The world of the Peaky Blinders

Michael talks us through some of the historical background to superb new BBC Two drama, Peaky Blinders...

 Grace, whatever it is, it’s on the house – Harry

That name. Oh dear. It sounds like the name of a music hall revivalist troupe treading the boards at Edinburgh. Possibly internet slang for some hideous sexual practice, the precise mechanics of which shall remain unexplored for the purposes of this article. But a violent gang? It’s hardly the Crips or the Bloods. It’s barely the Scooby Gang. It is, however, 100% accurate. And sinister. Peaky Blinders was the name to real Birmingham gang members of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Not so much an actual gang as a rubric name (Philip Gooderson, author of The Gangs of Birmingham describes it as being akin to the modern usage of ‘chav’), it derives from the frankly nasty practice of sewing razorblades into the peaks of caps (hence Peaky) and using them to attack rivals and anyone else who got in the way. They’d go for the face and eyes (hence Blinders). Yes, literally blinders. Ouch.

It wasn’t just Birmingham. Manchester and Salford boasted a gang known as the ‘Scuttlers’, Liverpool fielded the rather Merseybeat-sounding ‘Cornermen’ while London had the ‘Hooligans’, which would sound just as odd to modern ears had it not persisted into the twenty-first century with largely the same meaning. Perhaps we shouldn’t judge them too harshly, one of the modern Birmingham gangs go by the name Burger Bar Boys, which sounds like a Disney Channel hip hop group.

Many of the Peakies’ misdeeds ranked as petty crime of the sort that continues to thrill and entertain tabloid moralists today. Drunkenness, street brawls, illegal gambling, vandalism. The usual rap sheet. The violence escalated though and rival Peakies began coming home -or not- with horrific injuries. Murder wasn’t beyond them either. In 1897, a police constable called Snipe was killed by peaky blinder George ‘Cloggy’ Williams. His only regret at the killing was that he’d intended to kill a PC Holdsworth. He’d got the wrong copper. 

We’ll have the whole of Birmingham betting on it and thousand quid bets on the magic horse. And that time, when we are ready, the horse will lose. – Tommy

The primary activity of TV’s Peaky Blinders is running illegal bookmaking operations, and apparently spooking punters into believing in any old hoodoo that will convince them to part with their cash. These days, opportunities for gambling aren’t too difficult to find. In fact, they find you. You can’t even sit down to a nice, relaxing football match without seeing a disembodied Ray Winstone head float on screen with an aggressive demand that you stick a tenner on the ‘nex gole meffod’. Back in the 1920s, it was a trickier hobby. Gambling was only legally permitted at race courses, which limited the opportunities for corruption. Limited it geographically that is. On the courses themselves, the bookmaking industry was largely unregulated and they became the province of aggressive gangsters. In the midlands, the business was controlled by a group called the Brummagem Boys.

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The lucrative nature of the industry and its absence of legal controls meant that competition was fierce, in every sense of the word. The Brummagem Boys organised strict protection rackets which brought them into conflict with gangs from other regions, most notably the Sabini gang who operated out of London and Brighton. Charles Sabini, their Anglo-Italian leader who would be fictionalised as Colleoni in Graham Greene’s Brighton Rock, was an example of the multicultural flavour of these activities. Italians were heavily involved in the gambling, while Romanies handled equine matters. The race track gang scene was “incredibly evocative”, says series creator Steven Knight. “They’re quite violent”.

Just a bit.

As with the Peakies, the race track gangs preferred bladed weapons. Knives. Razors. Hatchets. Meat cleavers. Eyes would leave sockets and fingers came off hands. Again, ouch.

Of course, a preference for blades doesn’t necessarily preclude the use of guns, and this is where Peaky Blinders’ CI Campbell comes in. Oh, and his boss, whose name you might recognise.

If there are bodies to be buried, dig holes and dig them deep – Churchill

History has been rather kind to Sir Winston. When the BBC ran a nationwide poll to find the Greatest Briton, good old Winnie was the runaway winner. He was the last commoner to receive a state funeral. He was offered the rather swish title Duke of London, but declined. His portrait hangs in the Oval Office to ‘inspire’ the putative ‘most powerful man in the world’. Reputations don’t get much bigger.

It wasn’t always the case. Churchill, who appears disconcertingly, albeit accurately, with hair in Peaky Blinders, had a difficult 1920s (in consolation, his 1930s were worse). As minister for War, Air and Munitions, he was responsible for retrieving the cache of weapons that fall into Tommy Shelby’s hands in episode one. Chief among his concerns, aside from the newly started Anglo-Irish War of 1919-21 and the emergence of an organisation called the Irish Republican Army, was a threat from the East.

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History records that the Russians went for an early bath during the First World War, owing to a small problem at home. That problem was the October Revolution, which carried the Bolsheviks to power, deposing Tsar Nicolas II, the cousin, and seriously uncanny lookalike of, King George V.  As with the French Revolution a couple of hundred years before, much of Europe, specifically its ruling classes, was fearful that it would spread.

Fearful was one word for it. Churchill said that “Bolshevism should be strangled in its cradle”, which was probably among his more moderate pronouncements on the subject and one of the few that are suitable for a family website. Knight describes him as having been “strident”, which he admits is toning it down a bit. The fictionalised Churchill of Peaky Blinders isn’t perhaps as extreme as the real one, but his fear is very, very real. The disappearance of a cache of weapons amidst a mood of Irish and Communist agitation isn’t merely embarrassing for the authorities; it’s an outright threat to the social fabric. No wonder he has to call in a specialist to find them and to do so by any means necessary. Bad news for Arthur Shelby’s fingers.

Do they stand among us or do they sit at home, comfortable with a full belly while you scrape to find enough to put shoes on your children’s feet? – Freddie

We know that Campbell has the wrong end of the stick about the weapons cache but it was nevertheless a fairly reasonable fear. Peaky Blinders features chippy agitator Freddie, who talks of revolution and sedition and riles up crowds by denouncing the ruling classes for exploiting the very same working class that had fought in Flanders for them. The Freddies of this world had a lot going for them as the 1920s began. Not only had the Bolsheviks apparently proven that revolution was possible (though you’d imitate them at your peril), but the growing resentment of the treatment of war-scarred men and the women who had been running things in their absence meant that they found a very willing audience. The Communist Party of Great Britain formed in 1920 out of a soup of different leftist organisations who now found a sufficiently strong common cause to bind them. Small wonder that the authorities began to get a little nervous. They weren’t to know that no serious Marxist revolutionary threat would wash on these shores until the rise of Citizen ‘Wolfie’ Smith in the 1970s.

You’d be forgiven for thinking that the war didn’t end in 1918, that it just got weirder. As the 1910s slipped into the 1920s and the country tried to adapt to peacetime (or whatever passed for peace) men like Tommy Shelby tried to make a go of things and prosper among the ruins. All in all, it was a dangerous, paranoid time. The world of the Peaky Blinders was a seething cauldron of violence, crime, suspicion and resentment that set worker against boss, brother against brother, Brummie against Brummie. And they still had the General Strike to look forward to.

Peaky Blinders continues on Thursdays on BBC Two at 9pm. Read more about it on Den of Geek, here.

Peaky Blinders is available to order on DVD from the BBC Shop here, and Blu-ray here.

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