During the 1961 movie The Frightened City, there’s a moment when detective John Gregson’s sergeant (Frederick Piper) muses that they’re never going to find anyone willing to testify against the protection rackets. What they need is a strong man to break up the gangs, “like Percy Sillitoe.”

Sir Percy Sillitoe had retired as head of MI5 nine years earlier, but his memoir Cloak Without Dagger had been published in 1955, consolidating his reputation as the man who broke up the razor gangs of Glasgow and the street gangs of Sheffield. But J. P. Bean’s The Sheffield Gang Wars makes it clear that life is not as straightforward as a newspaper headline.

First published in 1981 by D&D Books, The Sheffield Gang Wars was reprinted every other year up to 2009 (when I bought my copy) and stayed in print for at least 30 years. J. P. Bean told the Yorkshire Post in August 2011 that growing up in working class Sheffield, he’d heard tall tales about the 1920’s gangs from his grandfather, a racecourse bookie, and decided to research the facts.

At the root of the 1920’s gang wars was illegal gambling based on Pitch and Toss – one of the simplest forms of gambling – which took place on four sites in Sheffield including Sky Edge, “an elevated expanse of wasteland high above the city,” near the site of the present-day Park Hill apartments. Luckily, Val Guest recreated the Pitch and Toss rings in his 1960 movie Hell Is A City which helps us get an idea of a simple pastime could inflame passions.

As Bean explains, “Three coins (the film shows only two) are placed on the ends of the first two fingers and tossed, spinning, into the air. Bets are made on the proportion of heads to tails – or vice versa – as they fall to the ground.”

The rings were run by a toller, who collected a toll on each bet made. Out of this he paid the ponter who kept order and the crows or pikers who kept watch for police. “Sky Edge…its ideal position and strategically placed pikers making it virtually immune against police raids- meant that the Skyring, as it was known, attracted big money gamblers from miles around.”

It was a dispute over control of the ring which triggered the bloody gang wars. The Mooney Gang under George Mooney had inherited the ring from a local bookmaker, but Sam Garvin, leader of the local Park Brigade believed that as it was in their territory the profits should be theirs. Razors, bricks and broken bottles were some of the implements used, although there was always room for improvisation with a child’s scooter being used as a blunt instrument in one fatal encounter.

Quite apart from the struggle for control of gambling, there was a general increase in lawlessness. Gangs demanding free drinks from publicans, general muggings, and youths (teenagers hadn’t been invented yet) “influenced by, and attempting to emulate the behaviour of the Mooney Gang and the Park Brigade.”

The Chief Constable of Sheffield, Lt.Col John Hall-Dalwood warned that his force was becoming unable to fulfil its main purpose of crime prevention due to the increasing additional duties being imposed on the police. Even if they could get criminals to court, magistrates were granting bail too readily and convicting less often. “You have to produce more evidence for prosecution in a Sheffield court to get a conviction than in any other town in the country.”

In the end, it was the murder of a Glaswegian ex-soldier called William Plommer which was the turning point. Plommer had intervened in a fist-fight between two opposing gang members to see fair play. The loser had threatened, “You’ll get a tanning for this, Jock,” and the following evening had appeared with five associates outside Plommer’s house. Plommer offered to fight them one-by-one, but after he took the first out with one punch, the others piled in with a variety of implements including a bayonet which in all probability struck the fatal blow. Two brothers were hanged at Armley Prison for the murder, but the publicity also brought about the end of the Sheffield gangs.

Word had come down from the Home Office that Sheffield had to be brought under control and on May 1st 1925, Hall-Darwood formed a Special Duties Squad. Led by ex-Guardsman, Detective Sergeant William Robinson, the “Flying Squad” was made up of three constables, all transferred to plain clothes. Their method was targeted disruption. “Not waiting to quell trouble when it occurred, they combed the city looking for it…The razors and life preservers much favoured by the gangs were countered by fists, boots and regulation truncheons...Unconstitutional such methods may have been, but…the Flying Squad had been created because normal methods of suppressing prevalent lawlessness had failed.”

Despite the success of the Special Duties Squad, Chief Constable Hall-Dalwood was irked by what he saw as ineffective magistrates and lack of support from the watch committee (predecessors of today’s Crime Commissioners). Bean asserts that Sheffield City Council was controlled by a coalition of Liberals and Conservatives “becoming increasingly concerned at the upsurge of support for the Labour Party.” Labour meetings were disrupted by thugs alleged to be part of the Park Brigade. When a new Corporation housing estate at Walkley was opened (“to those living in the slums, a Corporation house with bathroom, inside toilet and garden was almost beyond the realms of imagination..”) Sam Garvin, leader of the Park Brigade, was one of the first to move in.

In January 1926, Hall-Dalwood resigned on health grounds, and in May 1926, Captain Percy Sillitoe became the new Chief Constable of Sheffield. Sillitoe beefed up the Flying Squad, and appeared at court hearings to plead with the magistrates to take a hard line. “There has been a series of outbreaks of hooliganism in this district and I feel the police must be protected. The only way is by exemplary sentences so that other people cannot think they can do this kind of thing.”

Is it the case that Sillitoe was the better manager, willing to fight for the resources he needed while Hall-Dalwood could only complain about being undermined by, “an insidious influence from outside”? Or had Hall-Dalwood already been worn down by twelve years of conflict with the Watch Committee? Bean looks at both sides of the argument although unfortunately much of the evidence was already lost.

Within twelve months of Sillitoe’s appointment, the gangs had disappeared, although Bean notes that when Sillitoe arrived they were already fragmented and lacking leadership due to the war of attrition initiated by Hall-Dalwood. The issues surrounding the Sheffield Gang Wars have their parallels today. As Bean notes, the gangs did not carry out their activities in middle class areas. An undermanned police force and lack of political will to tackle the problems resulted in a reign of terror for the law-abiding poor. When the murder of William Plommer resulted in national headlines, the Home Office sanctioned an immediate (if unconstitutional) solution.

The Sheffield Gang Wars by J.P. Bean. 135 pages. D&D Publications. 1981