BBC drama Peaky Blinders has captured our imaginations with its story of Birmingham gang leader Tommy Shelby (Cillian Murphy) and his violent, turbulent rise to power.
But was he a real person? Did the Shelbys actually exist? What about the Peaky Blinders? And how historically accurate is what we see on screen?
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Here are the answers to all those burning questions…
Was Thomas Shelby a real person?
Nope! While some of the characters in Peaky Blinders are based on real historical figures (including politician Winston Churchill, trade unionist Jessie Eden, rival gang leader Billy Kimber and fascist leader Oswald Mosley) Cillian Murphy’s character Tommy Shelby did not actually exist. He was never the leader of a criminal organisation, he was never a factory owner, and he was never an MP.
It’s true that the Peaky Blinders were a real street gang in Birmingham. However, the show’s writer Steven Knight created the entire Shelby family from scratch and placed them at the centre of this story.
Who were the real Peaky Blinders?
The Peaky Blinders were a real-life street gang based in Birmingham. They dressed smartly and stylishly, often wearing tailored jackets, silk scarves, button waistcoats, metal-tipped leather boots and flat caps – but the idea that they wore razor blades in their peaked hats for blinding their enemies is most likely an urban legend.
While the BBC drama begins just after the Shelby boys return from the front line in 1918 and continues through the interwar period, the real Peaky Blinders actually had their heyday many years earlier.
The Blinders could be found on the streets of Birmingham 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.
The city’s violent youths and petty criminals had come together into more organised gangs, and were nicknamed “sloggers”. From the 1890s, a man called Thomas Gilbert (also known as Kevin Mooney) was believed to be at the top of the gang known as the “Peaky Blinders”, who may have been based around Small Heath (where the fictional Tommy Shelby also began his criminal career).
If this all sounds very uncertain and speculative, that’s because Birmingham’s criminal gangs left few traces in the historical record – and violence in poor parts of town often went unrecorded.
However, there is a surviving report of a violent attack in 1890, recording a serious assault on a man named George Eastwood who was drinking ginger beer at a pub: “several men known as the Peaky Blinders gang, whom Eastwood knew by sight from their living in the same neighbourhood as himself, came in” and violently attacked the teetotaller.
We also have a handful of police mugshots of young men including Harry Fowles, Ernest Haynes, and Stephen McNickle, who were jailed for offences like “shop-breaking” and bike theft, but were actually known to be part of this ruthless gang.
The gangs of Birmingham engaged in turf wars, occupying and taking control of areas of the city. However, from the 1910s the Peaky Blinders lost ground to the Birmingham Boys, a bigger organisation led by Billy Kimber (played by Charlie Creed-Miles in series one) who fiercely protected their business on the racecourses (much more successfully than we see in the TV series, it has to be said). In turn, the Birmingham Boys lost out to the Sabini gang a few years later.
So were there still “Peaky Blinders” in the 1920s?
Even if the actual Peaky Blinders had lost their top spot by the 1920s and 30s, Birmingham still had gangs and gangsters. In fact, the term “Peaky Blinders” is said to have been used as slang for any street gang in the city. Take for instance this report in the Manchester Evening News report on “Birmingham Slogging Gangs”, published in 1895: “They were members of rival gangs of ‘Peaky Blinders’ who stand at street corners to assault passers-by, or get up fights with rival gangs.”
Historian Carl Chinn has written: “Although they had disappeared before the First World War and did not exist in the 1920s, their unsavoury reputation ensured that they would not be forgotten.”
Steven Knight has also drawn on first-hand tales from his family. He explained back when he launched the drama in 2013: “My parents, particularly my dad, had these tantalising memories from when he was nine or 10 years old of these people. They were incredibly well dressed, they were incredibly powerful, they had a lot of money in an area where no one had money and… they were gangsters!”
And looking even further back into Knight family history, he told Radio Times: “My dad’s uncle was part of the Peaky Blinders. It was reluctantly delivered, but my family did give me little snapshots, of gypsies and horses and gang fights and guns, and immaculate suits.”
How historically accurate is Peaky Blinders?
Peaky Blinders presents an unashamedly heightened version of reality, mixing fact and fiction to create brilliant drama. And while it is far from being a documentary, writer Steven Knight has been inspired by the history of the time – using historical events and trends to build a compelling narrative.
That’s why, in series five, we’ll see the fallout of the 1929 Wall Street Crash on the UK economy and on the people of Birmingham. We’ll also see the rise of Oswald Mosley, who went on to found the British Union of Fascists in the 1930s.
Politics has been threaded through Peaky Blinders since the first episode, with the establishment becoming deeply concerned about the Communist “threat”.
“Men were arrested for sedition and sentenced to six years for speaking in public about Communism,” Knight said. “They were taken away and beaten up. I remember my dad saying a bloke would stand up and talk about the Russian Revolution and they’d grab him, put him in a van and you wouldn’t see him again. You think, that’s not what it says in the books. But when you do research, get papers from the period, you realise this is what happened. It’s a secret history.”
So far, the drama has also touched on post-war mental trauma, women’s rights, workers’ rights, gang warfare, Russian aristocrats in exile, racism – and even drug addiction, with everyone from Arthur to Linda to young Finn using cocaine.
“If you read the Daily Mail from those days, the big scandal was about nightclubs, everybody having cocaine from these blue bottles,” Knight said, pointing to the overblown rumours: “Everybody was having sex with everybody else, there were threesomes, orgies… People thought England was going to hell.”