Okay, so we’re all obsessed with BBC’s hit show Peaky Blinders. But not all of us know the story behind it. Everyone’s asking: Are the characters based on real people? Was the gang based on a real one? Obviously, the more “real” a story is, the more fun it gets to watch – and get deeply involved in – the show. So, here’s the very realistic good and bad news: The show is both real and dramatized (go figure!).
So, if you’re curious as to what is real and what was created for good ol’ dramatic effect, then you’re in the right place. We take a look at the real Peaky Blinders to see if the actual Birmingham Gang lived up to their reputation as fearless underworld royals of 19th century England. Or were they just a bunch of petty criminals?
What Does Peaky Blinders Mean?
Peaky Blinders has gone along for the ride of the longstanding rumor that the gang was named for their habit of sewing razor blades into their flat caps. You know, the caps they swiftly remove from their heads to blind or disfigure their opponents with a slash. Yeah, “ouch” is right.
But the truth behind the name isn’t as gory. Circumstantial evidence makes this tale seem unlikely. To begin, disposable razor blades were relatively new to the U.K. during the last decade of the 1800s, when the Peaky Blinders were active. According to historian Carl Chinn, they were an expensive luxury item who wrote the book Peaky Blinders: The Legacy.
Almost Certainly a Myth
I know, it’s more fun for us to think (as much as we don’t openly admit it) that the more violent trend of hiding razor blades in their caps was the real source for the name. But we’re here to learn the truth, right? Unfortunately, Chinn told The Birmingham Mail that the would-be new and brutal weapon is almost certainly a myth.
Although it has yet to be proven, the more probable theory regarding the name suggests that the gang owed their title to their signature style: peaked caps, cravats (neckbands), bell-bottom trousers, and jackets with brass buttons. The gang members were also known to wear pearls and silk scarves.
What Were “Peakys” and “Blinders”?
Their style became synonymous with the gang itself. Perhaps their most notable accessory was the peaked cap they wore, known informally as a “peaky.” The slang term “blinder” likely referred to someone who was strikingly dressed. Yet another theory suggests that “Peaky Blinders” came from using the caps to disguise their faces from the victims so they wouldn’t be identified, hence “blind.”
The Peaky Blinders were a stylish bunch of chaps, and their image added a touch of class to their brutish ways. It’s one of the ways they were set apart from other gangs, like the Birmingham Boys, who wore casual clothes. Regardless of its origin, the name stuck and became a namesake for other gangs long after the Peaky Blinders fell from grace.
Who Were the Real Peaky Blinders?
Okay, we know they were a stylish gang, but who were they? Show creator and writer Steven Knight told the BBC in 2016 that his show is “based on real events.” Now, while there was no actual Tommy Shelby (played brilliantly by Cillian Murphy), there were some very real characters.
So, that’s the thing: The central Shelby family of Peaky Blinders is complete fiction. There was no gang with the name Shelby. That said, the very real world they lived in had actual historical figures who constantly interacted with the show’s main characters.
The Era Was Inaccurate
The Peaky Blinders were a notorious Birmingham gang involved in robbery, gambling, protection rackets, and violence during the 1890s and early 1900s. The setting of the show, however, is set in the 1920s. The BBC and Screen Rant report that the events of the series took place by the time the real gang were already a thing of the past.
Chinn explained that his research uncovered that the gang was first referenced in a report about an unprovoked attack on a man in 1890. “Although they had disappeared before the First World War and did not exist in the 1920s, their unsavory reputation ensured that they would not be forgotten,” Chinn stated.
Back in “France”
As we saw in the series, the Shelby boys – Tommy and Arthur in particular – were World War I veterans. Part of the characters’ deep-rooted stories involved their frequent, brutal bouts of post-traumatic stress. But, according to Digital Spy, the Peaky Blinders weren’t veterans of the Great War, or “France,” as Tommy referred to it.
By the 1920s, the main area of their operations, Small Heath, had grown larger, and the gang’s members drifted apart as they aged and found better things to do with their lives. However, their name and notorious violence made them national stars, so to speak.
His Dad’s Uncle Was in the Peaky Blinders
They and other gangs were famous for their violence and “fighting with metal-tipped boots, stones, belt buckles and sometimes knives.” Knight gave some insight into the backstory: “My parents, particularly my dad, had these tantalizing memories from when he was nine or ten years old of these people. They were incredibly well dressed,” he described.
“They were incredibly powerful, and they had a lot of money in an area where no one had money and… they were gangsters.” Knight explained that his father’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.”
The Mythology, the Story
Knight told History Extra one of the tales that inspired his show, and it centers on his father’s childhood experience. The young boy, who was sent to deliver a message, found a group of eight well-dressed men sitting around a table covered in cash.
