When the Peaky Blinders television series first aired in 2013 it had all the hallmarks to become a smash hit. Stylish, gruesome and dark. Telling the story and exploits of Thomas Shelby and his family, the Peaky Blinders were ruthless in their criminal endeavours. Aimed with razors within the peaks of their paperboy hats the gang would profit from illegal bookmaking and target anyone who got in their way.
Set after the First World War in 1919 the series would continue to show their rise to power over time. Whilst the series has been a massive success it has also gained a lot of attention from historians. The truth about the Peaky Blinders gang in Birmingham maintains the dark gritty aspect of the series but the Shelby family were certainly not a part of it.
Professor Carl Chinn is a historian specialising in the real role that the gang played in Birmingham. The author of The Real Peaky Blinders is quick to point out that the timeline for the series is completely wrong.
"By the early 20th century the Peaky Blinders had disappeared. The idea that the Peaky Blinders took their name from their flat caps into the peaks of which they has sewn razorblades is a false one. It's a myth, there is no evidence at all to support it."
The timeline and the razorblades has now ruled out as merely poetic licence. There is no doubt that the gang still terrorised the people of Birmingham. Professor Chin continued to say that: "People were scared of the Peaky Blinders in the 1890s...they caused mayhem where they were aloud to and they picked on the innocent."
The real gang first came to prominence in the media on the 24th March 1890 in the Birmingham Mail. The article stated that:
"A serious assault was committed upon a young man named George Eastwood. Living at 3 court, 2 house, Arthur Street, Small Heath, on Saturday night. It seems that Eastwood, who has been for some time a total abstainer, called between ten and eleven o'clock at the Rainbow Public House in Adderly Street, and was supplied with a bottle of ginger beer. Shortly afterwards several men known as the "Peaky Blinders" gang, whom Eastwood knew by sight from their living in the same neighborhood as himself, came in."
The land grabs by Gilbert and others allowed for the gang to grow from their original stomping ground of Small Heath. With each land grab the gang were able to insert their influence over local businesses. It also allowed them to recruit more youthful members of the gang.
One such recruit was Harry Fowles. Referred to as “Baby-faced Harry", Fowles was part of the youth culture that the Peaky Blinders aimed to encourage. Arrested in 1904 for stealing a bike, the 19 year-old would have made his way to the holding prison on Steelhouse Lane in Birmingham where we would spend up to the night before going through the tunnel to the magistrates. It would have a similar fate for any of the gang who got caught.
Fowles was not the youngest to get caught and punished. David Taylor was only 13 years-old when he was arrested for possession of a loaded firearm.
Others like Stephen McNickle and Earnest Haynes were also arrested. West Midlands police records described them as: "foul mouthed young men who stalk the streets in drunken groups, insulting and mugging passers-by."
The influence of the gang would soon decline. The emergence of Billy Kimber's Birmingham Boys would soon take over. Whilst the series portrays it other way around, it would be Kimber (who was a former Peaky Blinder himself) who faced the rival Sabini gang.
One key reason why the gang began to fade was that they opted to expand its empire into racecourses. The escalation of violence between the Peaky Blinders and the Birmingham Boys saw many leaving Birmingham into the safer countryside. Over time their influence, contacts and lands were usperted by Kimber's gang.
It is somewhat bemusing that the story ends there. The series would of course continue seeing Tommy and his gang take over and even go on to enter Parliament. Yet the gang that stood up to Billy Kimber never did anything of the sort. Instead they ran with some joining Kimber's gang. In short, the fearsome Peaky Blinders that is portrayed is simply great television. The real gang, whilst still feared by the people of Birmingham, were the starter for Billy Kimber's main course of gangs in the Midlands of England.