The name “Peaky Blinders” is enough to strike fear into any Birmingham man’s heart in the BBC’s hit TV series, with policemen and hard-men, publicans and punters alike all careful not to get on the wrong side of the crime family.
In the drama written be Steven Knight, the Shelby men and their associates have one distinctive item of clothing: a flat cap with a disposable razor blade stitched into the peak. The sharp edge sticks out slightly and can be used as a weapon for slashing.
The TV series suggests that the gang are called “Peaky Blinders” because they use the razors in their hats to blind their enemies, either by slicing the blade across their victims’ eyes or by slashing up their faces so much that they are blinded by blood.
Did the real Peaky Blinders wear razor blades in their caps?
The Peaky Blinders were a real-life street gang based in Birmingham, but they actually operated a few decades before the fictional Tommy Shelby (Cillian Murphy) and his family; they were around from the end of the 19th century until the start of the First World War. These young, working class, unemployed men were known for their violence, robbery and for taking control of the gambling industry.
Historian David Cross, of the West Midlands Police Museum in Sparkhill, told the BBC: “If you think of your grandfather’s cap in those days, then it would have had a very hard peak. They used their hats with razor blades sewn in to rob people. That’s what a Peaky Blinder was. When they hit someone or headbutted someone on the nose while wearing one, it would cause their victim temporary blindness.”
They had a certain style, which included a peaked flat cap – but the idea that they wore razor blades in their hats may be an urban legend. The concept appears in Birmingham author John Douglas’ 1977 novel A Walk Down Summer Lane but the story is likely apocryphal.
The razor-blade-in-cap idea may also not have been possible at the time. The real Peaky Blinders were defeated in 1910 by a rival gang and had disappeared from the scene by the outbreak of the Great War; however, disposable razor blades only became readily available in Britain after 1908 when factory production began. In the days of the Peaky Blinders, these men would probably have relied on straight razors (or “cut-throat” razors) which would not have fit inside a hat brim.
“It’s really interesting to look back at the mythologized version of the story and the reality,” historian Carl Chinn and author of The Real Peaky Blinders told the Birmingham Mail, adding: “As for the razor blades? They were only beginning to come in from the 1890s and were a luxury item, much too expensive for the Peaky Blinders to have used.
“And any hard man would tell you it would be very difficult to get direction and power with a razor blade sewn into the soft part of a cap. It was a romantic notion brought about in John Douglas’s novel, A Walk Down Summer Lane.”
So why were they called Peaky Blinders?
It’s difficult to know for sure. But we do know that the word “blinder” is a Birmingham slang term for someone looking particularly dapper. It can also be used for the action of doing something particularly well, i.e. “he played a blinder.”
The Peaky Blinders took great efforts to look stylish, and they did wear peaked caps – so was that the origin of their name?