16 Incle Street by Jeff Holmes – book review
Brian Hannan, local author and manager of Abbey Books in Paisley, reviews 16 Incle Street by Jeff Holmes
Few Paisley addresses are as notorious as 16 Incle Street. For it was there in 1924 that Joe Gallacher. Aged 29, slashed his wife’s throat with a razor. Ordinarily, he would have been an automatic candidate for the hangman’s noose. But the case became a cause célèbre as it highlighted the argument against capital punishment. As those against the ultimate punishment for crime fought to spare the killer the death penalty, Paisley became the centre of national interest.
Author Jeff Holmes does a fabulous job of recreating life in Paisley from 1894 – the date of Gallacher’s birth, the oldest of seven children, in Greenhill Road, a time when rumours spread of a smallpox epidemic hitting the town and suffragettes met in secret for fear out incurring the wrath of their partners – to 1934 when the imprisoned Gallagher took his own life.
In itself it’s a sad story of an era when men dominated with fist and women were deemed second-class citizens and rarely able to escape marital tyranny. A former soldier in the Argylls, Gallacher was now a riveter at Babcock & Wilcox in Porterfield Road working in a furnace where temperatures could reach 1100 deg Celsius and one slip of the tongs could lead to horrific wounds or worse. But after two years steady employment, in 1921 he was let go for taking too much time off.
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He was the kind of man inclined to drown his sorrows. But with no other work forthcoming, and separated from her husband, his wife Maggie, mother of one and with another on the way, was forced to apply for Poor Relief in June 1922. He was so enraged that she had gone off to live with her mother in Incle Street that, on gaining entry to those premises, he smashed all the furniture she had managed to remove from their shared property in Love Street.
It wasn’t the first time he had been in trouble with the law for his intemperate behaviour and violent character and failing to keep up maintenance payments. Two of his applications for poor relief were denied due to his “bad character”. After a stint as a miner in Clackmannanshire he was back in unemployment, but, despite his struggles to find a job, his wife agreed to take him back if he could find a house to live in rather than a flat. But that meant finding – and keeping – a job.
In truth, he suffered from what we would now term depression and carried around an open razor, talking about doing himself in. Instead, in another row with his wife he cut her throat and wounded their baby Thomas. On remand in Greenock Prison, Gallacher initially pleaded insanity, though changed that to not guilty The trial began on April 24, 1924, at Glasgow High Court. When, at the conclusion of the trial, Judge Lord Alness placed the small black square of material on his head, the onlookers guessed the verdict: death. A date was set for the hanging: May 20.
That he did not was testimony to one of the most extraordinary campaigns ever mounted against the death penalty. Instead, he was sentenced to life and hard labour at Peterhead, the country’s most notorious institute, a “convict prison” rather than an ordinary jail, where only the most serious offenders were housed. It was a dangerous place, gang warfare rife, inhabitants with no chance of reprieve having little to lose by attacking each other or the warders, flogging with the cat o’ nine tails still used as punishment, guards shooting prisoners attempting to escape.
Astonishingly, given his crime, he was put in charge of the prison’s razor supply, responsible for keeping them sharpened, handing them out and keeping tabs on them. He didn’t complete his sentence. After a decade in prison, he drowned himself.
Holmes touches on key aspects of life in Paisley at the time, from the annual “Hospital Saturday” parade, to the joy of going to the pictures, kids playing at cowboys and Indians, the aftermath still being felt of World War One, mill workers, the family set-up with unmarried adults living at home in cramped conditions, the desperate poverty, the struggle to survive on low wages (he often specifies just how little people earned), pub life, the job of policeman, the defunct Abercorn F.C., and the birth of the modern prison system.
This is a beautifully written book, and you almost want to cry for the lives torn apart, as the author makes sense of a case that many people will have heard about without being aware of the circumstances.
16 Incle Street by Jeff Holmes is on sale at Abbey Books, 21 Wellmeadow Street, Paisley PA1 2EF, priced £7.99.