Glasgow’s gangsters: Arthur Thompson – the Godfather

15 MAR 2017

Veteran crime reporter Ron McKay looks at the life of one of Glasgow’s most infamous gangland leaders.


The transition from old to new was swift and brutal.

Three shots at close range from a .22 pistol hit young Arthur Thompson, the first bullet grazing his cheek, the second smashing into his ribs, puncturing a lung, the third, deliberately fired into his anus, tearing through his gut and piercing his heart.

It was a late summer evening, the 31-year-old gangster was only six hours out of Noranside prison on a weekend parole, he had just eaten a curry, he was steps away from safety when the three-man hunting party struck outside the family home.

His father, Old Arthur, the head of the most notorious Glasgow crime family, found him on the pavement outside the Ponderosa, as it was called, after the ranch in the popular 1970s cowboy series Bonanza.

Arthur Thompson Senior as a young man (Photo: Media Scotland)

It was hardly that, just two former council houses in Provanmill Road, bought, lashed together and titivated with bijou add-ons. Junior had tried to crawl to it even as his life seeped away. His limp, heavy body was rushed to the Royal Infirmary. In vain. The heir was dead. And the empire was crumbling.

For more than 30 years Arthur Thompson Snr had been the undisputed major crime figure in Glasgow, the Godfather, numero uno, although his name then wasn’t widely known. He preferred discretion, doing his business in the shadows, not for him spraying his money about and hanging out in the city clubs, cultivating reporters and TV stars like the young rogues who would displace him.

Thompson was born in Springburn in 1931 to a modest and law-abiding family. It was the year Ramsey MacDonald won a landslide election victory heading a party of national government, Hitler was seizing power in Germany, it was the year Abbey Road studios opened and Celtic goalkeeper John Thompson died after an on-field clash at Ibrox against Rangers.

Paul Ferris leaves Glasgow High Court (Photo: Media Scotland)

Growing up through the Second World War young Arthur was handy with his fists, better with a blade, and he earned himself a ferocious reputation. Although he wasn’t very tall, pushing 5’9”, he was broad and mean, with a flattened nose and a chilling, thousand-yard stare.

Arthur’s start in crime was as a strong arm for money lenders, the business he moved into on his own as he left his teens. He had a failsafe method of collection. Those who didn’t pay up promptly were usually crucified, nailed to the floor or to a door.

He also became a friend and enforcer for the Krays. There’s a story, or legend, that he made himself known to them by bursting into a club they drank in, the Double R, brandishing a gun and shouting, “I’m Arthur Thompson, from Glasgow. Remember my name”.

Paul Ferris (Photo: Media Scotland)

For a time he was involved in heists and bank robbery, with a crew which included safecracker Paddy Meehan, later to be wrongly jailed (and subsequently pardoned) for murder. He served an 18-month sentence for extortion, but decided that prison wasn’t for him and he would put his money mainly into legitimate businesses, dancehalls and pubs, always through nominees.

But violence was never far away.

In the 1960s he was at war with another crime family, the Welshes, from Blackhill. In 1966 he dodged death when a bomb under the passenger seat of his car killed his mother-in-law. Shortly after, out driving, he spotted the two men he believed were responsible, Patrick Welsh and his associate James Goldie, and ran their van off the road and into a lamppost. Both men died, Arthur was charged with their murder but, unsurprisingly, the police were unable to persuade witnesses to testify. Just to keep it in the family, three years later Arthur’s wife Rita barged her way into Welsh home and stabbed Patrick Welsh’s wife in the chest. She served three years.

Billy Thompson, son of Arthur (Photo: Media Scotland)

The Welsh name, like that of Thompson, runs like a poisoned river through Glasgow crime. Paul Ferris, who was to be charged with young Arthur’s murder, was bullied by the Welshes when he was developing his crime moves in Blackhill. He retaliated brutally, a slashing and a scalping were involved, which was what brought him to the attention of Arthur, who hired him, treated him like another son, and put him to work as an enforcer and debt collector. A fateful mistake.