Each one of them wore a peaked cap with a gun tucked inside their pocket. Knight said, “That image — smoke, booze and these immaculately dressed men in this slum in Birmingham. I thought, that’s the mythology, that’s the story, and that’s the first image I started to work with.”
As for the Girlfriends
As for the Blinders’ girlfriends, the dapper ladies also had a distinct look. They donned a “lavish display of pearls” and flashy silk handkerchiefs draped over their throats. They would wear their hair with heavy, long bangs. Their bangs (or “fringe”) was something the lads knew to avoid.
According to Philip Gooderson, author of The Gangs of Birmingham, these gang members were often violent towards their girlfriends. One of these women was quoted as saying, “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.”
The Gang’s Antics
Arthur Matthison was a paint and varnish manufacturer who happened to witness the gang’s antics firsthand. He described the typical Peaky Blinder as one who “took pride in his personal appearance and dressed the part with skill.”
As per a letter dated July 21, 1898, which was sent to the Birmingham Daily Mail by a “workman:” “No matter what part of the city one walks, gangs of ‘peaky blinders’ are to be seen, who oft-times think nothing of grossly insulting passersby, be it a man, woman or child.”
We know that there were actual gangsters, including Harry Fowles, David Taylor, Stephen McHickie, and Thomas Gilbert. What’s amusing is just how much these notorious gang members were really just a bunch of baby-faced kids. I mean, even their mug shots make you want to pinch their cheeks.
In the series, we met Michael Gray, the 17-year-old who started out overseeing the gang’s accounting. That is, until he broke bad. The real Peaky Blinders, though, presumably had little need for bookkeeping. It appears that they recruited members who were a lot younger than you would expect.
Not Just “Hang-Around,” Wannabe Gangsters
According to the BBC, the Birmingham gang’s most prominent members included David Taylor, who was 13, and Charles Lambourne, who just 12. There were, of course, older Peaky Blinders who wielded more power, but the kids were far from just “hang-around” members pretending to be gangsters.
These kids got deep into gang business, just as their elders did. For instance, we even know of David Taylor because he was arrested and put in jail for carrying a gun. Yes, the streets of Birmingham were rough indeed.
“By Ordhah of the Peaky Blindahs!”
It turns out that the real Peaky Blinders didn’t live up to their notoriety. In the show, Arthur Shelby loved to yell out “By ordhah of the Peaky Blindahs!” And, as the BBC reports, the real Blinders were basically a bunch of Arthurs, without the ambition. They were ruthless thugs who targeted anyone and everyone.
What made them legends was their physical fighting prowess. According to The Birmingham Mail, the real Blinders had no extra-resourceful family like the Shelbys to drive their ambition. As a result, their level of power was significantly lower than their fictional counterparts.
Nowhere Near as Powerful
In the series, the Blinders were constantly at odds with the law. The first half of the series was basically Tommy Shelby vs. Inspector Chester Campbell (played by Sam Neill). The Telegraph notes that the real Blinders were a heck of a lot less offensive in the eyes of the public and law enforcement.
In fact, there are court reports from the era that mostly write the gang off as “foul-mouthed young men who stalk the streets in drunken groups, insulting and mugging passers-by.” They reportedly did earn money from running protection rackets, gambling, and black-market stuff, but actual arrest papers show that they weren’t remotely close to the Tommy Shelby-style gangsters.
The Blinders vs. the Coppers
They may not have been Shelbys, but they still caused some real damage. Days before the concerned “workman” wrote that letter (mentioned earlier), a street brawl occurred between the Blinders and the police, which resulted in one officer’s death.
As reported on History Extra, Officer George Snipe was patrolling Birmingham when he and his colleague ran into six or seven gang members. According to their report, they had been “drinking all the day and fighting all the evening,”. Snipe arrested a 23-year-old named William Colerain for using “lewd language,” but Colerain’s friends quickly came to his rescue.
A Matter of “Penal Servitude”
The clash that followed involved one of the young men throwing a brick at Snipe’s head, resulting in his skull being fractured in two places. The cop died early the next morning. 19-year-old George “Cloggy Williams” was found guilty of manslaughter and sentenced to a lifetime of “penal servitude.”
It was a fate that The Birmingham Daily Post noted should serve as a warning to “every rowdy in Birmingham.” According to David Cross, a historian at the West Midlands Police Museum, the Blinders targeted “anybody who looked vulnerable,” and “anything that could be taken, they would take it.”
The Earliest Reference
On March 23, 1890, a group led by Thomas Mucklow attacked a younger man named George Eastwood after the kid ordered a non-alcoholic ginger beer at a pub. Since he was outnumbered, Eastwood suffered “serious bodily contusions” and a skull fracture.
