The Glasgow Curse

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A History of Crime in Glasgow

03 Jan

Malcolm Archibald is a member of The Society of Authors and is a lecturer at Inverness College, University of the Highlands and Islands.


"A great city with a strong leaven of scoundralism in its population"
Glasgow Herald, 07 October 1850

archibald-mGlasgow: the dear green place, the largest city in Scotland and in 2013 noted as the murder capital of Western Europe. Glasgow: the name immediately conjures up visions of razor gangs and wild violence, desperate brawls at football matches and acres of festering slums contrasting with great wealth created by industry and trade.
Yet this was also a world city, arguably the greatest shipbuilding centre the world had ever seen; a city of innovation and invention, of impressive architecture and thrusting entrepreneurism. Travellers such as Daniel Defoe, Edmund Burt and Thomas Pennant gave it glowing reviews in the 17th and 18th century and in the 19th it was a leading centre of urban advancement that attracted international praise for its innovation.
It is this contrast between culture and crime, vivacity and violence that makes Glasgow such a fascinating place. It is undoubtedly one of the friendliest cities in Europe, if not in the world, to visit, yet always with that indefinable edge of tension, as if the very streets are waiting for something to happen.

It is possible that the Industrial Revolution of the 19th century spawned this duality, this Jekyll-and Hyde- ism that Edinburgh often claims but Glasgow so readily wears like a prickly glove. It was a small, neat, quiet town until after the 1707 Union, when opportunities arose for trade with the Americas, and by mid century the Tobacco Lords were strutting their stuff and building Palladian mansions that contrasted with the thatched cottages of their workers. The War of American Independence ended that era with a bang that turned the Lords world upside down, but by then patterns of trade dictated that Glasgow would dominate commercial Scotland for the next century and a half at least.
glasgow-squareBurgeoning industrialisation created a demand for labour; immigrants poured in from glens cleared by rapacious Highland chiefs and from the poverty starved wastes of Ireland. The incomers were crammed into streets that quickly became slums, while acres of cheap tenements were built to house more and more people. When desperately poor labourers, respectable artisans and, skilled engineers and wealthy merchants and shipowners are housed in close proximity to one another, crime is virtually inevitable. Add the clash of religion, the mutating attraction of alcohol and the glitter of Scotland's premier shopping centre and the result was . . . Glasgow.glasgow picThe gang fights began in a small way in the 18th century with stone throwing contests, fuelled by the Catholic-Protestant rivalry brought by immigration and fostered by poverty and ancient dislikes; the penny gangs prowled for victims in the late 19th century, each in their own territory. After the First World War [1914-1918] in which some 200,000 Glasgow men served, veterans of the trenches of Flanders and deserts of the Palestine found themselves out of work and regarded with suspicion by the government for whom they had fought. The gangs of the 1920s fought each other, Protestant and Catholic, first with bayonets and then with razors in thousand strong battles that rocked the city. The names are remembered still: Billy Boys and Conks, but although the police quelled that outbreak by fair means and foul, the legacy of gang fighting remains to blight the city even today.

There was also theft: the 19th century saw some spectacular robberies in the city as home grown and international thieves were drawn by the Argyll Arcade and other prizes. One group of suave-tongued men even convinced the hard-headed Glaswegians to upgrade a ship for them, and then stole it. Murders were common, from the brutal kickings in dark closes to the more sophisticated poisonings that attracted national attention. 19th century Glasgow was home to the garrotter and the footpad, the drunken wife beater and the pickpocket while groups of young children ran ragged through the streets, searching for unwary drunks staggering home from the pub, or windows left open for a quick break in.

malcolm-book-coverToday? What is Glasgow like in the second decade of the 21st century? It remains a warm hearted welcoming city with a brooding problem of crime. In 2007 a report from Reform Scotland claimed that there was more violent crime per head of population in Glasgow than in New York; it was and is the capital of knife crime for Scotland and Britain. Wife beating multiplies every time Rangers play Celtic at football and there is a massive drugs and drink problem. It seems that crime may alter shape, but it always waits, coiled like a many headed hydra, in the bowels of this endlessly fascinating city.

Malcolm Archibald





Glasgow: The Real Mean City is an absolute must for anyone interested in 19th century crime in the city. amazon-link


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