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The real Peaky Blinders, Birmingham 1890

With fine camera work and classy performan­ces, the Peaky Blind­ers series on BBC2 attracted both viewers and critics from 2013 on. It told of the rise to power of Tommy Shelby and his fash­ionably dress­ed Birmingham criminal gang. But what proper historical information is available about Victorian Birm­ingham’s urban gangs of the late C19th?

The Rough Fleet Gang of Hanley, led by Mad Jack Wilson, was notor­ious decades earlier. Many members of the Rough Fleet Gang may even have been former soldiers, demobbed after the Napoleonic wars.

Next, consider Birmingham’s Park St Irish quarter that was largely demolished during the rabble-rouser Protestant William Murphy Riots in June 1867. The anti Irish-Catholic rioting may have pred­ict­ed the gangland feud­ing that was to fol­low. Yet concern at youth viol­ence in Birmingham’s indust­rial districts did NOT prompt Council action.

The lads did not belong to a single gang. In fact opposing gangs threatened each other on the city streets and in late-night confrontations outside music halls. Clashes between these rival youth gangs inten­sified in the early 1870s. Anti-Irish sentiment offered a target for the frustrations of inner city youths which became institutionalised in gang warfare.

The recession that followed the early 1870s boom threw thousands of unemployed and disenf­r­anchised lads onto the streets, particularly in 1873–74. How ironic, then, that police clamp­­downs on drunkenness and street gambling were resented in working-class districts. I can only shake my head at the indifference shown by the city authorit­ies to the welfare of a powerless section of the community.

Birmingham street gang, 1890s
Photo credit: StokeonTrentLive

So Birmingham’s sloggers became more territorial, sparking gang-conflict that attracted intense loyal­ties in adjacent dist­ricts. Most of the feuds reported in the press in the 1890s spread, ext­end­ing from the central slums to areas out­side the jurisdiction of the Birmingham police in 1890. Each gang jealously guarded its turf; the Peaky Blinders, for example, were embedded in areas like Small Heath and Bordesley.

By the 1890s, the gangs had adopted their distinctive unif­orm. It was a style shared by the sloggers’ counterparts in Manch­es­ter & Salford, and in London, but more fashion conscious. It was always a working-class pastime, ref­lect­ing the honour attached to displays of working-class toughness. Middle-class youths, with greater opp­or­t­unities and better prospects, had no incentive to risk injury and gaol.

Bell-bottomed trousers secured by a buckle belt, hob-nailed boots, brass-lined button jackets, gaudy scarfs, cravats and billycock-bowler hats with long elong­ated brims. The bowler-style hats, made of hard felt, had a rakish, curved rim. They shaped the hat brims into a point, worn on one side of the head and tilted over one eye. The hair was prison-cropped all over the head.

Peaky Blinders’ girls would be of a similarly distinctive style, with lavish pearl buttons, long fringes down to the eyes and gaudy-coloured silk handkerchiefs covering their throats. The elab­orate hats were large and decorated with feathers and poppies. The men wore these fancy fashions to pot­en­t­ially strike fear (?) when they roamed the streets. The women wore them in order to be noticed.

In the film, the gang was named after the weapon they were supposed to have used in fights: safety razors were sewn into the peaks of their flat caps! The razors were slashed across the oppon­ents’ foreheads, causing blood to pour into their eyes and to blind them. But blades were too expensive for gang-members. Most gang events record­ed by the police related instead to illegal betting, theft and Actual Bodily Harm, not razor slashing. Court reports back then called the gang foul mouthed young men who stalked streets in drunken groups, insulting and mugging passers-by. Very nasty and violent to be sure, but mostly not deadly.

Peaky Blinders arrested by Birmingham Police
Photo credit: Sparkhill’s West Midlands Police Museum

Why were so many young, working-class men drawn to the glam­our and the brutality of the Peaky Blinders. I could have understood pick­pocket­ing or robbery because of the potential gains. But I wouldn’t have underst­ood insulting elderly pedestrians in the street. So it seemed to be more a statement of how these lads would not accept City or Police auth­ority! The more the Birmingham press railed against the brutality and violence that confronted the city on a daily bas­is, the more the new working class gen­er­ation reached manhood without acknow­ledging any authority whatever. 

Manufacturer Arthur Matthison lived in Summer Lane in the early 1890s. Most Peakies belonged to a slogging gang, he said, as the product of poverty, squalour and slum environ­ment. With slums all around, it was clear to Matthison that youth violence grew out of harsh social and economic conditions, and unemployment.

Alternatively letters to Birmingham Weekly Post insisted that the Peaky Blind­er was just an ordinary working man. He could always be found at work during the day in some brass foundry at the lathe. His actions were mostly focused on rival gangs and the police, not on the general public.

By WW1, Birmingham’s Peaky Blinders faded from view. Philip Gooderson attributed the decline of slogging gangs and the concomitant disappearance of the Peakies to a number of fact­ors, ranging from the growth of football as an al­ternative source of excite­ment for working-class youths to a belat­ed clampdown by the police and courts. And in any case, by the time Birmingham’s ex-servicemen returned after 1918, the world had greatly changed. 

The Peaky Blinders were back­street criminals in Birmingham during the 1890s and turn of the C20th, known for two defining passions: natty streetwear and violence. The Peaky Gang was brought down before WW1 by a com­b­ination of strong policing, more severe sentencing and social changes. So the tv series was set in the wrong era and used the wrong weapons, but Birmingham citizens loved the film’s strong sense of place.

Perhaps read The Gangs of Birmingham: The True Story of the Peaky Blinders by Philip  Gooderson (Milo Books, 2010). Or visit West Midlands Police Museum in Steelhouse Lane Birmingham


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