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.
The Peaky Blinders had a long rap sheet with the West Midlands Police. According to court reports, the Peaky Blinders were "foul-mouthed young men who stalk the streets in drunken groups, insulting and mugging passersby." Their reign included robbery, theft, and riots. Gang members carried knives, sewed razor blades in their hats, and beat enough people to earn the nickname "sloggers."
But the real Peaky Blinders weren't a single gang for their entire history. In Birmingham, some grouped multiple gangs, including the Brummagem Boys, the Nechells Sloggers, and Wainwright Street, under the title "Peaky Blinders."
The Peaky Blinders weren't the only ones who dressed up in Victorian Birmingham. Their girlfriends also followed the gang's lead by wearing expensive, tailored clothing. As historian Philip Gooderson relates, the girlfriends often wore pearls and imitated their boyfriends by wearing silk handkerchiefs.
But their lavish outfits couldn't always hide the marks of domestic abuse. As one woman said, "He'll pinch and punch you every time he walks out with you. And if you speak to another chap, he don't mind kicking you."
Many gangs fought on the streets of Birmingham, including groups like Whitehouse Street, the Aston Sloggers, and the Ten Arches. The lines between gangs were sometimes blurry, as they teamed up to take on rivals.
According to professor Carl Chinn, many of these gangs eventually earned the nickname Peaky Blinders. And in 1886, hundreds of gang members clashed in Rocky Lane, Birmingham. They fought with belts and bricks, requiring a full mobilization of the police to stop them.
The Peaky Blinders also recruited children in Birmingham. The West Midlands Police arrested 13-year-old David Taylor for carrying a gun. Charles Lambourne was only 12 when police arrested him in 1905.
Like adults, children suffered from Birmingham's economic downturn, as poverty drove people into the slums. The Peaky Blinders emerged around 1880 as a crime wave swept across Britain.