Sir Percy J. Sillitoe – A Biography

Sir Percy J. Sillitoe

The effect of Percy Sillitoe being appointed Chief Constable of Glasgow on 22 December 1931, was not just a turning point in the history of the City of Glasgow Police but also a milestone in Scottish policing, particularly for the police forces of the West of Scotland

Percy Joseph Sillitoe was born in London in 1888.   As a boy, he was a chorister at St. Paul ‘s Catherdral but his formal schooling was sparse and at 21 years of age he signed up with the British South Africa Police in Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe ).  

During the First World War he served in Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia ) and Nyasaland (now Tanzania ), learning to speak Swahili fluently.  In 1922, after having contracted rheumatic fever, he resigned his commission and returned to Britain to recover from the debilitating illness.  He was thirty-four years of age and had no idea what job would await him.

In 1923, with no previous British Police experience, he was appointed Chief Constable of Chesterfield.  He began by reorganizing the force and persuading the Watch Committee to build a new police and fire station, raising some of the finance by eliciting a retaining fee for the fire service from the surrounding local authorities.

Two years later Percy Sillitoe was appointed Chief Constable of the East Riding Constabulary in Yorkshire on a salary of £780 per annum (£15 per week!).  He was disappointed that the county was peaceful and law-abiding, except for the occasional drunk or poacher.  He did not relish the lack of challenges in the post and when the City of Sheffield advertised for a Chief Constable, he applied for the job.

On 1 May 1926, he took up the post of Chief Constable of Sheffield and was immediately thrust into the chaos of the General Strike.  He gained valuable experience in dealing with a number of street gangs in Sheffield , utilising teams of police officers and enlisting the support of the Council and Magistracy.  He also introduced police boxes to the city, extended the duties and numbers of female officers and established a police forensic laboratory, a scheme of improvements he would repeat in Glasgow.

The Chief Constable of Glasgow since 1922 was Andrew Donnan Smith, but when he took ill and died on 19 June 1931, Assistant Chief Constable Auchterlonie Williamson commanded the force, while the Corporation tried to find a replacement chief.  There were over thirty applicants for the post, but when the final vote was taken only Percy Sillitoe ( Sheffield ) and Superintendent Thomas McClure (Western Division, Glasgow) remained.  Percy Sillitoe received the appointment.

He took up office on 22 December 1931 and immediately made it clear that he was proud to be chosen to lead the United Kingdom ‘s second largest police force and took no time in letting his officers know that he saw his task as being to modernise the force.  He lived with his wife and daughter at 3 Kirklee Road, Kelvinside, Glasgow, during his time as Chief Constable.

Within three weeks of his appointment, he addressed a meeting of 1500 Glasgow Police officers in the City Hall. He proposed a competition with a prize of five guineas to the officer who submitted the best plan of divisional reorganisation.  He also outlined his plan to establish a modernised police box system to improve communications.  His most controversial instruction was that thirty-five long serving and high-ranking officers should retire to make way for younger men.

On 17 October 1932, he announced that the winner of the competition was Constable William Ratcliffe of the Central Division (later Asst. Chief Constable).  His plan reduced the number of divisions from eleven to seven. Four divisions merged with their neighbouring divisions and St. Rollox, Western, Queen’s Park and the original Marine Division ceased to exist.   The savings made by closing the old offices was ploughed into new technology such as the establishment of the Fingerprint and Photographic Branch.

He brought Detective Sergeant Bertie Hammond from Sheffield to provide expertise in establishing the facility, which would later be known as the Identification Bureau.

Percy Sillitoe is perhaps remembered for his endeavours to deal with gang violence and protection rackets in Glasgow .  Using the experience he gained in Sheffield with a similar problem, he enlisted the support of the Glasgow Corporation, the Magistrates and the Procurator Fiscal.  This, coupled with his support for his officers in dealing with large street fights, and the use of the Mounted Branch (nicknamed ‘Sillitoe’s Cossacks’), led to the break up of the organized gangs and the imprisonment of many of their leaders.

Chief Constable Sillitoe was a strong supporter of women in the police.  The Glasgow force had an establishment of eleven policewomen (all in plainclothes), whose duties were to deal primarily with indecency cases.  These officers were stationed at divisional headquarters throughout the city.  In 1932 he recommended that the establishment should be increased to fifteen and that one policewoman should be promoted to Sergeant.  In 1933, Jean Malloy was promoted to the sergeant’s post and became the first woman to hold the rank in Scotland .  In 1945, she was promoted Inspector and was later awarded the British Empire Medal for distinguished service.

Between 1932 and 1936, extensive experimentation was carried out to perfect two-way radio in Glasgow Police vehicles.  Despite protestations from the British radio industry, Chief Constable Sillitoe brought a sample vehicle radio from New York in 1932 and cars were soon fitted with radios to transmit Morse code and speech.  By May 1936, twenty-nine Police vehicles were equipped with wireless communication.  This was seen as positive response to the increased mobility of criminals at that time.  This innovative wireless system, based in Glasgow , covered twelve county and ten burgh police forces, more than the area now policed by Strathclyde Police.

Glasgow Police beat constables and sergeants wore helmets, but, before 1932, the cap worn by Glasgow Police officers, when carrying out duties such as mounted patrol, traffic patrol etc., was plain and indistinguishable from those of other Corporation employees.  Being aware of the problem, Chief Constable Sillitoe, arranged for the Glasgow Police Mounted Branch to test the suitability of a black and white chequered cap band.  The cap band would be unique to the Police.  The test was a success and, in August 1932, he announced that the cap band would be issued to all officers who wore caps.  The use of the design, known as ‘The Sillitoe Tartan’, has spread throughout the United Kingdom and to many countries of the World.

Percy Sillitoe commanded the Glasgow Police through the challenges and devastation of the Second World War, and in the New Year Honours List of 1942, he was awarded a knighthood. 

Senior officers say farewell to Sir Percy Sillitoe – 1943

He resigned from Glasgow Police on 28 February 1943 to take over the newly amalgamated Kent police forces, part of the preparations for the Allies’ invasion of Europe .

In 1946, Sir Percy Sillitoe was appointed Director-General of MI5 and was in post during the first seven years of the Cold War.  He retired in August 1953 and took a post investigating the illicit trafficking in diamonds on behalf of the famous De Beers Diamond Corporation in Southern Africa .

He lived out his retirement in Eastbourne and died in 1962 at the age of seventy four.