “pitch and toss”’ (literally betting on which side three tossed coins would land) gambling was endemic.

The biggest, best and most organised pitching site was at Sky Edge, a ridge of wasteland overlooking the slums of the Park district where Park Hill flats now stand. The lofty position offered a handy look-out point for police, and by 1919 the site was controlled by the notorious Mooney gang, led by George Mooney, together with another local gang led by Sam Garvin.

The gangs made a handsome profit from the poverty of their neighbours. With unemployment rising as the 1920s wore on even hardened gamblers struggled to find the money. George Mooney and his gang decided to break away from Sam Garvin, in order to try to increase their share of the business.

Sam Garvin formed the rival Park Brigade, and for the next few years the turf wars between those two groups terrorised the area, with tit-for-tat attacks on gang members and their homes. In these poor neighbourhoods, no street or pub was safe from outbreaks of razor slashing and the use of guns, knives and bricks. Tit-for-tat gang attacks on rival gang members were commonplace, including one attack on George Mooney himself.

After a couple of years of attrition, and with the Mooney gang falling out among themselves, the Park Brigade were victorious and dominated the East End and Park areas. Gang members regularly wound up in court, but sentences for street violence and other offences were not steep. Then, on April 27, 1925 William Plommer, an unwitting man who’d waded in and insisted on fair play in a fistfight involving one of Garvin’s followers, was fatally stabbed outside his home in Norfolk Bridge.

Finally, Sheffield’s Chief Constable John Hall-Dalwood decided to get a grip on matters. He formed a four-officer Special Duty Squad, which became known as the “Flying Squad”, to go out into the streets of Park and the East End and forcibly put a stop to the mayhem. Their methods were confrontational and violent; they went looking for trouble and the gangsters at last began to tremble.

In July that year, the brothers Wilfred and Lawrence Fowler were convicted of Plommer’s murder and sentenced to death at West Riding Assizes in Leeds. They were hanged on consecutive days in September at Armley Jail. In 1928, the Flying Squad was disbanded, its task of seeking and wiping out gang activity having been accomplished.

These two notorious gangs of the 1920s had secured for Sheffield the dubious title of Britain’s “Little Chicago”. Similar groups operated elsewhere in the country, but it was the scale of violence culminating in fatality that earned the city its reputation, says JP Bean, who wrote the definitive account in his 1981 book The Sheffield Gang Wars. The book sold 1,500 in the week of publication and has been in print ever since. The writer is now celebrating its 30th anniversary, and says the episode seems to hold enduring fascination.

“Growing up in Sheffield, I heard about the gangs as part of local folklore. My grandfather and his brothers were racecourse bookies, and they told great tales about those days, although really they weren’t ‘great’ days. When I was older I set out to find out more of the story. As a working class kid in the same city, Mooney and Garvin sounded like something from the Wild West, and one of the few cases in British history where two brothers were hanged for a crime.”

There was an element of confusion over whether the Fowler brothers did in fact kill Plommer. “Sam Garvin left the scene, got on a tram, then slashed the first man he saw with his knife in order to create an alibi for himself. He was sentenced to 18 months but that was better than a murder charge.

“The terror and violence in the East End and Park areas didn’t impinge on the middle-class people of Sheffield, and the whole city was not overrun with gangs,” says Bean. “Up to the point of the murder, the magistrates in the city weren’t very interested in gangland violence, and a man up before them for possessing a firearm would get a £10 fine.”

Comparing events in Sheffield almost 90 years ago with recent disturbances in English cities, Bean says there are lessons to learn from the (eventual) decisive handling of the Sheffield gang wars. “The government brought the word ‘gang’ into it, but I’m not sure it wasn’t all just reckless looting, with perhaps pockets of gang involvement. Police stood by to begin with, saying there were not enough of them to deal with the problem. So the question should be raised: isn’t it the police’s function to prevent crime? It’s been said that in Edmonton (London) by initially standing by the police sent out a message to other troublemakers and looters. Back then, the Flying Squad acted decisively, if brutally, but they weren’t operating within a framework of human rights, as police do today.”

JP Bean talks about The Sheffield Gang Wars and his other work at The Greystones pub, Sheffield on September 26. Advance tickets £5 from the Greystones or by post (inc sae) from PO Box 225, Sheffield S11 7DD.

The Sheffield Gang Wars is published by D & D, £9.95. To order from the Yorkshire Post Bookshop, call 0800 0153232 or go to Postage costs £2.75.