Read Sheffield's own shockingly violent true-life Peaky Blinders story

It’s 40 years since the first comprehensive account of the period in Sheffield's criminal history when gangs fought for supremacy on dimly-lit streets and in alleys and cobbled courtyards lined with overcrowded back-to-back houses.

Sunday, 14th February 2021, 12:00 pm

Confrontations between factions were so brutal in the 1920s, with tit-for-tat knifings, shootings and razor-slashings, that Sheffield found itself with the reputation of 'Little Chicago'.

Innocent bystanders and police officers were caught up in the violence, much of it the result of battles to control lucrative gambling rings.

Witness intimidation was rife and law-abiding citizens were afraid to walk the streets of their own city.

Author JP Bean in September 1998 with a copy of his book The Sheffield Gang Wars

An under-manned police force, out-of-touch magistrates and a city council concerned with little outside its own chamber was the background to a reign of terror that blighted Sheffield over several years.

One man was murdered, two hanged and many others imprisoned before the gangs were finally smashed, often by the authorities using greater and equally questionable force.

The factual account of the Sheffield Gang Wars was local writer JP Bean’s first book.

He brought to life the exploits of rival gangs led by George Mooney and Sam Garvin and the arrival of their nemesis, Percy Sillitoe, the Chief Constable (later Director General of MI5) who utilised the ruthlessness of a specialised Flying Squad.

Sam Garvin, leader of the Park Brigade

The book packed an immediate punch and not just with readers in the Sheffield area who might have had some knowledge of the grim places and times.

It also offered a rich addition to the national annals of criminal and social history and formed the basis of a BBC TV documentary in 1986 - more than 30 years before a similar world in Birmingham was encapsulated in the BBC drama series Peaky Blinders.

JP Bean went on to write other books including the authorised biography of Sheffield singer Joe Cocker for Headline Press and Singing from the Floor, an oral history of British folk clubs for Faber and Faber.

Real name Julian Broadhead, he died in November 2015 at the age of 66.

Sir Percy Sillitoe, the Chief Constable tasked with cleaning up the gangs

His wife, Sheila, is ensuring that his vivid account of the rise and fall of the gangs in 1920s Sheffield does not fade away.

Published in 1981, The Sheffield Gang Wars sold steadily to such an extent that it was reprinted 19 times. Now, after a short time out of print, comes the 20th.

Sheila says: “The book is many things. It’s an intense, sometimes shocking picture of the crumbling slums and wild betting rings that dotted the city 100 years ago.

“It’s a blow-by-blow account of a savage gang murder and the headline-grabbing trial that followed, resulting in the hanging of two brothers for the same crime.

“And it’s an origin story. It shows us how the controversial Flying Squad cut their teeth in the streets of Sheffield, using violence and intimidation to put an end to gang culture in the city.”

In his research, JP Bean spent months poring over court reports and local newspapers – every one – morning and evening – from 1923 to 1928.

He didn’t stop there. He sought out first-hand accounts from the people who had lived through the violence.

Some tried to warn him off: one told him that he’d ‘get his head chopped off’ for asking questions about it.

Sixty years after the events, the stories of the Mooney Gang, Sam Garvin and the murder of William Plommer still inspired fear as well as fascination among Sheffielders.

After putting an advertisement in the personal columns of the Sheffield Star, he received ten replies from people closely connected to the main players in the story.

And he managed to persuade the police to let him have copies of the original mugshots of the gang members.

He wove all of this together into a book that is as rich and detailed as it is fast-moving and thrilling.

“This is the original and definitive story of Sheffield gangs in the 1920s, not to mention the most gripping and entertaining,” says Sheila.

“You would be surprised at the number of people who have said that it’s the only book they’ve ever read.”

Sheffield’s own Warp Films took out an option to make a feature-length movie about the book.

And Sheffield musician, singer and songwriter Richard Hawley is a great fan.

In fact it was Richard’s love of The Sheffield Gang Wars that first brought him and JP Bean into each other’s orbit.

Richard has since said that he “wants to make [it] into a film one day”.

JP Bean was to give countless highly-entertaining talks on the subject.

Now there’s the chance for a new audience to read about a dark and captivating chapter of Sheffield history.

*The Sheffield Gang Wars, by JP Bean (D & D Publications, £10.95).

It is available from Amazon and there are plans for it be stocked again by local booksellers.

In these confusing and worrying times, local journalism is more vital than ever. Thanks to everyone who helps us ask the questions that matter by taking out a subscription or buying a paper. We stand together. Nancy Fielder, editor