The sobriquet ‘Godfather’ is now ritually slapped on to any crime figure who hits the headlines, but there are similarities between the Thompsons and the Corleone family in the films and Mario Puzo novel. Sonny Corleone is ambushed and shot down. Like Arty. There is a weak younger son in both families, Fredo a fictional parallel to Billy Thompson, ridiculed and too weak to take over as clan leader, heroin-addicted, assaulted and stabbed several times, although, unlike Fredo, he survives.

By the 1980s the big money in crime was in drugs, heroin particularly, which flooded the city. The market then was reckoned to be worth £300 million. It was bonanza for the Ponderosa. No matter that with it came hundreds of overdose deaths, including Thompson’s daughter Margaret. Billy, too, took to the needle, both supplied by Arty, now head of the clan, swimming in cash and, unlike his father, highly visible and conspicuously wealthy. But also a target for those who wanted to take him down and take over.

The foundations of a coup were laid in 1985 when Fat Boy was sentenced to 11 years for supplying heroin. He believed he had been set up, and he probably was.

The wreckage after the car bomb which killed Arthur Thompson’s mother in law, Maggie Johnston (Photo: Media Scotland)

A police stakeout saw him delivering to a street supplier in Easterhouse, John ‘Blind Jonah’ McKenzie (then with one eye, the second would be knifed out later!). Thompson spotted the set-up and drove off at high speed with the police giving chase, chucking packets of heroin from the the window as he dodged in and out of traffic.

But with the son banged-up and Old Arthur’s malign influence waning, his bevvying spiralling, other gangs and godfathers now began to unpick the Thompson empire. The old Godfather had reach, however, and might still pose problems. So he had to be removed.

Two attempts were made to take him out. In 1985 he was shot in the groin outside the Ponderosa. He managed to drive himself to the private Ross Hall hospital on the outskirts of the city, where he claimed, in legendary hard man style, that a drill bit had snapped and pierced his groin, a story he retold to the police who inevitably turned up to interview him.

The Ponderosa in Provanmill Road (Photo: Media Scotland)

Then three years later, returning alone from his local pub, the Provanmill Inn, he was run over by a car driven by two men, and rammed up against a fence, again outside the Ponderosa. They also fired several shots at him, missing, but throwing down the pistol, hoping to incriminate him. Thompson suffered a broken leg. He would later say in the witness box, as he would about the murder of his son, that baby-faced Paul Ferris was responsible.

That testimony, breaking the risible gangster code of omerta, marked the end. The 30-year reign of Glasgow’s Godfather was over.

In 1993 he would die aged 61, in the most unlikely circumstances, of natural causes, in his bed in the Ponderosa. A daughter had passed before him, his youngest boy was a pathetic junkie, his eldest, named after him, had been gunned down and the man he believed had shot him, Ferris, had walked free after the longest and most costly trial in Scottish legal history.

Thompson’s first adult prison sentence (18mnth) in 1953.

He was also involved in several bank robberies by Bobby Campbell’s crew. The money Thompson made he invested in businesses. A smart move, a rarity in those days. He also formed his own crew with Teddy Martin and Paddy Meehan. After a sloppy robbery Meehan and Thompson were caught. Meehan was sentenced to six years in prison, Thompson got three. Back outside Thompson was expanding his criminal contacts. These contacts would eventually lead him to London where he would do jobs for London crews. At one point the Kray twins wanted the Glasgow guy out of their city. According to underworld legend Thompson walked into their hangout, the Double R club, and asked to see the Kray twins. When the two brothers came to see him Thompson pulled out a sawed off shot gun and pointed it at them. He then allegedly said: “My name is Arthur Thompson from Glasgow. You’ll no’ forget me.”

Thompson had a huge reputation on the streets of Britain, and especially Glasgow. When a man owed him money and it was clear he couldn’t pay him back Thompson nailed the man to the floor, literally

Arthur Thompson never talked about religion. He was a protestant though and supported the Loyalist movement in Northern Ireland. Through his Loyalist contacts in Belfast he ran tens of thousands of fake pounds through the banks every month. Thompson also started supplying the UDA Loyalists with weapons. If this became known, he would be a dead man. The IRA would hunt him down and kill him. The gun running brought Thompson into a tight position, British secret service MI5 was ready to pull the noose around his neck. When Thompson was arrested in 1968 for a warehouse robbery MI5 offered him a deal. Either he cooperated or he faced life in prison and the threat from the IRA and UDA (who might want him silenced just to be sure.) If he cooperated Thompson could continue his criminal business. Especially his UDA gunrunning, which he needed to report about to MI5. Thompson took the deal and was sentenced to four years for the warehouse job.

