Weird History

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

Melissa Sartore
4.4k views 10 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? 

The Irish War Of Independence Was Waged Between The IRA And British Forces
The Irish War Of Independence ... is listed (or ranked) 1 on the list What Was Going On Beyond Birmingham During ‘Peaky Blinders’?
Photo: Unknown/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

What Happened: As the notion of self-determination took shape in the aftermath of WWI, the Irish, who had a long history of resistance against British rule, once again pushed back against their occupation and authority. The long-standing struggle between Ireland and England escalated when leaders of the Sinn Féin party took power in 1918. Sinn Féin declared Ireland an independent republic and set up a government based in Dublin.

While Sinn Féin took political action, a group of Irish militants known as the Volunteers decided to push independence forward by force. The Volunteers, considered the armed forces of Sinn Féin by many, were the precursor to the Irish Republican Army (IRA), a designation they assumed in 1919. Through a series of guerilla campaigns between 1919 and 1921, the IRA damaged British property, forcibly took money and weapons, and took out their rivals.

Michael Collins, a leader of both Sinn Féin and the IRA, was prominent in the Irish independence movement, helping to craft the 1921 Anglo-Irish Treaty, which allowed Ireland to become an autonomous nation in the British Commonwealth. After Ireland received dominion status, however, there were years of internal conflict between the Irish Free State and nationalist factions who wanted a completely independent republic.

In The Show: The Peaky Blinders play both sides of the conflict between Ireland and England while trying to steer clear of taking a political stand. During the first season of Peaky Blinders, the group seizes a shipment of Libya-bound arms, but the English government fears the Blinders will sell the armaments to the IRA. English authorities go so far as to send a spy into the Peaky Blinders ranks, Grace Burgess.

Soldiers Were Returning Home From WWI And Had To Readjust To Civilian Life
Soldiers Were Returning Home F... is listed (or ranked) 2 on the list What Was Going On Beyond Birmingham During ‘Peaky Blinders’?
Photo: PD-BRITISHGOV/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

What Happened: Shell shock left servicemen struggling with what they had witnessed and endured. The horrors of WWI left the world reeling, but for veterans, it also brought about a host of mental and physical conditions. Veterans struggled with sleep disorders, fugue states, memory loss, and general confusion. They lashed out at those around them, tried to numb their pain with controlled substances and alcohol, and struggled to readjust into society.

In The Show: Numerous characters on Peaky Blinders suffer from shell shock, including Thomas Shelby. Throughout the series, Shelby experiences flashbacks, self-medicates with various substances, and experiences fits of aggressive behavior. Arthur Shelby, Tommy's older brother, also suffers from anger impulse control. On one occasion, Arthur slays a young boy in the boxing ring due to his shell shock.

Shell shock does not, however, only affect those in the Shelby family. During the first season, Danny "Whizz-Bang" Owen is known in the Birmingham community for his volatile episodes. He suffers from psychotic breaks where he believes he is still in the conflict. After one outburst, during which Danny slays an Italian restaurateur with underworld ties, Tommy is forced to take out Danny. He only appears to fire on his friend, however, allowing Danny to escape to London.

Italy Colonized Libya, But Still Faced Armed Resistance
Italy Colonized Libya, But Sti... is listed (or ranked) 3 on the list What Was Going On Beyond Birmingham During ‘Peaky Blinders’?
Photo: Unknown/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

What Happened: During the Italian-Turkish War of 1911 and 1912, Italy annexed the Ottoman Empire territories in North Africa, namely Cyrenaica and Tripolitana. Unified as the Italian colony of Libya, the land was ceded by Turkish authorities in 1912, but pacification of the area by Italy remained elusive. Repeated uprisings against Italian forces in Libya resulted in harsh reprisals by the colonial power, leading to thousands of losses on both sides of the conflict. 

In 1917, Italy signed the Treaty of Acroma with leaders of the Senussi Order, a Muslim group seeking autonomy. This preceded the establishment of the Tripoli Republic in 1918, which then led to a declaration of independence from Italy in 1919.  In June 1919, the Tripoli Republic and Italy agreed upon the independent statutes, and the Legge Fondamentale ("Fundamental Law") was put into place for the surrounding region. The Legge allowed for a form of dual citizenship, parliamentary rights, and exemption from military service. However, while British officials forced Italy to implement the Legge, they had only moderate success. In 1920, Italy granted Cyrenaica autonomy, although occupying troops remained present in the region. 

In The Show: When Season 1 of Peaky Blinders begins, the year is 1919. Tensions throughout the Middle East remain high, especially as efforts for self-determination are quelled by the mandate system and comparable diplomatic action. When the Blinders take a crate of arms designated to be sent to Libya, authorities fear they'll make their way into the hands of the IRA.

The Bolsheviks Rose To Power Amid The Russian Civil War
The Bolsheviks Rose To Power A... is listed (or ranked) 4 on the list What Was Going On Beyond Birmingham During ‘Peaky Blinders’?
Photo: Isaak Brodsky/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

What Happened: Russia exited WWI early after the outbreak of the Bolshevik Revolution. In February (or March, depending on the calendar) 1917, protesters rose up against the tsarist government in Russia, forcing the abdication of Nicholas II. A provisional government led by Alexander Kerensky was put into place but did little to end economic and social hardship. As a result, a second revolt was orchestrated by Vladimir Lenin, head of the Bolshevik Party.

The October Revolution placed Lenin at the head of the Russian government and established the first Communist state. Internally, factions emerged and armed conflict broke out between the Reds (the Bolsheviks) and the Whites (the Mensheviks and other anti-Bolshevik groups). The conflict lasted until 1921, a period characterized by bloody campaigns, targeted strikes, and open engagements. Outside countries intervened, with France and Italy supporting the Whites. The United States and Britain tried to make peace between the two groups, but to no avail. The Reds won out, leading to the formation of the Soviet Union.

In The Show: The rise of the Bolsheviks threatened Allied success during WWI and simultaneously upended the world order. Winston Churchill was staunchly anti-Bolshevik, calling it "fool baboonery." When weapons go missing from Birmingham, there's great concern they will end up in the hands of Bolsheviks or Bolshevik supporters.

Season 4 of Peaky Blinders goes still further with the Communist threat when Jessie Eden, a member of the Communist Party and union organizer, begins to push for labor rights in England.