A recent British series and upcoming film follows the activities of the Peaky Blinders, a crime gang that terrorised Birmingham in England’s West Midlands in the decade after the First World War. While the characters in the show are invented, the notorious gang did indeed exist and operated from the 1880s until the 1910s.
Birmingham was one of the power bases of the Industrial Revolution. But while the bourgeoisie benefitted, urban conditions for workers and their families were terrible. By the 19th century, economic hardship centred on slums such as Small Heath and Cheapside had led to a violent subculture. When the police started to crack down on gambling dens, so-called ‘slogging gangs’, comprising of angry youth, emerged. Boys as young as twelve began picking pockets, moving on into assaults, beatings and stabbings.
The most violent of these street gangs organised themselves into a group known as the Peaky Blinders. They were likely founded in Small Heath, possibly by a man named Thomas Mucklow, whose name appeared in an article in 1890. This group, while not really organised, certainly enjoyed the attention. After gangsters attacked a man, members sent a letter to various national newspapers claiming they, as Peaky Blinders, were responsible.
The Peaky Blinders established controlled territory and began expanding their criminal enterprise. Their activities included protection rackets, fraud, smuggling, hijacking, robbery and illegal bookmaking. The group was known for its violence towards rival gangs, civilians and police constables. Gang wars frequently erupted, which led to fights and shootouts. The Peaky Blinders used an assortment of weapons, including guns, belt buckles, metal-tipped boots, fire irons, canes and knives.
After a decade, the Peaky Blinders’ growing influence brought on the attention of a larger gang, the Birmingham Boys. This led to a violent backlash, and Peaky Blinder families physically distanced themselves from Birmingham’s centre into the countryside. With their withdrawal from the criminal underworld, other gangs predominated in the city. Harsher policing and sentencing also contributed to a decrease in their influence, and by the 1920s the Peaky Blinders had disappeared.
DRESSED TO IMPRESS
The name Peaky Blinders is rumoured to have come from razor blades sewn into gang members’ caps (‘peaky’ at the time referred to any flat cap with a peak) so that when they headbutted people it would potentially blind them. However, as replaceable safety razors were predominent in Britain by that time, this may be pure hearsay. More likely is that ‘blinder’ referred to gang members’ smart, dapper outfits; a “blinder” in Birmingham slang is someone who dresses to impress. Highly unusual for gangs of the time, members frequently wore distinctive tailored clothing easily recognisable by city inhabitants, police, and rival gang members. Almost all members wore a cap and an overcoat. Others wore tailored suits usually with bell-bottom trousers and smart jackets. Wealthier members wore silk scarves and starched collars. The wives, girlfriends and mistresses of the gang members were known for wearing pearls, silks, and colourful scarves.