Unsolved Murders

Robert Johnston

Age: unknown

Sex: male

Date: 4 May 1921

Place: High Street, Glasgow

Source: www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk

Robert Johnston was shot in an ambush on a police convoy by the IRA in High Street, Glasgow. They had been trying to release a prisoner who was being transported.

13 Men were tried for conspiracy and murder but were either found not guilty or the charges against them were found not proven.

The indictment against them read that they conspired with other people to further the objects of Sinn Fein by unlawful use of force and violence, and especially by means of explosives, firearms etc., to the danger of the lives and persons and property of the lieges; that they conspired to release from custody of the police authorities Frank Carty, alias Frank Somers, a member of the Irish Republican Army, who had been arrested on charges of theft and prison-breaking in Ireland, by breaking into the police patrol van in which he was being conveyed to Duke Street Prison on May 4 1921; that they assembled, armed with loaded firearms, and discharged these at Robert Johnstone inspector; George Christie Stirton, detective sergeant; Murdoch MacDonald, detective constable; and Thomas Ross, motorman, officers in charge of the patrol van, with intent to murder these and break into the van; and that they assaulted the four officers mentioned, murdered Inspector Johnstone, and seriously injured Detective Stirton to the danger of his life; or, alternatively, to the latter part of the charge, that they had assembled in the High Street on the day in question and discharged firearms at four police officers and murdered Inspector Johnstone and seriously injured Detective-Sergeant Stirton, and destroyed the lock of the police patrol van and attempted to force it open.

Frank Somers was a prisoner and was being moved to Duke Street Prison on 4 May 1921 after having earlier been remanded on a charge of having broken out of prison in Sligo and Londonderry and also of having stolen a pistol in Sligo.

As the van Frank Somers was in was travelling along High Street, at 12.15pm, three parties of men attacked it as it passed the pumping station near Rottenrow. They attacked it with guns during which they had gone to the back of the van and fired twice into the lock that held the two doors shut. However, whilst two bullets had gone into the lock and destroyed it they could still not open the door. Another shot also went through the doors and lodged in a board behind the driver’s seat. Two officers that were inside the van with Frank Somers were as such then unable to get out because the doors were jammed. There was also another prisoner in the van being escorted at the same time who had been charged with indecent assault.

The three parties of men had come from the corner of Rottonrow, the south-west corner of Cathedral Square and another to the rear of the van that had been lying in wait in a lane off of the High Street known locally as the Cat's Cradle.

Outside the van the drivers put up a fight against the men and within 3 minutes the assault was over and the men ran off into the streets around the square.

As the van was attacked the driver had changed gear to turn into the prison but stopped. Sitting next to him on his left was Robert Johnston who was in charge of the escort. Robert Johnston was shot through the heart in the first volley of shots fired and fell off the wagon into the roadway. The other detective-sergeant who was with him jumped off the wagon and covered Robert Johnston and fired back a shot with his revolver but was then himself hit in the right wrist and incapacitated then from firing.

The other constable that had been at the front of the wagon emptied his revolver at the men to his left and near the corner of the prison. Several more shots hit the wagon including a shot that went through the radiator and a couple of others hitting the offside of the wagon below the driver's seat.

Shortly after a private motor came along and took Robert Johnston, who was dead, and his colleague to the Royal Infirmary. The other officer who had been with the van then started it and drove it to Duke Street Prison where it was secured and the van doors opened.

A nurse who saw the attack said that she took no notice of it at first saying that she thought that the noise was coming from the motorcar. She said that when she went out of the door of her house to investigate she saw the detective sergeant chasing a group of about 10 men along Rottenrow and then abandon his chase and return to the van holding his wrist which was bleeding. She then went to his assistance and applied first aid and bandaged his injury with a handkerchief. She said that the detective sergeant then said to her 'Don't mind me any more, go and help my chum', indicating Robert Johnston who was at the time on his hands and knees. Robert Johnston then later collapsed on the causeway between the tramway rails.

Another lady who heard the attack said that she heard about 12 shots. She said she saw three young men running along Drygate adding that two of them were rather slim and the third man more stout and very pale and that they all had guns and had raised them as though to indicate that they would use them if there was any interference. She said that afterwards they turned left and passed along the road on the north side of the square and walked into High Street putting their revolvers into their pockets. She said that they appeared then to recover their composure and mixed in with the people walking along Castle Street and vanished.

In the following days many people were arrested and 13 people were tried but no one was ever convicted of the murder of Robert Johnston.


*map pointers are rough estimates based on known location details as per Place field above.


see Nottingham Evening Post - Monday 24 January 1921

see Dundee Courier - Saturday 23 July 1921

see Dundee Courier - Tuesday 09 August 1921

see Dundee Courier - Thursday 11 August 1921

see The Scotsman - Saturday 13 August 1921

see Dundee Evening Telegraph - Thursday 05 May 1921