The term "Peaky Blinders" has had multiple meanings throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, and to speak of a single Peaky Blinders organization may be incorrect, but the BBC drama Peaky Blinders does draw inspiration from Birmingham's dark history. Arguably one of the most underrated current TV shows, Peaky Blinders follows a ruthless syndicate run by Thomas Shelby in the wake of WWI. In the series, the squad's influence spreads across Britain; however, the real Peaky Blinders were not nearly as dramatic or powerful.
The real-life Peaky Blinders of the late 19th century were nothing more than petty hoods. Like many TV shows, Peaky Blinders often trades historical accuracy for drama and good storytelling. The series creates a visceral experience for audiences by delving into family drama, social strife, and compelling underworld machinations. While the show is heavy on style - the title is a reference to the crew's signature hats - it often skimps on factual details. The historical inaccuracies of Peaky Blinders blur a lot of lines, but maybe that's just the price one pays for entertainment.
On Peaky Blinders, Tommy Shelby and other key players in the organization are portrayed as adults. In reality, however, most members were teenagers, and many were children. Historian David Cross keeps records of the adolescent crew at the West Midlands Police Museum in Birmingham.
On the show, the Peaky Blinders rule Birmingham. The crew evokes fear and demands respect. In the pilot episode, Tommy Shelby rides his black horse through the streets of Birmingham, prompting locals to cower and hide. He and his family control the city, and although the police and other organizations try to dethrone them, the Peaky Blinders only continue to gain power.
The idea that Shelby and his Peaky Blinders are all-powerful in Birmingham is unrealistic. Various groups fought to control small parts of the city to gain local relevance during the economic recession of the 1870s. There were several such groups in Birmingham in the late 19th century, including the Whitehouse Street and Bradford Street organizations.
The show was influenced by a real Birmingham group who supposedly got their name, the Peaky Blinders, from the razor blades members sewed into their flat caps. According to local lore, Peaky Blinders used the hats to puncture the heads of their opponents, blinding them with the blood that ran into their eyes.
In truth, it's unlikely the real Peaky Blinders ever sewed sharp objects into their headgear. According to Birmingham historian Carl Chinn, the name of the gang most likely came solely from their peaked caps. Chinn says modern razors were just entering the market in the 1890s and were "a luxury item, much too expensive for the Peaky Blinders to have used."
Additionally, Chinn says, "Any hard man would tell you it would be very difficult to get direction and power with... the soft part of a cap. It was a romantic notion brought about in John Douglas’s novel, A Walk Down Summer Lane."
The name may have initially come from an incident involving Birmingham resident George Eastwood in 1890. After being chased by the Peaky Blinders, he fell, hit his head, and got roughed up. He was in the hospital for weeks. A letter to a London newspaper identified the perpetrators as "Peaky Blinders," and the name stuck.
Tommy Shelby and his fellow Peaky Blinders on the BBC show commit serious offenses. The hardened group thrives on a variety of disreputable activities and rules the streets of Birmingham with a heavy hand.
While Birmingham was a city rife with unlawful activities in the late 19th century, notable Peaky Blinders - Harry Fowler, Ernest Bayles, Stephen McHickie, and Thomas Gilbert - were never taken in for anything more than petty transgressions.
Fowler and Bayles were brought in for taking an unattended bike, McHickie was charged with sneaking into a draper's shop near his house, and Gilbert was once detained for "false pretenses."
Generally, members were "foul-mouthed young men who stalk the streets in drunken groups... "