Gangs then and now

Julian Bean. Author Julian Bean
Julian Bean. Author Julian Bean

THE question is familiar.

How do you tackle a gang culture that can tear apart communities and cause injury and even death?

Answers continue to be sought across the country and in the 1920s one man was convinced Sheffield had taken the right approach.

“I believe that there is only one way to deal with the gangster mentality,” wrote Percy Sillitoe. “You must show that you are not afraid. If you stand up to them and they realise that you mean business, they will soon knuckle under.”

It is highly unlikely that South Yorkshire Police would adopt the range of strong-arm tactics endorsed by the former chief constable and carried out by a four-man flying squad, but the current force has never been faced with the level of gang violence and intimidation that once saw Sheffield described as ‘Little Chicago’.

There were several years of knifings, razor slashings and shootings, creating an atmosphere in which law-abiding citizens were afraid to walk the street.

The story of The Sheffield Gang Wars was first told in detail 30 years ago this month by local writer JP Bean and the book is now in its 18th print, having always been available and having sold more than 30,000 copies.

In latter years, talks by the author have also proved popular, mainly locally, but also with judges in London, for example. An anniversary talk will be given at The Greystones pub in Greystones on Monday, September 26.

“I have been interested in gangs since watching The Untouchables on TV,” says JP Bean. “That interest was developed through watching the Kray twins trial in the late 60s, which was heavily reported. And I always knew about the gangs in Sheffield because my grandfather and his brothers were bookies. I realised there was a story that had never been properly told.”

The enduring appeal on peeping into one of the city’s darkest chapters has taken him by surprise. “Thirty years ago I would never have expected the book would still be available.”

Yet local appetite remains for an account of the terrible events in 1920s Sheffield, when gang warfare took a foothold among rows of dirty and overcrowded back-to-back houses, shared outside toilets, cobbled courtyards and dimly-lit alleys.

With high unemployment, the only hope for many working class men could perhaps be found in gambling. Pitch and toss involved placing bets were placed on how three spun coins would fall. Crowds of several hundred men were attracted to tossing rings in Skye Edge, Wadsley, Five Arches and Tinsley.

Feuding over the exclusive and lucrative rights to such operations focused on the Mooney Gang, led by George Mooney, and the Park Brigade, led by Sam Garvin. In the main, protagonists were already renowned criminals and men to be feared.

The reign of terror thrived for several years against a background of an undermanned police force and out-of-touch magistrates and councillors.

The turning point came with the Princess Street murder in 1925, which saw 34-year-old William Plommer killed near his home for failing to come to the aid of Wilfred Fowler in a gang fight. Wilfred Fowler and his brother, Lawrence, were found guilty after a trial in Leeds that gripped the nation. The sentence was hanging.

In many ways, the gangs in those days were very different to their modern counterparts.

Members were much older than they are today. George Mooney was 33 at the start and Sam Garvin was 43. Sentences – capital punishment apart – were much more lenient. Mooney was fined £10 for having numerous firearms in his house, having shot a man.

And there were no media influences or anti-hero role models for the Mooney Gang and Park Brigade.

But some issues remain familiar.

Territory is usually an issue in disputes and it was as important to the Mooney Gang and Park Brigade as it was seen to be with so-called postal code gangs.

Illegal profit is vital. In the 1920s it was a gambling ring, today it is drugs.

Revenge led to the murder of William Plommer and the execution of the Fowler brothers and revenge has been cited as a motive in most of the gang-related murders in recent Sheffield history.

Being a gang member then and now was and still is a lifestyle choice

“I think one reason that the Sheffield Gang Wars have lasted so long is that gangs and law and order issues have never gone away,” says JP Bean. “There are modern comparisons. Also the gangs were beaten by hardline police methods that a lot of people today would like to see brought back.

“Another reason is that it’s one of the classic cases of 20th-century crime in that two brothers were hanged for the same crime. That was a very rare occurrence and in the Fowlers brothers’ case there was a lot of controversy about whether they were guilty or not.”

JP Bean’s writing has taken him down numerous different roads. Two of his other books, his biography of Joe Cocker, and Over The Wall, True Stories of the Master Jailbreakers, will form half of the evening at The Greystones. He is currently working on a book about folk clubs, from post-war to the present day.

Yet the gangs continue to pull an audience in Sheffield.

Their rise and fall all those years ago would surely make a cracking film? “I feel it’s all that’s left. A number of people have talked about it on and off over the years. It would be nice if the right people did it in the right way.”

lSheffield Gang Wars by JP Bean (D&D Publications, £9.95).

lTickets for the talk at The Greystones cost £5 and are available from the venue and on the night.