‘the ugliest town in the world.’
The labyrinth back alleys of Sheffield after the First World War meant home grown criminals could strike and vanish with ease. Boys that had grown up in inner city poverty had evolved into gangs that turned their urban environment to their advantage. Returning soldiers, now trained to kill, found unemployment lines instead of victory parades. Some had returned with bayonets and enemy guns and decided that if ‘civvy’ street wouldn’t pay, criminal life might.
Sheffield’s gangland inspired 1920s nickname
Just 556 police were expected to keep a lid on a population of half a million. In 1921 nearly 70,000 men were jobless. The munitions factories that had supplied the massive bombardments of the war had declined with the peace. This fall in demand combined with a global steel depression. For an industrial city dependent on steel production, the effect was devastating.
Sheffield’s 15,000 crowded back to back houses, with families sharing outside toilets, meant poverty and crime infected its cobbled streets and dimly lit courtyards. As the local paper, the Sheffield Mail, reported at the time,
‘There is probably no city in the country where the housing problem is so acute as in Sheffield.’
What passed for a welfare system was, not surprisingly, utterly overwhelmed. For many, one small glimmer of hope in such depressed times was gambling. But only gambling on the horses was legal.
PITCH AND TOSS
Huge sums of money were bet on the toss of a coin in a game called ‘Pitch and Toss’. Jack White, a publican from Barnsley, was known to regularly bet £50 on the single flip of a coin. It required just three coins to play, placed at the end of your fingers and tossed. With no equipment to set up and dismantle, it was cheap, quick and could easily escape detection. The number one site for games was on a hill called Skye Edge. Its location meant the gangs that controlled the game could easily see any approaching police. Hundreds of people would gather to take part.
The organisers of the ring took 4 shillings in the pound as a toll paid, appropriately enough, to the ‘toller’. This would pay for the ‘pikers’ or ‘crows’, the lookouts that made sure the police or rival gangs were spotted in time. The main man in charge of the Skye Edge patch was George Mooney. And to enforce his patch, violence, even murder, was employed.
But there’s one thing worse than a gangland boss controlling a city. And that’s two gang bosses competing to control that city. And between 1923 and 1928, that’s what spilt onto the streets of Sheffield. The steel city was about to earn another nickname, ‘Little Chicago’.