When the detectives of the Scottish Regional Crime Squad, with their characteristic thoroughness, began enquiries into the whereabouts of suspected murderer James Griffiths little did they know where they would lead. What began as a follow-up enquiry to the murder of a pensioner, exploded into an armed house siege, a murderous pursuit through Glasgow City streets and a fatal showdown between the police and a career criminal. It was the worst criminal incident the City had seen since the I.R.A. attack on the police van in 1921.
The story begins in the seaside town of Ayr in the early hours of Saturday 5 July 1969, when two men broke into the house occupied by Abraham (67) and Rachel Ross (72), at 2 Blackburn Place. The pensioners were roughly manhandled and tied up by the men who threatened them with violence if they did not find money in the house. Abraham tried to resist and was felled by a savage blow to his head. The men searched the house and got away with the couple’s life savings (almost £1000) from under a mattress, and fled the scene in a motor car.
Rachel was unconscious, but Abraham tried to call for help, but his weak calls remained unanswered for many hours, until neighbours, suspecting something was wrong, called the police and the old couple were taken to hospital. Rachel Ross died three days later and the robbery enquiry became one of murder.
It was not long before the detectives of the Scottish Crime Squad, Ayrshire Constabulary and the City of Glasgow Police began making progress. Their perseverance brought information from Glasgow’s criminal fraternity about two men. One of the men named was James Griffiths, aged 34, originally from Rochdale, Lancashire. He had a violent past and while in Glasgow had assumed the name of James Douglas, although he could not hide his strong Lancashire accent.
About 9am on Tuesday 15 July 1969, following information that Griffiths had rented a small attic flat at 14 Holyrood Cresent, Glasgow, just off Great Western Road near Kelvinbridge, detectives made discrete enquiries with the caretaker of the flats. Although he confirmed that ‘Mr. Douglas’ was renting the attic flat, he provided no further information. The officers took observations on the building and called on their fellow detectives for assistance.
About 10.30am that day, five detectives, some from the Scottish Crime Squad, ascended the stairs to the top flat at 14 Holyrood Crescent. As one of the officers knocked on the door, a fusillade of shots exploded through the door, wounding Detective Constable William Walker. The officer fell and was dragged away by his colleagues. The detectives were obliged to retreat as they were unarmed, and when they emerged into the street below, they came under heavy fire from the attic windows. Two civilian pedestrians were wounded as they passed along nearby streets.
Although assistance came quickly and armed police laid siege to the flat, the shooting had stopped. At the time of this incident, there were no Tactical Firearms Teams like today. Uniformed officers and detectives with revolvers took cover in surrounding streets and Superintendent Alastair Petrie and other members of the Glasgow Police Rifle Club, with their .22 Martini rifles, also responded to the call. The officers waited, but Griffiths, who had appeared only once in the window, disappeared. Having scrambled across the rooftops and evading the police cordon, he reappeared at Kelvinbridge, scattering a group of onlookers with shots, thankfully without injury.
He made his way to Henderson Street where James Kerr, a sales representative, was sitting in his Ford Anglia car outside the Grapes Bar. Griffiths fired his shotgun through the side window of the car, hitting Mr. Kerr on his left shoulder. Mr. Kerr exited the vehicle and Griffiths drove off. Staff in the nearby pub heard the shots and saw Mr. Kerr staggering in, covered in blood. They called immediately the police,
Griffiths drove the car the car at break-neck speed through the city streets, but crashed it in Carnbroe Street, near Possil Road, and entered the Round Toll Bar.
Like a scene from a Western movie, Griffiths stood in the bar brandishing his two guns menacingly at the frightened customers. Griffiths warned everyone in the bar not to move, but one customer, William Hughes, aged 65, moved nervously and Griffiths shot and fatally wounded him. Griffiths then demanded a bottle of brandy and as he drank from it, the pub manager, James Connolly grabbed hold of him and, just as he had done many of times on a Friday night, threw him through the door and out into the street!
Griffiths burst through the doors again and fired a number of shots inside, but fortunately did not hit anyone. Drawn to the pub by the sound of shots, a crowd gathered and a passing lorry driver, John Craig drew up his lorry in the street outside. At that point, Griffiths emerged from the pub firing more shots and was tackled by a passer-by, Ian Shaw, who was wounded in the struggle. Griffiths then jumped into the driver’s seat of the lorry and sped off up Possil Road.
