Friday, 13 October 2017

Billy Boys

Billy Boys
I attended a funeral in a cemetery in the north of Glasgow some years back and as we made our way out, I got chatting to an old fella whose face spoke of violent encounters in his youth. ‘A few characters buried in here,’ he informed me before listing various gangland figures who had their final resting place in that tranquil green acre. ‘The biggest character of the lot doesn’t even have a headstone,’ he went on. His tales got me thinking about the history of my home city and the echoes of the past which still reverberate today.

Between the wars Glasgow was to say the least a very tough city to live in for those of limited means; mass unemployment, poverty and a vicious gang culture made some working class districts mean indeed. The gangs held sway in many areas with names like The Shamrock, the Derry, the Norman Conks, the Cumbie, the Tim Malloys and the Billy Boys entering common parlance. The names of these gangs often betrayed the sectarian nature of the city’s geography. The influx of Irish migrants during the mid and late nineteenth century saw Glasgow’s Catholic population grow hugely. They were far from welcomed by a vociferous and aggressive minority in the major cities who saw the newcomers as competition for jobs and houses and found the Catholic religion of the majority of these migrants reawakening old prejudices.

The slump which followed World War One saw unemployment and poverty at high levels in Scotland. As is usually the case in such times, some looked for a convenient scapegoat and the Irish and their offspring were an easy target. Street gangs with a pronounced anti-Catholic and anti-Irish agenda appeared; chief among them the Billy Boys in the east end of Glasgow. Founded by Billy Fullarton a local man with no love for Catholics, the Billy Boys and their junior wing the ‘Derry’ were said to have 800 members. Local legend has it that Fullarton was attacked and badly beaten by a rival, Catholic gang and founded the Billy Boys to counter them. Whatever the truth, the Catholics who made up a large percentage of the population of Bridgeton in Glasgow’s east end were not prepared to sit back and play the passive victim. They gave as good as they got and from the tenements of French Street, Poplin Street and Norman Street came the Norman Conks, a gang every bit as violent of the Billy Boys. Some of their clashes were almost medieval given the weaponry and savagery displayed.

Orange marching season was often the time of highest tension as the Orange Order made a point of marching through areas such as the Gorbals, Calton and other areas with a high Catholic population. The Billy Boys and their band came along too and the predictable riot often ensued. The gang members were usually men in their 20s and 30s although older men were often involved too. The social conditions which helped spawn the gangs were presided over by Politicians who often used them for their own purposes. There were strong links between Freemasonry, Orangeism and the Conservative Party in Scotland in those days and local Politicians could call on the Billy Boys to disrupt meetings of the Labour Party. Indeed dedicated sectarian political parties such as the Scottish Protestant League and the Protestant Action Party could boast of over 30% share of the vote in local elections in both Edinburgh and Glasgow. There were fascist overtones to some of their policies and this had its attractions for men like Fullerton.

During the 1926 General Strike when workers fought against poverty wages, Fullerton and some of his colleagues acted as strike breakers and received medals and certificates for their activities. Given the direction of travel Rangers Football Club decided on in the years after 1912, it was only to be expected that they would have the faithful backing of groups like the Billy Boys. Their song was soon echoing around Ibrox and is still heard on occasion today…

Hello, hello, we are the Billy Boys
Hello, hello, you'll know us by our noise
We're up to our knees in Fenian blood
Surrender or you'll die
For we are the Brigton Billy Boys’

The City fathers grew weary of Glasgow’s reputation being trashed by the razor gangs and popular novels such as ‘No mean city.’ They decided to act and called in a Police Chief called Percy Sillitoe who had built a reputation as a tough, no nonsense cop and who had pacified the gangs of Sheffield. Sillitoe arrived in Glasgow and immediately decided to fight fire with fire. He recruit teams of big, tough cops who were encouraged to ‘get stuck in,’ when they tangled with the gangs. Batons were soon breaking heads and van loads of police roamed the city waiting for the call on their new radios to go deal with any disturbance. The courts and jail cells were soon full and many other gang members found themselves in the city’s casualty wards after tangling with Sillitoe’s ‘batter squads.’ The days of the gangs having free reign in Glasgow were over.

