The Race Track GangsWritten by Dirk Kirby
During World War One, racing had been largely curtailed, but with the cessation of hostilities there came a boom period in racing. There had always been lawless behaviour at the tracks. Previously, crooked bookmakers had employed bodyguards to back them up, since they would pay out only when they had profited and could afford it. Not only was welshing on bets very common, hardly any control was exercised at race meetings and practically anybody could set up business as a bookmaker. Added to this, the race meetings were plagued by gangs who travelled the country. The Bethnal Green Mob, the Hoxton Gang, the Italian Mob, the Birmingham Boys and their allies, the Leeds Crowd were some of the worst. Now the bookmakers were becoming victims. The gangs threatened them for money and the bookmakers in turn, recruited protection from the other gangs. In the frenzied attacks that followed, weapons of every description, including firearms, were used, resulting in the most appalling injuries being inflicted. Punters, too, were bullied into purchasing worthless raffle tickets 'for a mate gone to prison' by the racetrack gangs. Epsom and Ascot were considered the worst, most lawless courses, the Jockey Club quickly realised that the gang menace was building up to far worse than it had been before the war.
The market in protection had been cornered by Billy Kimber. He was head of the Birmingham Boys (also known as the Brummagem Boys) and he was an educated and clever strategist. He controlled racecourses in the Midlands and the North, with gangs in Uttoxeter and Leeds: his gang had formed an alliance with the Leeds Crowd. He had also taken over the running of racetracks in the South of England and had set up a secondary headquarters in Islington, North London, forming a slightly uneasy alliance with the Hoxton Gang. They both, however, shared a common purpose: hatred of the Italian Mob.
A mile or so south of Kimber's London Headquarters, lay Clerkenwell. This was the province of the Italian Mob, headed by Charles 'Darby' Sabini. a tough Italian immigrant who had boxed professionally as a middle-weight. Nobody looked less like a gang leader. Living in a hovel, he dressed scruffily in a cap and scarf and was painfully uneducated. As he sauntered along Saffron Hill, grinning at the impoverished inhabitants, with his mouthful of gold teeth, he liked to portray himself as a simple peasant Robin Hood-like character, a champion to his fellow immigrants. In fact he was a simple and near illiterate thug who ran protection rackets in his immediate area, nobly aided and abetted by his equally tough brothers, George, Fred, Joe and Harryboy. Looking for a more lucrative source of income, his eyes turned towards the racetracks. But other eyes were also looking in the direction of the racetracks.
The Flying Squad had been formed in 1919 to stem the tide of post-war crime that was threatening to engulf England. It was a more fluid, mobile arm of the Metropolitan Police and quickly progressed from using horse-drawn wagons with spy-holes cut in the sides hired from the Great Western Railway. They were replaced with two Crossley tenders. formerly the property of the Royal Flying Corps, heavy, ungainly 26hp vehicles with no front brakes which, only when their engines were specially modified, could reach a speed approaching 40mph. The tenders had aerials fitted to their roofs, which consisted of five parallel wires mounted on adjustable arms which could be raised or lowered and which understandably gave rise to the Crossleys being named 'The Bedsteads'.
A year after the Squad' s inception, the Commissioner wrote his annual report to parliament: 'Some excellent work has been done by a small centralized body of detective officers. working under the direction of the Superintendents of areas, in following up and arresting or dispersing gangs of criminals who are engaged in shop and warehouse break-ins in different parts of the district.'
The Squad now turned its attentions to the racetrack gangs. Feelings, always running high between the Italians and their Brummagem adversaries, boiled over and at a race meeting at Alexandra Park, even though the Flying Squad had been in attendance, there had been a pitched battle between one hundred of the gang in which both sides had received frightful injuries and shots were fired.
Matters came to a head in the summer of 1921 on the first day of the Derby. The Birmingham Boys had decided that the Italian Mob would be taught a lesson once and for all. Having hired a charabanc, they attended the Derby and saw that the track meeting had also been favoured with a visit from the Italian Mob. However, the Flying Squad under the direction of Detective Inspector Stevens, was also in attendance, and rather than risk a confrontation with the law, the Birmingham Boys cunningly left the meeting early and set off back towards London. Near Ewell, Surrey, they backed up the charabanc behind some bushes and one of the gang sat behind the wheel of a car in a side turning nearby, just off the main road, and kept watch.
Suddenly, two cars were spotted travelling from the direction of Epsom. The hidden car drove smartly out of the turning, blocking the path of the two cars, which were filled with men who had spent the day at the Derby. As the cars screeched to a halt the Birmingham Boys rushed from the bushes, armed with axes, hammers and house-bricks. Smashing the two cars to pieces, the gang pulled out the luckless occupants and set about them, breaking their arms and slashing their heads open in front of horrified residents who screamed in sheer terror at the frenzied attack. One of the badly injured men, who, in common with all of the other occupants of the two cars, were not members of the Italian Mob at all, but members of the Leeds Crowd, the allies of the Birmingham Boys, crawled to the roadside and although he was in a terrified and confused state, he recognised some of the Birmingham Boys and realised that a shocking mistake had been made. His shouts stopped one of the Birmingham gang, who was armed with a hatchet, in his stride. 'Stop it,' he shouted, 'we're the Leeds Mob!' It was too late. By now the Birmingham Boys were in the grip of an insane blood lust and when his adversary merely remarked 'There'll be murder done today!' it was only by a gracious dispensation of providence that there wasn't.
Kicking the bookmakers into unconsciousness, the Birmingham Boys ran back to their charabanc and headed off towards London. By now, a garbled report that there had been a Sinn Fein riot at Ewell had been received by the Epsom Police.
Detective Inspector Stevens forced his way through the home-going crowds and made his way immediately to Ewell, where even he was sickened at the sight of the bookmakers' injuries. A description of the attackers and their vehicle was sent out on an 'All Stations' message.
It was a little later that Police Constable Shoesmith spotted the charabanc outside the George and Dragon public house on Kingston Hill, close to Richmond Park. He contacted his station and Police Sergeant 63V Merritt quickly made his way there, lifted up the bonnet of the coach and, to prevent the gang's escape, ripped the leads off the sparking plugs. Police Sergeant 110V Dawson, whose Superintendent had taken the highly unusual step of arming him, walked into the pub's garden where twenty-eight members of the Birmingham Boys were refreshing themselves after their exertions. Sergeant Dawson politely asked the driver of the charabanc to identify himself. The driver did so, and having learnt that the men had all traveled down from Birmingham, Sergeant Dawson courteously requested that all present should consider themselves under arrest.
All twenty-eight of the gang rose as one and started to rush Dawson, who drew his revolver and with considerable style said: 'I shall shoot the first man who tries to escape!' (The mind boggles at the thought of how this type of remark would be received by the hordes of civil liberty groups, defence lawyers, mealy-mouthed social workers and all the other rag tag and bobtail organisa-tions, who nowadays champion the cause of the criminal.) Dawson held the gang there until the Flying Squad arrived.
In the ensuing trial at the Guildford Assizes, twenty-three of the twenty-eight gang members were found guilty and were sentenced to varying terms of imprisonment of between nine months and three years penal servitude. The trial Judge, Mr Justice Rowlatt, specially commended the plucky Sergeant Dawson, as did the jury, and, in highly commending him, together with Divisional Detective Inspector Berrett and Detective Inspector Stevens, the Commissioner awarded Sergeant Dawson the princely sum of £5. When one considers that a Police Constable's weekly wage in 1921 was £3 Ss. (£3.25), it was a prize worth having.
© Dick Kirby