Meanwhile, with the assistance of a radio taxi driver, Alex Gibb, the Maryhill Divisional Landrover Foxtrot-7, with Chief Superintendent Malcolm Finlayson and a number of other officers on board, picked up Griffith’s trail in the stolen lorry. They converged on Kay Street; a cul-de-sac off Springburn Road where the lorry was found abandoned and, as the officers cautiously approached the vehicle, shots rang out from a top-floor flat at No. 26.
Griffiths had burst into the top floor flat and, thankfully, found it empty. He began firing indiscriminately at the men, women and children in Kay Street. It was during the school holidays and the police had great difficulty herding the large number of children to safety. Undaunted, Griffiths began firing out of the rear of the flat into the children’s playground in Elmvale Street. In the playground, a large number of children were enjoying the sunshine with their parents, but this was brought to a sudden end when Griffiths shots began finding their mark. Mrs. Irene Reid sustained a leg wound while 8 years old Peter Traynor received a superficial wound to his stomach.
Decisive action was required without delay to stop the carnage and Chief Superintendent Finlayson had no hesitation in deciding that he, accompanied by Detective Sergeant Ian Smith, would try to stop Griffith’s reign of terror.
Cautiously, both officers climbed the stairs to the top flat and there they saw the lock violently wrenched from the door. Chief Superintendent Finlayson gently pushed open the door of the flat, noiselessly inch by inch. Well aware that Griffith’s guns could penetrate the door he was using as makeshift cover, Mr. Finlayson kept watch through the open letter box and saw Griffiths approach the hallway. At that point he carried a terrible responsibility and the lives of many people depended on him…. he could take no further risk that others would be shot by the crazed gunman.
As Griffiths entered the hallway and looked towards the door, Chief Superintendent Finlayson put the barrel of the .38 revolver through the letter box, took very careful aim and fired one shot at the gunman’s shoulder.
Griffiths dropped to the floor and Mr. Finlayson and Detective Sergeant Smith practically fell through the door in their haste to disarm the mortally wounded gunman. They kicked his guns aside and saw Griffiths fall to one side, dead. It was later established that the fatal police bullet had entered Griffith’s shoulder, ricocheted off a bone and sliced through his aorta artery, the main artery of his heart. A pathologist would later pronounce that the fatal path of the bullet was a ‘chance in a thousand’.
In a matter of ninety minutes, Griffiths had mortally wounded William Hughes, besides wounding one detective and eleven men, women and children on the streets of Glasgow.
In modern times, James Griffiths was the first criminal killed by a Scottish police officer in the execution of his duty and, initially, this posed a legal problem for the Crown Office. This was quickly overcome and no fatal accident enquiry took place into Griffith’s death. Instead, both the public and the officials of the Crown were of the opinion that the police shooting of Griffiths was the only way he could have been stopped from killing others and that the police officers and members of the public who had performed many acts of bravery that July day deserved to be recognised.
As a consequence, Chief Superintendent Malcolm Finlayson was awarded the Member of the British Empire (Gallantry) and Detective Sergeant Ian Smith the British Empire Medal (Gallantry) by the Queen at Buckingham Palace. Both officers, together with Detective Constables William Gow and George Fuller received the Glasgow Corporation Medal for Bravery. Some civilians, who were also recognised for their acts of bravery were John Preston (ambulance driver), James Connolly (manager of Round Toll Bar) and Ian Shaw (attempted to detain Griffiths in Possil Road) at a ceremony in Glasgow City Chambers on 30 March 1970.
Chief Superintendent Finlayson retired from the Glasgow Police on 3 January 1971 with 38 years Police Service. A keen hill walker, he moved to the Isle of Skye after the death of his wife. He died there in 1994, aged 83.
Detective Sergeant Ian Smith progressed through the ranks of the C.I.D., reaching the rank of Detective Superintendent in Strathclyde Police. He retired on 18 November 1984, having completed 33 years Police Service. He died in 1998 at the age of 73 years.
In 2003, the families of both officers agreed to have their medals and photographs displayed in the Glasgow Police Museum, alongside details of the incident with which their bravery will always be associated.
© GPHS 2004