Fullarton himself was arrested when he led a gang of drunken, tooled up, Billy Boys through Glasgow. He had foolishly brought a child along and the gang were intercepted by a smaller but determined group of Policemen who arrested him after a brutal struggle. He was sent to prison for 10 months for being drunk in charge of a child. As World War 2 approached he found common cause with Oswald Mosely and the British Union of Fascists and soon had a 200 strong group of Black-shirts under his command. It is said he also started the first Glasgow chapter of the Ku Klux Klan.

‘King’ Billy Fullerton was a product of his times but the attitudes he and his like fostered still echo in some corners of Scottish society. In 1962 he died alone and impoverished in a Bridgeton tenement. In that same year, Percy Sillitoe, the hammer of the gangs died too. It is recorded that 1000 people walked with Fullerton’s cortege from Bridgeton to Riddrie Cemetery. Scottish poet Edwin Morgan recalled his funeral with an ambiguous poem which at once scorned the violence of men like Fullerton but also offered some mitigation in calling out the appalling social conditions which spawned men like him….

King Billy by Edwin Morgan
Grey over Riddrie the clouds piled up
dragged their rain through the cemetery trees,
The gates shone cold
Flaring the hissing leaves and branches
swung heavy across lamps.
Gravestones huddle in drizzling shadow,
flickering streetlight scanned the requiescats
a name and an urn, a date, a dove
picked out, lost, half regained.
What is this dripping wreath blown from its grave?
Red, white, blue and gold
To our leader of Thirty years ago’-
Bareheaded, in dark suits, with flutes
and drums they brought him here, in procession
seriously, King Billy of Brigton, dead,
from Bridgeton Cross a memory of violence
brooding days of empty bellies
billiard smoke and a sour pint
boots or fists, famous sherrickings
the word, the scuffle, the flash, the shout
bloody crumpling in the close,
bricks for Papish windows, Get
the Conks next time, the Conks ambush
the Billy Boys, The Billy Boys the conks, till
Sillitoe scuffs the razors down the stank,
No, but it isn’t the violence they remember
but the legend of a violent man
born poor, gang leader in the bad times
of idleness and boredom, lost in better days
a Bouncer in a betting club
a quiet man at last, dying
alone in Bridgeton in a box bed.
So a thousand people stopped the traffic
for the hearse of a folk hero and the flutes
threw onward Christian Soldiers to the wind
from unironic lips, the mourners kept
in step and there were some who wept,
Go from the grave. The shrill flutes
are silent, the march dispersed
Deplore what is to be deplored
and then find out the rest.

Glasgow has long since left the violence of the inter war years in the history books. Of course it can still be as gritty and tough as any other city but the levels of poverty and ignorance which produced the razor gangs of the 1920’s and 30’s are long gone. So too are the disgraceful housing conditions and over-crowding which blighted so many lives. It would be wrong to suggest that the dragon of bigotry has been completely banished from our land but it is certainly in retreat. Those who ruled over a society where slums were tolerated and people left in ignorance and disease bear their share of responsibility for the genesis of men like Fullerton. As Victor Hugo wrote in ‘Les Miserables’…

“If the soul is left in darkness sins will be committed. The guilty one is not he who commits the sin, but he who causes the darkness.” 


  1. Another great piece. Love reading them.

    1. Thanks Biffo, our past helps us shape our future. We can repeat the same mistakes or learn from them. HH

  2. We still have these nutters marching around in silly uniforms playing out of tune noise .And its on the up since the Celtic fc have attained success's on and off the park and the Rangers fc are suffering and constant fear of going out of business again . Scotland needs its freedom from the arrogant loyalist who delude themselves that they are a majority and really matter .

    1. The price of a free society is allowing folk to follow whatever 'culture' they choose? I think the death of Rangers in 2012 was not just a shock to the system for some in a footballing sense but also an awakening to just how unliked the culture around that club was?

  3. Excellent piece of writing, I'm of an age that I remember the battles in glasgow and surrounding areas. I'm glad we can all walk the streets in relative safety HH

  4. Really enjoyed reading this. You have an excellent way of portraying visions in my head with your writing.

    1. Thank you Martin, I appreciate you reading my ramblings. HH