The name Tommy Shelby and the gang Peaky Blinders have become synonymous with the city of Birmingham, due to the incredible popularity of the TV show, but who were the real Peaky Blinders?
Gang culture during the late 19th and early 20th centuries was rife particularly in cities such as Birmingham and London. In Birmingham they were called ‘sloggers’ or ‘slogging gangs’ and they were notorious for rough fighting, using everyday items such as belt buckles.
As depicted in the TV show, there was a gang in Birmingham named the Peaky Blinders, who did originate from the area of Small Heath. The name Peaky Blinders did not appear until 1890, after an assault was carried out against an innocent man. A few days after the assault had taken place, it was reported in the press that the attack had been carried out by ‘the Small Heath Peaky Blinders’.
The gang did have a distinctive style, as depicted in the TV show, which consisted of a tailored jacket, a silk scarf, boots and a flat cap. This distinctive style of clothing was in ‘defiance against the police, who could easily identify them but remained relatively powerless’ to stop them. The idea that the name of the gang came from the men having razor blades in the tip of their caps, is in fact false. The name is thought to have come from the angle at which the caps were positioned, thus hiding the eyes of the person wearing it.
Areas of Birmingham were fought over by gangs such as the Peaky Blinders, in what were known as ‘“land grabs”’. The Peaky Blinders maintained their position through ‘violence and bribery’, which included bribing some policemen. Tommy Shelby, played by Cillian Murphy, is the leader of the gang on screen, with his Aunt Polly and brothers Arthur and John acting as his deputies. These hierarchies did exist in the gangs at the time, with Thomas Gilbert (also known as Kevin Mooney) being one of the ‘most prominent members of the Peaky Blinders’.
One of the key characters in the earlier series of the TV show is the Irish policeman Campbell who is brought in to aid the shutdown of the gang’s activities. In 1899, there was a new Police Chief brought in from Ireland, named Sir Charles Horton Rafter, and he was able to suppress the Peaky Blinders after a time.
By the early 20th century the gang was no longer present in Birmingham, due partly to the change in the social circumstances in Birmingham. The policing improved, tougher sentencing was established and social conditions improved with schooling being made compulsory for children from a certain age. Youth clubs and boxing clubs were also developed and this linked to the decrease in gang culture at the time.