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Who were the real Peaky Blinders of Birmingham?

The award-winning BBC series Peaky Blinders captivated audiences with its stylish yet ruthless presentation of gang culture in post-World War One Birmingham.

The series presents the Shelby family’s escalation of criminal activity, led by Tommy Shelby, the Peaky Blinders ascend above the industrially stricken streets of Birmingham and form a criminal empire. There is no denying the infamous reputation of the gang within the show, but who were the people that inspired the iconic characters of the series, and do they match the violent crime of their fictional counterparts?

30 years too late

Despite the BBC drama presenting the gang in a post WWI setting, this was not the period in which the real gang operated. The true Peaky Blinders are recorded to have formed in the late 19th century, a full 30 years before the end of WWI. Although historically inaccurate, this choice appears to benefit the narrative and allows an expansive inclusion of the effects of the war on the characters.

The Sloggers and the formation of the Peaky Blinders

The Peaky Blinders may have existed, but their crimes were slightly less dramatic than the show presents. Birmingham in the 1870's was stricken with poverty and rundown slum housing, which resulted in high levels of crime, predominantly in youths. These conditions resulted in an emergence of gang violence throughout the city, territorial clashes between gangs resulted in mass brawls causing severe injury and on occasion death. A prominent group of the time were named the Cheapside Slogging Gang, gained a reputation in Birmingham for protection rackets, theft and violence. The name Peaky Blinders was first noted in 1890 after a man was violently beaten on his way back from a pub. Authorities were unsure of who committed the attack; that was until a letter was sent to the Birmingham Mail stating the attack was carried out by the Small Heath Peaky Blinders. Criminal acts and violence for gangs including the Peaky Blinders and the Cheapside Sloggers continued until the end of the 19th century, at which point stricter policing and the introduction of compulsory education began to control gang culture.

Just a romantic myth

One of the most iconic images of the series is the ruthless use of the bladed peaked cap, symbolising a true Peaky Blinder. Unfortunately, in reality, this has been deemed unrealistic and false, as razors in the 1890's were a luxury item and therefore it is unlikely the gang could afford them. The idea of the razor-lined cap appears to be rooted in the Birmingham author John Douglas, and his novel ‘A Walk Down Summer Lane’ in which the gangsters are noted to have sewn razors into their caps. It is likely readers assumed the novel's gangsters referenced past true stories of Birmingham gangs, forming an interconnection between Douglas's fiction and the name Peaky Blinders.

Infamous gangsters or petty criminals?

The gang’s records of criminal offences are predominantly petty theft and minor violence. Gang members Harry Fowler and Ernest Bayles were charged with bike theft and Stephen McHickie with breaking and entering. Ultimately, the real Peaky Blinders crimes appear relatively minor in comparison to the activities of Tommy and the Shelby family, with a number of the members having barely left childhood. However, the series has spurred significant interest in the history of Birmingham, establishing folklore surrounding the Peaky Blinders and national recognition of the city.