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What Was Going On Beyond Birmingham During ‘Peaky Blinders’?

Updated September 23, 2021 10.9k views10 items

When watching the BBC's hit show Peaky Blinders, viewers are thrown into the world of the Shelbys, the Grays, and all of their friends and enemies. With the show's multitude of well-orchestrated plots and double-crossings, keeping alliances and allegiances straight is a challenge in itself, but so is putting Peaky Blinders into historical context. 

As Peaky Blinders history unfolds, there's mention of several contemporaneous local, national, and global events. Revolutions, independence movements, and emerging ideologies often receive passing mention to create the appropriate Peaky Blinders historical setting - but have you ever wanted to know more?

What was really going on in England and around the world during the first part of the 20th century, and how do those real-world events affect the choices of Thomas Shelby and the rest of the Peaky Blinders? 

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  • After Decades Of Mistreatment, Laborers Throughout Europe Turned To Socialism, Anarchism, And Communism

    Photo: Bain News Service / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    What Happened: Labor movements arose around the world during the late 1920s and 1930s in response to poor working conditions, long hours, and general exploitation of the workforce. Previous efforts to combat labor oppression led to the establishment of groups like the Industrial Workers of the World and the Women's Trade Union League during the first decades of the 20th century. Organized labor waned during the 1920s, however, especially as the economy thrived, leadership declined, and employers and governments alike opposed their efforts.

    As a result, workers and labor organizers began to look closely at new political and economic ideologies such as anarchism, socialism, and communism. Throughout Europe and the United States, socialism and other labor movements had long been linked to strikes, collective action, and workers' rights - although they were often on the fringes and tied to aggressive and passionate action.

    In The Show: Jessie Eden, a Communist union organizer, represents the connection between labor unions and the Communist Party in Peaky Blinders. Tensions among social classes are apparent throughout the show. According to show-runner Steven Knight:

    The tradition in Britain is if you do anything about working class people either they are scary or funny or it is a shame, it’s a pity... we must feel sorry for them... The experiences I had of working-class life was of people enjoying themselves, having a laugh, having fun, having self-respect; they were in control of their own destinies to an extent, and so I wanted to reflect that. So you had a working-class environment where these people are sort of aristocracy in a way within their own community.

  • Prohibition In The US Opened A New Black Market For Alcohol

    Photo: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    What Happened: Driven by temperance movements that sought to eliminate social evils caused by alcohol and nationalists who viewed imported alcohol (especially German products) as anti-American, the United States government enacted the 18th Amendment and the Volstead Act in 1919 and began a decade-long prohibition of alcohol production and sales. Prohibition, however, proved almost impossible to enforce.

    As soon as Prohibition became law, people began manufacturing and selling liquor in rural and urban settings alike. Among the millions of Americans who took part in the underground liquor trade, notable figures like Al Capone rose to power and gained immense wealth through bootlegging and speakeasies.

    In The Show: Al Capone had a whole network under his control, including operations and individuals connected to Luca Changretta. In Season 4 of Peaky Blinders, Tommy Shelby undercuts Changretta by reaching out to Capone, promising to supply him with all the whiskey he needs, eliminating Changretta's leadership and power in New York. Tommy sends his cousin, Michael Gray, to oversee the arrangement.

     

  • The Economic League Was Organized And Worked Behind The Scenes To Subvert Communism

    Photo: Bain News Service, publisher / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    What Happened: Established as "National Propaganda" in 1919 by William Reginald Hall, the Economic League officially adopted the moniker "The Central Council of the Economic Leagues" in 1926. The goal of the Economic League was to thwart left-wing activism in the interest of capitalism. In opposition to communist assertions that capitalism was destined to result in class warfare, the Economic League argued that industry thrived when employers and employees cooperated, calling for "the workers" in England not to "overthrow the capitalists, but to follow the example of their American brothers and join the ranks of the capitalists."

    By 1925, the Economic League was a powerful anti-labor organization in England with a Central Council that coordinated 14 district groups. Prominent members of the Economic League included several high-ranking military officers, five former Members of Parliament, representatives from the top banks in England, and the chairman of the British Broadcasting Company, Joseph Albert Pease, 1st Baron Gainford.

    In The Show: During the third season of Peaky Blinders, Father John Hughes works with the Economic League, also referred to as Section D, the Vigilance Committee, and the Odd Fellows on the show, although he notes one could "never quite grasp who they are - it's like gripping wet soap." The priest threatens the Blinders regularly, personifying the manipulative yet powerful organization. The Economic League reemerges in Season 5 of Peaky Blinders even more intent on weeding out left-wingers, perhaps slaying Ben Younger in the process.

  • In Order To Prevent A Wage Reduction Among Miners, Workers Demonstrated Solidarity In The General Strike Of 1926

    Photo: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    What Happened: During the early 1920s, mine owners cut wages and extended the hours of miners, forcing workers to accept their plight or lose their jobs. On June 30, 1925, mine owners again demanded that miners work longer hours for less pay, this time prompting mine union leader A.J. Cook to assert they would accept, "Not a penny off the pay, not a minute on the day." The British government stepped in and began to subsidize miners' pay, but a lower demand for coal and tensions between mine owners and the government did little to ease tensions. Continued disputes between mine owners and miners resulted in massive lockouts, with millions barred from entering their mines.

    In solidarity with miners, the Trade Union Congress (TUC) staged a nationwide strike beginning at 11:59 pm on May 3, 1926. As the group that coordinated labor unions throughout Britain, the TUC facilitated a strike among transportation workers, with individuals from newspaper, building, and utility industries joining in. At first, the strike began peacefully with one to two million participants. As the strike continued, protests and riots broke out in several cities, including Edinburgh, London, and Birmingham.

    The General Strike of 1926 lasted for nine days. Negotiations between TUC representatives and government officials resulted in nothing substantive. Miners who were able to get rehired returned to work at a lower wage with longer hours. 

    In The Show: According to show creator Steven Knight, "It’s always been my intention to tackle the 1926 general strike as it was a time when the possibility of a genuine revolution was in the air... Birmingham has always been a very radical, very unionised, very left-wing city so it was important for us to have someone on the show who represents that." 

    True to Knight's word, Peaky Blinders introduces audiences to Jessie Eden, a trade union activist, during Season 4. Eden is a champion of the working class, especially working-class women, representative of the fervor surrounding the workers' rights movement at the time. Eden is based on a real person who participated (her exact role is unclear) in the 1926 strike, working in the Joseph Lucas Motor Components Factory in Birmingham at the time. In 1931, she led a week-long walkout of more than 10,000 women working in the Lucas factory.