Now that the final series of Peaky Blinders is out in the world, we thought we’d investigate the true stories of the real-life Birmingham gang that lent their name to the hit show. You might not know this, but the Peaky Blinders were a real-life gang and show creator, Steven Knight, has even talked about his own family connections to England’s criminal underworld and how this inspired him to create the Shelbys and their various misdeeds.

Much like in the series, the Peaky Blinders were a street gang that operated out of Birmingham, though unlike the Shelbys, who we meet just after WWI in the series, the real-life Blinders were around from the 1880s and had largely disbanded by the 1910s. Also, unlike the show, many of the gang’s members were young men and teenagers, with some sources claiming that there were members as young as 12 involved in everything from gambling, robbery, protection rackets and unadulterated violence. Some of the stories from the real Blinders make the storylines from the show seem tame in comparison!

So, what’s the real story?

The Peaky Blinders were said to rule the streets of Birmingham until they lost their power to a rival gang, known as the Birmingham Boys, who’s leader actually made an appearance in series one of the show, Billy Kimber. Though he didn’t make it to the second series, the real-life Billy Kimber went on to be one of England’s most powerful gangsters and worked from various cities, including London and Leeds.
Another crime family, the Sabinis, who also make an appearance in the show, are also believed to have taken much of the Blinders’ territory, especially in and around the Birmingham city centre.

Part of the show’s success has come from the captivating name, Peaky Blinders. There is some debate as to where the name originated, with several sources saying that it was due to the members stitching razor blades into the peaks of their caps, however, disposable blades didn’t exist at the time. Another theory suggests that they work the caps low to hide their appearance, therefore ‘blinding’ anyone who spotted them. Blinder is also slang originating among the working classes to describe someone who was particularly striking and as we know that the gang members liked to dress well and wore similar styles of clothes, this could be another reason for the name. Whatever the truth, it stuck and has created one of the most popular television dramas of the decade.

The gang members had a very specific uniform and were known for wearing a peaked flat cap, leather boots, waistcoats and tailored jackets. It wasn’t just a way for gang members to recognise each other, but also a way to demonstrate their power and wealth. Very few other members of the community could afford to dress the way they did.

Like other gangs operating throughout Britain’s history, the origins of the Peaky Blinders are rooted in the poor living conditions and economic hardship of the working classes, especially during the time of the Industrial Revolution. For many of the members of these gangs, poverty and hunger were their main motivation, with young men in particular turning to a life of crime simply to get by, whether this was pickpocketing or more violent robberies. In the Midlands, the fast pace of industrial growth meant that the communities in places like Birmingham had few job prospects and lived in poverty, leading to a more violent undercurrent to emerge among the young men.

Like we see in the series, the Peaky Blinders of history originated in the area of Small Heath in Birmingham and thanks to an internal hierarchy began to gain a reputation for their violence and brutality. Though there doesn’t appear to be a central family or anyone called Tommy Shelby, it is believed that the most prominent member of the gang was a man known as Thomas Gilbert. He also went by the alias of Kevin Moony and there are records that suggest that he was a major player in the turf wars against rival gangs in the region.

Other names associated with the gang included Harry Fowles, who was known as Baby-faced Harry, Stephen McNickle, Earnest Haynes and David Taylor, who were all arrested for gang related activity. David Taylor was jailed for carrying a gun. He was thirteen. Despite making appearances in court and being convicted, the local police did find it difficult to keep control of the gang.

Like in the show, members of the Peaky Blinders took part in WWI. Baby-faced Harry was buried alive during an attack on British trenches and was said to be unable to speak or see for some time after being rescued. Another Blinder, Henry Lightfoot was also said to have participated in the Battle of the Somme.

In the late 1890s, the authorities placed an Irish police officer in the city to try and gain control but the gang’s control over the local constabulary meant that this was short lived. Something that was referenced in the show, with the arrival of Sam Neill’s character in series one and two.

The group’s peak was in the early 1900s, when they started to move into bigger activities, like gaining their own racecourses and other territories, which led to an escalation of violence between the various gangs operating in the region. This escalation of turf wars led to Billy Kimber and his Birmingham Boys taking control over their territories. They were in turn defeated by the Sabini gang, which rose to prominence in the 1930s.

If you’re a fan of the show and want to live in the world of the Peaky Blinders a little longer, you can visit Birmingham’s Small Heath area or the Black Country Living Museum, as much of it was filmed on location there.




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