Gangsters and gang warfare are a popular subject for any drama producer, and TV is awash with great gangster series such as The Sopranos and Boardwalk Empire. These shows of course were originally produced in the US, and have enjoyed considerable success both there and here in the UK. However, Britain had never been able to produce a successful gangster series of its own. All of that changed though in 2013 when the BBC first launched Steven Knight’s incredible creation, Peaky Blinders. Since its first airing, it has proven to be a huge hit on both sides of the Atlantic. Peaky Blinders charts the rapid rise of a family gang in the heart of industrial Britain, Birmingham in the aftermath of the Great War. Thomas Shelby, played by Irish actor Cillian Murphy is the head of the gang. Peaky Blinders has won widespread praise for its style, cinematography and its attention to detail, including the most convincing Brummie accents I’ve heard in a drama series. Moreover, the series has been credited with raising the city of Birmingham’s profile, and interest in its history has grown significantly.
The Peaky Blinders were a real gang believe it or not, but how accurate is the TV series? Who were the real Peaky Blinders and what were they like? It’s time to find out.
All in the Name
According to the TV series, the name Peaky Blinder originates from the practice of gang members hiding a razor blade in the peaks of their flat caps to be used as a weapon. However, razor blades only started to be used in the 1890’s, and even then they were a luxury item, so would likely have been far too expensive for poor downtrodden working class Brummies. Moreover, the razor blades are said to be have been sewn into the caps, thus making them awkward to use in a fast paced fight. You can understand though why the producers used the name and devised the explanation, as it does sound cool.
However, the real origin of the name is far less romantic, being more associated with fashion rather than violence. The ‘peaky’ part was a popular term to refer to any flat cap with a high peak at the front. Flat caps themselves only began to appear in the late 19th century, gradually replacing traditional bowlers hats, the likes of which Charlie Chaplin wore. The ‘Blinder’ part comes from a familiar Brummie slang term to describe someone of dapper or good appearance. Although, it could have also originated from the gang’s practice of sneaking up behind a victim and pulling their hat peak over their face, in order that they wouldn’t be able to recognise the person who robbed them.
The Real Peaky Blinders
The Rise of the Peaky Blinders
Britain in the late 19th century was characterised by great economic hardship, and this in turn saw the rise of a violent youth subculture in Britain’s major cities. In Birmingham, youths frequently robbed and assaulted men as they walked the streets of the slum areas of the city. In the 1890’s these youths, mostly aged between twenty and thirty organised themselves into street gangs, among them were the Peaky Blinders. The most powerful member of the gang was Kevin Mooney- real name Thomas Gilbert. Gilbert frequently changed his name to avoid detection. He organised the gang into a singular unit and controlled many of the land grabs that the Peaky Blinders executed at that time. Gilbert and the Peaky Blinders conducted most of their activities in the Small Heath area of Birmingham, and it was in Small Heath that the name ‘Peaky Blinder’ first appeared in the printed media.
On March 24th 1890, The Birmingham Mail reported that a young man named George Eastwood of Arthur Street, Small Heath called in at the Rainbow Public House in Adderly Street, between ten and eleven o’clock at night, and was supplied with ginger beer. Mr. Eastwood was apparently a teetotaller. Shortly afterwards, several young men known to the locals and Eastwood as the ‘Peaky Blinders’ gang came in and committed a serious assault against him.
After another attack in the same year, the gang sent a letter to various national newspapers announcing themselves to the country. The initial expansion of the Peaky Blinders was noted by a rival gang operating out of nearby Cheapside. These were the ‘Sloggers’, so named for their habit of slogging their victims to death. They were also notorious for engaging in violent street fights in the Bordesley and Small Heath areas, as well as the aforementioned Cheapside. The Peaky Blinders quickly became involved in a turf war with the Sloggers.
In 1899, the government attempted to enforce local law by drafting in an Irish police constable, who in turn brought in a lot of his own men from Ireland. However, endemic corruption within the police force hindered their efforts significantly.
As well as Gilbert, the most prominent members of the Peaky Blinders were David Taylor, Earnest Haynes, Harry Fowles and Stephen McNickle. Fowles, in particular was an interesting character, with his baby faced features. He was first arrested in October 1904 at just 19 years old for stealing a bike. At the same time, Haynes and McNickle were also arrested for stealing a bike, and for entering a home illegally.
Each man served one month for their crimes. Records from the time describe these men as foul mouthed, who stalk the streets drunk, insulting and mugging anyone they came across. David Taylor was just 13 years old, when he was first arrested for carrying a loaded firearm.
The Theme Song for Peaky Blinders
A Stylish Gang
The Peaky Blinders were unusual among gangs for their time, as they frequently stalked the streets in fine tailored clothes. All members sported a peaked flat cap slightly tilted to the side. Their overcoats were always adorned with shiny brass buttons, and clean white shirts were always tucked into bell-bottom trousers. Members’ footwear consisted of heavy steel toe cap boots; ideal for walking around some of the worst slums in all of Birmingham. The wealthier members of the gang could be distinguished by the addition of silk scarves and starched shirt collars complete with metal buttons.
The female members of the gang also dressed lavishly, sporting silk neckerchiefs of various colours along with elaborate pearl necklaces. Their hair was always immaculate and came complete with a heavy, long fringe. This distinctive style meant that the Peaky Blinders were immediately recognisable to all other Brummies including normal inhabitants, police and rival gangs.
A Trailer For the Latest Series
The Fall of the Peaky Blinders
Once established, the Peaky Blinders began to expand their criminal activity engaging in fraud, bribery, smuggling and bookmaking among other things. However, it seems that they remained focused on street fighting and robbery, more than large scale organised crime. This failure to expand further brought them into conflict with a much larger and better organised gang, the Birmingham Boys. When the Peaky Blinders attempted to expand into racecourses, it resulted in a violent backlash from their rivals. The Birmingham Boys themselves though would be quickly overrun by the Sabini Gang, who quickly established political control over Central England in the early 20th century.
However, these violent youth gangs would soon be squeezed out altogether with the expansion of the city of Birmingham into the countryside. Many poor families fled the slums to take up residence in newly created suburbs. The police too cleaned up their act and eliminated the endemic corruption that had blighted the force for decades. The gangs didn’t completely disappear, they merely evolved as British society evolved. By the end of the Second World War, street gangs like the Peaky Blinders were gone; over time they had morphed into far more organised institutions far away from the public gaze.
The real Peaky Blinders gang probably ceased to exist in the early years of the 20th Century, before the Great War, but the name survived as a generic term to describe violence amongst the youth in an urban setting. Now, the name has been revived again to a whole new audience by the excellent BBC drama. As I write, the Shelby family, who are entirely fictitious move into their fifth series. I await with bated breath to see what lies in store for the likes of Tommy, Arthur and Polly etc next.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2019 James Kenny
James Kenny (author) from Birmingham, England on September 01, 2019:
Yes, and in Birmingham in particular the Peaky Blinders haircut has become very fashionable.
Liz Westwood from UK on September 01, 2019:
Interesting background to a series that has really taken off. There has been a lot of tv coverage around the subject ahead of the new series. I understand that sales of flat caps are booming.