The Billy Boys and their rise to terror!

How one of Glasgow’s most feared gangs will be in the spotlight again due to a BBC drama, the Glasgow gang will appear in the new series of the hit TV show Peaky Blinders!  Michelle Woods.

Billy Boys meeting point at Bridgeton Cross

” Where the violence is as casual as the smile of a pretty girl” Patrick O’ Donovall

Who would have thought, in modern day Glasgow that this quote was once used to describe this city. A thriving city full of opportunity, culture, diversity and of course “banter.”

However, the history of this glorious city is one steeped in violence, organised crime, poverty and exceptional hardship. Take a seat and let me take you back to a different time in Glasgow’s history, a darker time.

Glasgow by the late 19th century had quickly become a city of extraordinary economic growth, with a fifth of the world’s ships being built on the River Clyde. A city flourishing in economic opportunity as the textile, cotton and engineering industries began to expand massively within the city which ultimately resulted in Glasgow being referred to as “The second city of the Empire.” 

With the industrial revolution in full swing, the demand for labourers was at an all-time high, Glasgow’s population began to grow at an excessive rate as migration from Ireland and central Europe began to pour into the city. Between 1830 and 1914 over 300,000 Irish migrants settled in Scotland with a majority of them settling in the west of Scotland and Glasgow. 

Since the reformation, Scotland had been predominantly a Protestant country, however with the arrival of the Irish migrants during this time period, that was about to change. Glasgow’s population would reach over a million by the early 20th century making it one of the most densely populated cities in the world. Overcrowding, poverty and disease had gripped society by its hands and tensions were rising. 

Religious sectarianism was rife throughout the city as the religious divisions had become more prominent than ever before with the arrival of many Irish Catholics to Glasgow. Many people saw the Irish as a threat to their job security and religious beliefs. Those feelings were especially felt in the poverty stricken area of the east end. With anger and poverty infiltrating the city, the recipe for a vicious gang culture had been created. The Billy Boys were born, and they would have their reign of terror. 

“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 Bridgeton Billy Boys.” A song that sent shivers through the dark streets of Glasgow as the Billy Boys marched by in a military fashion, a warning, that the Billy Boys were here, and they were here to stay.

Rumour has it, that Billy Fullerton (leader of the Billy Boys) was famously attacked by a gang of Irish Catholics when out one day. As the story quickly spread, the tensions within the city had risen even more. Billy Fullerton began to give speeches at Bridgeton cross about the perceived threat of the Irish Catholics within the city and how they were planning to tackle this. With a love for violence and a hatred for Catholics now reaching a deadly peak, the creation of the Billy Boys had become inevitable. The gang would march through the city brandishing their open razors and coshes, beating up Catholics, bringing terror in their wake.

As their influence grew throughout the city, the Billy Boys would claim territory and then divide it amongst themselves, extorting money from publicans, shopkeepers and even their own communities. Tory politicians would hire them to disrupt meetings of the Labour Party and left wing factions. Public displays of violence had become common place as the Billy Boys and their main rivals the Irish Norman conks, would often battle it out on the streets.

With open razor blades and conquered territory, the gang would rule the streets of Glasgow in an organised fashion. With their signature uniforms and flute band, a small gang had risen from a group of friends to a full throttle criminal organisation. The fear of violence would ensure the Billy Boys got the respect they commanded. Hailed by many as protectors of the poor and the Protestant way, they would organise walks through Catholic territory and would threaten severe punishment to anyone who refused to pay up.

Newspaper article of the time

Many people saw the Billy Boys as a lucrative opportunity, an attractive distraction from the crippling reality of everyday life. By the late 1920’s, the gang had peaked to over 800 members. Billy Fullerton and his gang of merry men had become the most notorious and organised criminal gang in Britain. 

By the mid-1930’s, Sir Percy Sillitoe- chief constable of Glasgow police, famously known as “The gang buster,” was hired by Glasgow police as the threat of the Billy Boys had reached an unprecedented scale. Sir Percy and the police department began to crack down on organised criminal gangs and with World War Two, also on the horizon, the dispersion of the Billy Boys had begun to take place and their reign of terror was finally coming to an end.

Billy Fullerton later went on to join “Oswald Mosley’s British Union of fascists” the British equivalent of the Ku Klux Klan. He died in 1962 at the age of 57. Billy Fullerton’s coffin was carried from Bridgeton to Riddrie to the sounds of men, women and children crying. Over 1,000 people attended and paid their last respects as the once notorious razor King was laid to rest. His name was now iconic and his legacy would live on as a reminder of a dark past that would forever live on in the history books.

I spoke with Dave Scott from the charity organisation Nilbymouth which was established in 2000 to tackle sectarianism in Glasgow after the horrific sectarian murder of teenager Mark Scott. Dave spoke of the history of sectarianism and the gang culture in Glasgow saying, “gangs were often based around geographical locations and back then communities tended to be more polarized religiously such as Protestant areas like Bridgeton and Catholic areas like Carlton for example.” He went on to say, ” that isn’t really the case in 2019 as the communities have changed and inter faith marriage etc has become much more popular and acceptable.” When asked about the progress of tackling sectarianism over the past few decades he said, “20 years ago you would never have learned about sectarianism in schools or had groups like ours visit to run workshops. People just seemed to accept it was always going to be this way. “

Are you Catholic or are you Protestant? A question I was often asked growing up in the East end of Glasgow always wondering why that mattered. Sectarianism has always been a problem in Glasgow especially in the East end where feelings and beliefs have ran deep over generations. In 2005 the World Health Organisation listed Glasgow as the “murder capital of Europe.” Since then, Glasgow’s homicide rate has fallen by 60 percent, with police operations such as the violence reduction unit being set up to help tackle violent crime within the city. 

Today, the transition of Glasgow and Glasgow’s image is one to be applauded. A city once known for violence, is a city now known for culture, art, opportunities and creativity. A bubbling pot of unique personalities and humour, from Still Game to Irn Bru, and the world famous Barrowlands. Glasgow really is a special place…a place…I’m proud to call home.

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