JP’s search for the last gang in town

Author Julian Bean
Author Julian Bean
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FOR two years JP Bean had grown use to rejection.

The aspiring writer had sent his manuscript to 21 different publishers but the reply, where he received one, was always the same: thanks but no thanks.

It seemed his meticulously researched account of the 1920s gang wars which ripped through Sheffield like a razor blade through a sharp suit was destined to stay sat on his own shelf forever.

“It was hard because I was sure the subject matter was the stuff of a great book,” he says. “It had everything - murder and revenge, cops and robbers - and it wasn’t some fictional tale set in some distant American city; it was The Untouchables but right here on out doorstep.”

So the then 31-year-old JP - real name Julian - took the plunge and published The Sheffield Gang Wars himself. That was 30 years ago in September, and it is perhaps now safe to say it was a gamble which paid off.

In the intervening three decades the book has sold more than 35,000 copies around the world, spawned a BBC documentary, been through 18 reprints and is still one of the best sellers in The Star book shop. It’s also a favourite with both criminologists (Law Society Gazette labelled it “a real contribution to criminal history”) and criminals themselves. Great train robber Bruce Reynolds is one notable fan.

Sheffield Gang Wars'Robert Henry Garvin

Sheffield Gang Wars'Robert Henry Garvin

“I think it has a timeless quality,” says JP today. “I know it’s set in a very specific time and place, Sheffield 1923-28, but those kinds of issues of crime and law and order, of people trying to get by on the wrong side of that line, they’re still relevant today - and always will be.

“I think that’s why people are still reading it. Back in 1981 there were still people around who remembered the period. It was my granddad who got me interested in it because he was a bookmaker back in the 1920s and he told me about the trouble. But now, it’s another generation completely which is buying it, I just think it has themes which still resonate.”

Resonate they certainly do but the book paints a picture of a very different Sheffield - a Sheffield that was both simultaneously more violent and somehow more innocent; more impoverished and yet better dressed.

Two gangs rose from the poverty created by steel depression of the post First World War period. One was led by 33-year-old George Mooney, the other by his one time ally Sam Garvin, 43.

Sheffield Gang Wars Stanley Harker, sentenced to 7 years penal servitude

Sheffield Gang Wars Stanley Harker, sentenced to 7 years penal servitude

Fighting for control of the city’s lucrative illegal gambling trade, not least the money-spinning Sky Edge tossing ring at Park Hill, the gangs created a spiral of violence across town. Razor attacks, shootings and mob beatings all became routine before, perhaps inevitably, murder was done.

The victim William Plommer was a Scottish-born soldier seen to have slighted two brothers, Wilfred and Lawrence Fowler.

With an eight-strong gang the siblings traced Plommer and attacked him near his Princess Street home. They used a variety of weapons - thought to have included a bayonet - to bring the notoriously hard Scotsman down.

He died in his own doorway as he tried to escape the onslaught. But the crime would not go unpunished.

Sheffield Gang Wars'Amos Stewart, sentenced to 10 years penal servitude

Sheffield Gang Wars'Amos Stewart, sentenced to 10 years penal servitude

Both brothers hung and the authorities declared the last straw had been had. Three other men - George Wills, Amos Stewart and Stanley Harker - served 27 years between them for manslaughter. A fourth, Robert Garvin, was said to be at the scene but escaped punishment

The city wanted the violence done for good and hired the soon-to-be legendary gangbuster policeman Captain Percy Sillitoe - a man renowned for never encouraging his coppers to ask a question when they could stick a boot in.

“In actual fact,” says JP, “I argue that Sillitoe’s role in ending the trouble was far more minimal than many people believe as the gangs were already largely beaten by the time he arrived.

“But certainly when you talk of good old-fashioned policing that is exactly what was used on these gangs. Big policemen who knew how to handle themselves and, in a sense, brought an end to the violence by giving some out.”

And the end of the gangs was a nice place for JP to finish the book, giving the story an element of the self-contained. Perhaps that was why the BBC would later pick up on it, while his reputation as one of the city’s finest authors also grew.

After that JP would retire from the day job - “I’d rather not say what it was” - and write a selection of other hits including Joe Cocker’s autobiography and The Sheffield Chronicles, a day by day guide to some of the city’s more fascinating historical events.

Sheffield Gang Wars'George Wills, sentenced to 10 years penal servitude for manslaughter

Sheffield Gang Wars'George Wills, sentenced to 10 years penal servitude for manslaughter

“But I suppose I owe it all to that first book,” he says. “It’s definitely my favourite. I’m just delighted people are still reading it.”

JP Bean gives a talk about The Sheffield Gang Wars and his other books on Monday September 26 at The Greystones pub, in Greystones Road. Tickets £5.

The hardest of coppers

THE legendary police captain Percy Sillitoe might only have had minimal impact on the Sheffield Gang Wars according to author JP Bean - but his reputation as one of Britain’s hardest policemen has long since been safe.

After serving in Sheffield for five years, the Londoner was appointed chief constable of Glasgow in a bid to break the city’s notorious razor gang problem.

This he successfully did, using the same tactics of fists first, questions later, which had been employed in South Yorkshire. With a powerful reputation for taking no nonsense, he was appointed director general of MI5, the UK’s internal security service in 1946.

It was not an easy role - not least because he had no time for what he called the ‘book-learned intelligence” of many of MI5’s officers and they didn’t have much time for a cockney hard man outsider.

Still, when he left the service in 1953, his tenure was widely regarded as a success. He died in Eastbourne in 1962.

How Cocker and Bean became friends

IT was five years after The Sheffield Gang Wars was published that JP Bean met Joe Cocker at the city’s Crosspool Tavern. The singer had been the writer’s teenage hero and JP proposed he should write his biography.

“Joe more or less agreed straight away,” he says. “But he was living in America at this point so it was never going to be easy.

“But a year later he was on a tour of Germany and he said come along. It was an incredible experience. Being on holiday with your hero. Money can’t buy that. We did extensive interviews for the book, and we’ve remained friends since.”

The book was published in 1990 and, despite disappointing sales, an updated version came out in 2004.

And that’s not the only musical legend JP’s worked with. It was after showing Richard Hawley an old map of Sheffield that the troubadour named his 2009 album Truelove’s Gutter - one of the places on said map.

“That was a lovely touch,” says JP.