Cone of Silence: The Glasgow Ice Cream Wars of the 1980s

In the 1980s, Glasgow was no place to be peddling ice cream.
In the 1980s, Glasgow was no place to be peddling ice cream. / Paopano/iStock via Getty Images

Joe Steele wanted to proclaim his innocence any way he could. For him, that meant Supergluing himself to the gates of Buckingham Palace.

In April 1993, Steele, of Glasgow, Scotland, was on a supervised prison release to visit his mother in Garthamlock, a suburb of Glasgow, when he gave his escort the slip, fled to London, and was soon found by authorities after both handcuffing himself to the railings outside Queen Elizabeth's home and using an extra-strong adhesive to affix his fingers to it. It took an hour for firefighters to remove him.

In the few short days he was free, Steele managed to give several interviews in which he insisted he was innocent of murdering the six members of the Doyle family—a heinous crime for which he had spent the previous nine years in prison. Lending credence to his argument was the fact that guilty men who successfully escape from prison don’t often glue themselves in place and in full view of the public.

Steele, the Doyles, and many others had all been in the vortex of one of Scotland’s most peculiar criminal capers. It involved drugs, guns, gangs, and murder, but it hinged on an illicit underworld trade that was usually out of bounds for organized crime: Ice cream.

The Scoop

Ice cream vendors served more than ice cream in Glasgow.
Ice cream vendors served more than ice cream in Glasgow. / Cesare Ferrari/iStock via Getty Images

In the 1960s, Glasgow saw a rise in housing schemes, a slang term for the kind of tenement or low-income housing found in American cities. According to Atlas Obscura, these housing blocks were typically devoid of development once the housing was completed: Few grocery stores or any other shops joined the layout, forcing occupants to travel from the city’s edges to more densely-populated areas in order to shop.

To fill the need for basic necessities, ice cream truck vendors repurposed their vans to sell groceries, toiletries, newspapers, and other things people needed on a daily basis. Instead of going to a store, the store would come to them.

It was a novel idea in theory, but it quickly turned sour. If the vendors sold conventional goods, they’d earn a reasonable living. But if they sold stolen goods like cigarettes, they’d make even more money. By the 1970s, the ice cream trucks were offering a different kind of treat along with popsicles and fudge bars.

While there were isolated incidences of drug dealing, including heroin, those claims seem to have been largely exaggerated in the press. The trucks made enough money selling basic goods—with the occasional hot item—to keep drugs out of the picture.

Still, the illicit industry grew so large that Glasgow’s local task force, the Serious Crimes Squad, became known as the Serious Chimes Squad, after the ice cream truck jingles coming out of the speakers.

With the profits came a fierce struggle for territory. Dealers viewed the housing schemes as profitable and looked to control “their” piece of the action by any means necessary. One driver might attack another’s truck with bricks or pieces of wood, hoping to demolish their mobile storefront. If you were a driver, you kept knives or axes within arm’s reach, ready to defend your business. Sometimes trucks were targeted by low-level hooligans who just wanted to make a quick score.

Anyone involved or bearing witness to the clash of hoodlums could see that things could easily take a deadly turn. And in 1984, that’s exactly what happened.

The Big Chill

Joe Steele was convicted of the Doyle murders.
Joe Steele was convicted of the Doyle murders. / Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

Andrew Doyle, 18, was an ice cream driver in Glasgow who was merely trying to market frozen treats and home goods. By some accounts, the trouble began when he refused to peddle drugs; others reported that he didn’t have permission to operate in the housing schemes. Whatever the case, Doyle made enemies and was intimidated, threatened, and assaulted. In February 1984, someone fired through his windshield—but missed.

He refused to back down. It would prove to be a deadly decision.

At 2 a.m. on April 16, 1984, Doyle’s family home in Glasgow's Ruchazie neighborhood was targeted for arson; assailants doused part of the flat in petrol. Though it may have originated as an attempt to scare Doyle, the ensuing blaze killed him as well as his brothers, Daniel and Anthony, his sister Christine, his nephew Mark, and his father, James. (His mother, Lillian, and two other brothers, survived.)

The horrific incident had both police and the general public demanding that the perpetrators be found. Roughly four months into the investigation, detectives settled on Joe Steele, 18, and Thomas "TC" Campbell, 22, who they believed were responsible for trying to run Doyle out of the area. Another ice cream insider, William Love, told police he had overheard the men admitting to the crime. Police also reported finding a map with an “X” over the Doyle home in Campbell’s residence. Although both men insisted they were innocent and there was no forensic evidence to tie them to the crime, they each received life sentences.

Aside from the expected appeals, Steele went to considerable lengths to refute the charges. He went on a hunger strike, then snuck away during a visit to see his mother. Police found him on a roof with banners claiming he was innocent. It was the first of three escapes, including one where Steele and four other inmates slipped through a wire fence during an outdoor recreation period.

Just prior to gluing himself to Buckingham Palace, Steele told a journalist he was using the escapes as a form of expression. “If I had murdered the Doyles, I would have admitted it and done my time quietly and without any fuss, to get an early release,” he said. “But to get parole you must admit your guilt and show remorse. I cannot admit guilt or show remorse for something I didn't do."

After Love recanted—his testimony had apparently been an attempt to receive leniency for his own legal troubles—both Steele and Campbell had their cases reopened in 2001 before being exonerated in 2004.

Steele told press he never had any involvement in the ice cream scene and barely knew Campbell. (Campbell died in 2019 at the age of 66 of natural causes.)

During their prison stay, the ice cream turf wars in Glasgow began to cool down. More shops opened in the area, making the vehicles less and less likely to operate as a front for legitimate business. To date, no one has ever been charged with the Doyle murders, though there have been suspects. One, the late Gary Moore, was said to have made a deathbed confession in 2010. Moore had been on the police’s radar but was never convicted due to insufficient evidence. The claim of his confession was refuted by his widow.

Steele later said he suspected Campbell knew who was to blame but that he would never share it, possibly due to fears of retribution. Steele himself suspected a gangster named Tam McGraw, who died in 2007 and who, according to Steele, profited off the ice cream routes.

“I believe TC knew more than I did about exactly who lit that fire and destroyed so many lives in the process,” Steele said. “But we both come from a world where we lived by a code of silence, no matter what, and he has gone to his grave with that.”