Who were the real Peaky Blinders? On the BBC show, boss Tommy Shelby (Cillian Murphy) violently dominates the streets of Birmingham, England, while wearing tailored, fashionable clothes. And in reality, the gang members did wear a signature dressy look, complete with silk scarves, to class up their extralegal enterprise. But they also sewed razor blades in their caps to injure the faces of their rivals and victims, causing a crime wave that infuriated the police. The Peaky Blinders were one of many groups in Birmingham that resorted to their enterprises because of the city's industrialized poverty, but their tactics made them the most feared gang in all of Britain.
Like Mother Mandelbaum's empire in 1890s New York, the real Peaky Blinders sold pilfered goods, ran illegal betting rings, burgled women on the streets, and recruited children as young as 12. Peaky Blinders is one of the most underrated TV shows on today, and so far the show has only scratched the surface of the real history of the Peaky Blinders, Birmingham's most terrifying gang.
Police photographs taken by the West Midlands Police show real members of the Peaky Blinders gang in their signature outfits. Consider the 1905 mug shot of Stephen McHickie: His cap, which had a hard brim, would have helped him and his fellow gang members commit crimes.
According to historian David Cross, "They used their hats with razor blades sewn in to rob people. That's what a Peaky Blinder was." The men would headbutt their victims, doling out terrible cuts and causing temporary blindness, earning them the name Peaky Blinders.
The Peaky Blinders weren't the only gang in Victorian Birmingham. Called the Sloggers, the rival gang dated back to 1870. Like the Peaky Blinders, the Sloggers took their name from their favorite weapon. The Sloggers carried large belts with buckles to beat victims.
Also known as the Cheapside Slogging Gang, the Sloggers had their own brushes with the police. According to an 1872 Birmingham Mail article, "[About] 400 roughs brought indiscriminate violence to the Cheapside area, attacking and stealing." The paper may have overstated the chaos, admitting authorities only arrested three people, two of whom included impoverished children.
The Peaky Blinders wore a recognizable outfit, most notable for the flat cap capable of hiding razor blades. Gang members as young as teenagers also wore silk scarves around their necks and sported thick wool jackets.
They often donned bell-bottom pants and heavy boots. According to historian David Cross, curator at the West Midlands Police Museum, the gang chose its outfit to add class to their thieving. The gear also helped distinguish the Peaky Blinders from rival gangs.
In 1873, the Birmingham Daily Post wrote about a fight between two rival groups known as the Bradford Street and Park Street gangs. And this was merely the start.
Within two years, the Allinson Street Slogging Gang had a new captain who led an attack against another gang leader, William Smallwood. The attack avenged Smallwood's vicious beating of two rival gang members, wherein he used a belt buckle that severely damaged the men's heads. But Smallwood argued how his attack was self-defense, and the magistrate let him go.
As the gangs fought for territory, they directed much of their violence toward each other, rather than other Birmingham residents.