Who were the real Billy Boys, the Glasgow gang in Peaky Blinders?

Series five of Peaky Blinders sees Tommy Shelby and his Birmingham clan clashing with a Glasgow gang known as the ‘Billy Boys’ – and gang chief Billy Fullerton is the inspiration for one of the next villains in the drama. Historian Andrew Davies reveals the real history of the 1920s Scottish gangsters

Billy Fullerton, gang chief of the Glasgow gang the Billy Boys

During the 1920s and 30s, the Scottish city of Glasgow was home to a number of well-organised sectarian gangs. The most famous of these was the Billy Boys, a Protestant street gang from the East End of Glasgow. Here, historian Andrew Davies shares a closer look at the city’s gang wars…

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The Brigton Billy Boys were the biggest and most powerful gang in Glasgow during the 1920s and 1930s. They took their name from the Dutch Protestant monarch William of Orange (‘King Billy’), whose victory at the battle of the Boyne in 1690 had secured Protestant rule in England and Scotland, as well as Ireland. The ‘Billies’ recruited Protestant youths from across Bridgeton (‘Brigton’) and surrounding districts in Glasgow’s East End. Most joined in their late teens. Many stayed active in the gang into their twenties and thirties.

At their peak in the late 1920s the Billy Boys numbered 800, making them the largest gang in Britain by far. They were divided into sections 40-strong, each with its own leader. They in turn took their orders from Billy Fullerton, the gang’s ‘chief’.

Who was Billy Fullerton, gang chief of the Billy Boys?

Billy Fullerton was a street fighting man. On leaving school, he found work in a shipyard. However, in common with many young men of his generation, he experienced repeated bouts of unemployment in his teens. He gained a following and became adept at marshalling the Billy Boys in activities such as church parades and religious processions, using them as an opportunity to march his gang through what were identified as Catholic thoroughfares. Fullerton also played the newspapers and was fond of giving interviews that portrayed himself as a local celebrity, someone who had left behind the world of the gangs and ‘gone straight’.

As well as marshalling parades, Billy Fullerton also acted as the gang’s ‘secretary’ – a full-time job, as he explained in 1932: “I had to make plans for fights, look after the funds, and attend to a hundred and one other matters connected to the gang and its members.”

Glasgow gang chief Billy Fullerton
Billy Fullerton, born c1906, was a street fighting man who came to lead a Glasgow gang called the Billy Boys. (Image: Sunday Dispatch 1935)

The Billy Boys engaged in bitter feuds with Catholic gangs across Glasgow’s East End. During the 1930s, when the Billies numbered closer to 500, their fiercest opponents were the Kent Star and the San Toy from the adjacent district of the Calton. Between them, the rival gangs could raise as many followers as the Billy Boys. The Norman Conks (Conquerors, from Norman Street in Dalmarnock) were another long-standing adversary, targeting Billy Boys in tit-for-tat stabbings and occasional razor-slashings in seemingly endless cycles of reprisal.

In court, members of the Billy Boys claimed that the gang had been formed to protect those marching in the annual parades of the Orange Order (‘Orange Walks’), held each July. The processionists’ noisy return to their home districts took them past the gathering places of Catholic gangs like the Kent Star, who viewed the arrival of the Billy Boys at the head of the marchers as an affront. The clashes that followed were the stuff of legend. On one occasion, Ross Prete, ‘leader-off’ of the Kent Star, was reputedly thrown head-first through a plate-glass window.

The two football teams in Glasgow – Rangers and Celtic – are famously Protestant and Catholic respectively. On the day of the Orange Walk, or a match between two teams, the Catholic gangs of the East End would join forces to oppose the Billy Boys, such was the Protestant gangsters’ strength in numbers. The Billies, of course, were avid followers of Rangers – Billy Fullerton had risen through the ranks of the gang first by organising their trips to matches, and then by assuming responsibility for collecting the gang’s funds.

Tommy and Arthur Shelby drinking
Tommy Shelby and his Birmingham Peaky Blinders will come up against the Billy Boys in series five of the drama. (Image by BBC/Caryn Mandabach Productions Ltd 2019/Robert Viglasky)

How were the Billy Boys funded?

The Billy Boys’ funds came from a variety of sources. Members paid subscriptions of sixpence or a shilling per week according to whether they were in or out of work (many were unemployed by the late 1920s, as Glasgow’s shipyards were hit by global recession). Shopkeepers, too, made regular contributions in return for ‘protection’.

Unscrupulous politicians also bankrolled the Billy Boys. Fullerton took payments in return for breaking up left-wing meetings and even led assaults on demonstrations by the communist-inspired National Unemployed Workers’ Movement. The Billy Boys even acted as stewards at Unionist (Conservative) election meetings in Glasgow’s East End, until a Daily Mirror headline – “GANGSTERS” AS TORY STEWARDS – so embarrassed Unionist leaders that they turned instead to Glasgow University’s rugby club.

Read more about the real history of the Peaky Blinders here. Andrew Davies is the author of City of Gangs: Glasgow and the Rise of the British Gangster (Hodder & Stoughton, 2014).

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Series five of Peaky Blinders returns to screens on Sunday 25 August, on BBC One at 9pm.