Atlantic Cities
Videos

Death Served Cold: Revisiting the Bloody 'Glasgow Ice-Cream Wars'

In many neighborhoods, the distant music of an ice-cream truck brings happy anticipation of frozen delights.

But in 1980s-era Scotland, the sound was sometimes a signal to other drivers to grab a weapon and lock and load, because stuff was about to get ugly.

I learned about the "Glasgow Ice-Cream Wars" after stumbling across this video of two drivers resolving a dispute the glass-breaking way. One man smashes his rival's windshield, the other guy drives into his opponent's truck, and it's clear that not all is well in the world of mobile-dessert delivery in Scotland:

But it was once so much worse. That's because enemy gangs in Glasgow's East End had discovered that ice-cream trucks were not just great for selling "pokey hats" and "ice lollies" but more adult-themed treats, too, in flavors of cigarette, heroin and stolen goods. Naturally, such valuable merch had to be protected. So opposing factions began staking out parts of the city in the early '80s, mercilessly punishing anybody who invaded their territories.

It might have been funny to outsiders to hear of vendors of dairy-based sweets going tooth and nail at each other. But to anybody who lived in Glasgow, the almost daily acts of intimidation and violence were no doubt tiresome. The Glasgow Serious Crime Squad, due to its reported ineffectiveness at quashing the mayhem, earned the humiliating monicker of "Serious Chimes Squad." By the ostensible end of the Wars around 1984, the known body count was six, all burned alive.

Glasgow criminals are a hard lot. To give you an idea of the class of villain the city can breed, look no further than Arthur Thompson, the "Godfather of Glasgow," a loan shark who was reputed to "crucify those who did not repay their debts, by nailing them to floors or doors.” In the ice-cream racket, a big-time player was Tommy Campbell, the son of a safe-cracker who grew up in the central-city 'hood of Cowcaddens. Here's how the Sunday Herald describes his gangland childhood:

Like everyone else he carried a knife - and used it. He was first stabbed when he was 15, he says, offering to show me where his guts spilled out. After that he was knifed regularly. In a book he has co-written with Reg McKay, a former social worker, he remembers sitting in a pub when he was 17 and being attacked three times by someone wielding a hammer. 'Everyone who had seen it thought they had witnessed my murder and couldn't believe I hardly felt it,' he recalls.

After he finished a prison stint in 1983, Campbell decided to try his hand at slinging cream. It was a fine paycheck: Selling ciggies and hot property while his organ warbled happy tunes could make him £350 a week. For a while he made a decent job of it, steering his van through down-and-out areas like Ruchazie and Haghill. He even got a nickname: the "Emperor of Carntyne." Then Campbell met Andrew Doyle.

The lad was 18 years old, ballsy and allegedly worked for the Marchetti brothers, a competing ice-cream faction that wasn't cool with releasing their long-held turf. Doyle refused to budge from his route. A little while later, someone blew out the windows of his truck with a shotgun.

That's when things came to a head. According to the original accounts of the police, in 1984 Campbell's crew made a plan to frighten Doyle by setting his apartment on fire. Somebody splashed gasoline around in the cellar, which ignited chemicals and tires, and soon the entire home was in flames and pumping out black smoke. One of the survivors later said that the screaming of the Doyle family "seemed to have been going on for hours. It was a living hell." Nine family members were there that night, but only three walked out. Among Scottish criminals, only serial killer Peter Manuel has done worse.

The conviction of Campbell and mate Joseph Steele on murder charges is a story in itself. It was later found that a police informant lied on the stand to link the Emperor of Carntyne to the arson. After fighting a long legal battle, which included Steele escaping jail and Super Gluing himself to the gates of Buckingham Palace, in 2004 both men were acquitted of a life sentence due to a "miscarriage of justice," making them true jammy bastards. The true killer/s of the Doyles are still unknown.

Anyway, that's all something to think about the next time you're enjoying an ice-cream cone.

John Metcalfe is a staff writer at The Atlantic Cities. All posts »

Join the Discussion