After he got his get-out-of-jail-free card Thompson started smuggling drugs. In 1970 his first heroin shipment came in. By the 1980s Thompson’s son Arthur Jr. nicknamed Fatboy (photo of the left) was running the drug operations of the Thompson family. Also around this time, a young man by the name of Paul Ferris started working for Thompson Sr. They had an enemy in common in the Welsh family. Ferris had scalped one Welsh member and slashed the throat of another. Ferris had been bullied for years by the Welsh family and at one point decided enough was enough. Ferris and another young man by the name of Tam Bagan began collecting debts for Thompson Sr. 

Then Fatboy was ripped off in a drug deal. Father and son expected 200,000 pounds but got a brick wrapped in newspaper and a bottle of Irn-Bru. The Thompsons were pissed off and sent out Ferris to get their money and inflict damage on the rippers. Ferris received a list of names which he should go after. Ferris did. Every week Ferris left wounded on the street in search of the rip-team. At one point Arthur Thompson Sr gave Ferris the name of the guy who was behind all this “no doubt.” Ferris went after him. When he saw him in his car in front of a stop light Ferris stepped out, confronted the man by asking him if he was Raymond Bonnar. Bonnar replied “What’s it to you?” Ferris replied: “I’m Paul Ferris, and you’re in trouble.” Ferris pulled out a knife and began stabbing Bonnar in the arm and chest through the car window. Bonnar’s dog bit Ferris, so Ferris stabbed the dog. Then Bonnar put his car into gear and took off. Ferris got into his car and sped after him but decided to leave it at that when he saw all the people around.

Pretty soon cops showed up at the Thompson household looking for Ferris. Thompson Sr and Jr were getting nervous. They sent Ferris to their summer flat in Rothesay on the holiday Island of Bute. Ferris thought he was safe. Little did he know that Arthur Thompson had given him up to the police. Cops raided the summer home and found drugs inside. Ferris was arrested and one of the charges was dealing in Class A drugs. Bonnar had withdrawn all charges so Ferris would only face the drug charges. Ferris was found not guilty of the drug charge. The jury believed the cops had planted the drugs there. But he was found guilty of a lesser weapon charge which normally carried a 6 month sentence, Ferris got 18 months. After getting out of prison Ferris broke away from the Thompsons.

By the late 1980s there were a few attempts on Arthur Thompson Sr’s life. They failed, but gave the message that Thompson wasn’t untouchable. His reputation was crumbling. Fatboy by this time had made a list of people he wanted killed, among them was Paul Ferris. In August of 1991 while out on weekend leave Arthur “Fatboy” Thompson Jr was shot dead in front of the Thompson home. He was shot in the cheek first, the second bullet went through his rib cage and punctured a lung, the third bullet went up Fatboy’s anus.

Arthur Thompson’s son, his heir, was gone. Bodies would litter the streets the papers wrote. The man generally acknowledged to be the killer of Fatboy is Paul Ferris. By this point Ferris and his two good friends Joe Hanlon and Bobby Glover were operating their own crew. With the help of Tam “The Licensee” McGraw Hanlon and Glover were taken off the streets and murdered. They were put in Joe Hanlon’s car in front of the Cottage Bar. Fatboy Thompson’s funeral cortège would come past this route. It was Arthur Thompson’s last display of strength. Paul Ferris went to trial for the murder of Fatboy Thompson. At this trial Arthur Thompson Sr testified and pointed out Paul Ferris as the killer. It showed how weak he had become. On the streets he was no match for Ferris, but in prison Thompson could pay anyone a nice sum to take out Ferris. That is why he testified. But Paul Ferris was found not guilty. As he stepped outside the court house there were people lining the street cheering. After that Thompson lived in fear of his life. He had no real power anymore. On March 13, 1993 he died of a heart attack.

SOURCE: The Last Godfather: The Life And Crimes of Arthur Thompson – by Reg McKay




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