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Looking for Billy

Submitted by on August 19, 2013 – 7:40 pmNo Comment


Following the success of his ace book on Manchester and Salford’s ‘Scuttler’ gangs, Lung regular Andy Davies has a new tome out about nutters from Glasgow, focussing on the infamous ‘Billy Boys’.

Here is a piece Andy wrote for the Lung while researching the book:

They frequent Bridgeton Cross; they cause trouble whenever matches are played at Celtic Park, abusing anyone who passes in Celtic colours; they sing “that song”.

These are the words of a detective from the Eastern division of Glasgow CID, giving evidence at the city’s High Court in 1934. Two Rangers supporters were on trial for “mobbing and rioting” following an ambush on a train packed with Celtic fans. “That song”, as the detective put it, has posed no end of trouble ever since.

We grew up with it in amended (non sectarian) form as one of the first songs you learned on the Stretford End in the seventies, but the original version, bellowed to the tune of “Marching through Georgia,” went like this:

Hello, Hello, we are the Billy Boys
Hello, Hello, ye’ll know us by our noise
Up to our knees in Fenian blood
Surrender or you’ll die
We are the Brigton Billy Boys.

Brigton, or Bridgeton, is in Glasgow’s East End. A stone’s throw from Celtic Park, it’s nonetheless long been renowned as a Protestant district and the “Umbrella” – a covered shelter – at Bridgeton Cross was the gathering point for the Billy Boys, Rangers’ hardcore, in the bleak days between the two world wars.

I’m doing a book on the Glasgow gangs of the 1920s and 1930s, and the Billy Boys figure in it throughout. Their name, of course, speaks volumes. These were the twentieth-century adherents of William of Orange, King Billy, victor of the Battle of the Boyne in 1688. (The one on the white horse). But Glasgow’s true-crime writers, of whom there are many, like to point out that there’s another dimension to the name, too.

These were the followers of the King of Brigton: Billy Fullerton. By all accounts, Fullerton led the Billy Boys with reckless daring and no little tactical skill. Senior police chiefs spoke in thinly-veiled admiration of how Fullerton led the Billies into Catholic enclaves in the East-End: the Gallowgate, territory of the San Toys and the Kent Star mob, and Norman Street in Dalmarnock, home of the fearsome Norman Conks.

In 1955, Fullerton – by then middle-aged – told the story of his days as a “gang boss” to the Glasgow Evening Citizen. But this was a sanitised account, stressing the Billy Boys’ contribution to law and order during the General Strike in 1926 when they signed up en masse as special constables, and dwelling on their service to their country during the Second World War.

There was plenty of irony here for, as Fullerton sheepishly admitted, he’d been an active Fascist during the thirties, pitting the Billy Boys against the “reds” (the Communist-led National Unemployed Workers’ Movement, among others).

Fullerton rose through the ranks of the Billy Boys by organising “brake club” trips to Rangers matches. A brake was originally a horse-drawn carriage, but by the 1920s supporters’ clubs had switched to motorised charabancs, which could carry fifty passengers to the match.

Rangers and Celtic brakes alike routinely set-off for the match in charas bedecked with flags and banners proclaiming national as well as footballing allegiances. This was a fan culture more partisan – and in many ways, more advanced – than any other in Britain. The Billy Boys weren’t the only ones to load weapons as well as booze onto their brakes, but they appear to have been the best organised, and they spawned elements of what looks like modern fanzine culture.

Fullerton and several others sold two-penny sheets at Rangers matches printed with poems and songs detailing their exploits and celebrating their triumphs. All the money raised went into the gang’s funds. The ditties were penned by a shadowy figure known to most of the Billy Boys only by his nickname – “Kipling”. (That was the only poet the Billy Boys had heard of).

“Hello, Hello” is more than likely one of his. The earliest reference to it I’ve come across so far is from 1927. Two hundred Billy Boys had accompanied the Bridgeton contingent on the “Orange Walk”, the annual Twelfth of July parade, held that year six miles outside Glasgow at Cambuslang. Forty thousand Orangemen gathered at Cambuslang. The Sunday Mail told how a crowd of 200 young men, all of them sporting orange colours, marched separate from the main procession singing “We are the Bridgeton Billy Boys”.

They arrived at a pub, where a pitched battle took place. The Billies cleared the roadway, and the pub windows were put through. (One of the Brigton mob had brought a baton with steel wire attached, specially made for this purpose.) A police baton charge was required to shift them, but Cambuslang was only a warm-up: everyone knew that the real fighting would take place that night when the Billies marched through the Gallowgate back to Bridgeton Cross.

I’ve spent a lot of time over the past couple of years looking for traces of Billy Fullerton. He gave the Glasgow police quite a run-around in the twenties and thirties and I began to know how they felt. Here was a man that everybody talked about, you knew that most of the times the Billy Boys got up to something, he’d more than likely been involved – but you could rarely prove it.

Then I found a fresh lead: a report on a trial at which Fullerton appeared as a witness for the prosecution after a Billy Boy had been assaulted. When it was Fullerton’s turn to give evidence, the defence counsel stood up and waved a newspaper in the magistrate’s face. It was Fullerton’s life-story, in which he’d bragged of his reign as the Al Capone of Glasgow. Now that was what I was looking for. Trouble was, the report didn’t tell you which paper the life-story was in – and there were dozens that might have carried it. All I could do was work backwards from the trial report and hope for the best.

Glasgow had two daily morning newspapers and three evening ones. Then there were the Scottish national papers; some of them were published in Glasgow, too, like the Daily Record and the Scottish Daily Express.

Not to forget the Sunday Mail and the Sunday Post. That’s a lot of microfilms. My nightmare was that the Scottish Sunday Express had carried it – no copies from the 1930s survive: I tried the Mitchell Library in Glasgow and the British Library newspaper library in London, and ended up calling the Express’s Glasgow office. They’d have loved to help, they said, but they’d no back-issues of the Sunday edition in their archive either.

I gave up looking, twice. My other half told me I’d never write the book if I didn’t, and I knew she was right. Then I gave it one last go. One more week at the newspaper library in London, I told myself, and that was it. On the Tuesday night, after yet another fruitless day scratching around, I went out with some mates and got so wasted I nearly didn’t make it to the library at all on the Wednesday.

Just as well I did. An American historian and an old friend of mine, in London to research a murder trial from 1928, tipped me off about a few additional papers to try, and bingo: two o’clock that afternoon there it was. “THE TRUTH ABOUT THE GLASGOW GANGS” by “Bill Fulton”, ex-leader of the Billy Boys. At last.

Was it worth it? Well, the story of Kipling was new to me and there’s lots more in there besides. It’s a gem of a source, the kind of thing you hunt for but rarely find. Trouble is, I’ve got to write the bloody book now.

Buy the book here: City of Gangs

Buy the Lung here: Stall

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