The London Daily News identified the perpetrators of the crime as members of the “Small Heath Peaky Blinders,” and the incident was called a “murderous assault” by The Daily Post. It was this mention that Chinn said represents the earliest known written reference to the gang that dominated Birmingham until the dawn of World War I. The Birmingham Boys then took over in the 1920s.
Thomas Gilbert, aka Kevin Mooney
Contrary to popular belief, most of the Blinders were from middle-class families and had jobs. The most powerful member was a man known as Kevin Mooney. His real name, however, was Thomas Gilbert, but he routinely changed his last name.
He was the one who initiated many of the crimes undertaken by the gang. There were other Blinders, including Harry Fowles, Ernest Bayles, and Stephen McNickle, who were arrested for committing crimes such as breaking and entering, “false pretenses,” and – get this – bicycle theft. Mugshots of Fowles, Bayles, McNickle, and Gilbert detail these minor offenses.
Harry Fowles, aka Baby-Faced Harry
Thanks to the West Midlands Police Museum, we can see that Fowles, known as “Baby-faced Harry,” was arrested in 1904, at age 19, for stealing a bicycle. He later fought in World War I, and during combat, he reportedly spent 12 hours buried alive by a mortar bombardment.
He emerged from the battle with serious injuries. According to historian Corinne Brazier, the severely injured veteran made a living by selling postcards of himself dressed as a female nurse after the war. As for McNickle and Haynes, they were arrested around the same time as Fowles, for stealing a bicycle and home invasion, respectively. Each was held for one month.
The Brummagem Boys
Interestingly, there really was a powerful, post-WWI gang around Birmingham that had a clear leadership structure and waged war with some of the gangsters seen in the series, according to The Birmingham Mail. Even though Knight chose to “base” it on the Peaky Blinders, another gang mirrored Tommy Shelby’s operation.
So, why didn’t the showrunners use that gang instead of the Peaky Blinders? Well, according to Chinn, it’s because the Blinders’ label is shrouded in legend and “infused in gangsterdom.” Meanwhile, another real gang was making all the moves after the Great War.
A Shabby Group of Misfits
The Brummagem Boys were the ones making headlines in the late 1800s. The Brummagem Boys were noted by The Birmingham Mail as a “loose collection of pick-pockets, racecourse thieves, and pests.” The shabby group of misfits eventually transformed into a more powerful organization after WWI, but the Blinders were already long gone by that point.
The gang, which later was simply referred to as the Birmingham Gang, was at least given a nod in the show as the “Birmingham Boys,” an early group of bad guys led by Billy Kimber, who was a real person…
The Real Billy Kimber
One character based on reality was rival gang leader and sleazy racehorse mogul Billy Kimber (who died at the end of the first season). Kimber was a real historical figure whose criminal gang-controlled racetracks. The Birmingham Mail reports that the real Kimber was a rather charismatic local criminal who was less traumatized but just as hardcore as Tommy Shelby.
Kimber was an intelligent, ruthless man and resourceful fighter. After the Great War, he began leading the Birmingham Gang and got involved in the same kind of shenanigans that the Shelbys did. He interacted with Peaky Blinders members.
Billy Kimber vs. Tommy Shelby
Like Tommy, Kimber ultimately became the biggest gangster in the country. Kimber eventually took his operations to London and moved on to bigger circles. Sure, he and Tommy Shelby share some major similarities, but there were some differences between the real and fictional characters.
Whereas Tommy Shelby was a war hero, Kimber was more of a deserter. He didn’t become a member of Parliament, either. Instead, he started a new life in America as a gangster and later as a legitimate racecourse business owner. Kimber died in 1945.
The Real Alfie Solomons
Like Kimber, Tom Hardy’s Jewish gangster, Alfie Solomons, was the real deal. Ironically, he was one of the colorful villains who you would assume was fictional. But as the JC reports, Solomons did exist and story has it that he operated much as he does in the show.
However, according to Knight, Solomons’ acts and personality in the show are “based on legend,” which is due to lack of precise information. But Solomons wasn’t the only reality-based character in the series. Other antagonists like Billy Kimber and Darby Sabini were both real gangsters of the era.
The Real Charles “Darby” Sabini
Darby Sabini (played by Noah Taylor) showed up in Season Two, and he’s one of the few characters based on real historical figures. Sabini was based on the real British-Italian gangster of the same name who was based in Clerkenwell, London.
Sabini was married to a woman named Annie Emma Potter, and they had three daughters and one son together. Sabini left school in 1902 at the age of 13 to work with boxing promoter Dan Sullivan. Eventually, he became the leader of “the Sabinis” and was known as the “king of the racecourse gangs.”
Sabini vs. Kimber
Sabini ran the London underworld and racetracks throughout the south of England during the early and mid-20th century. The gang also got involved in extortion, theft and nightclubs. The gang was believed to have around 100 members, and Sabini himself established police and political connections.
Sabini caught the attention of other gangs, including Billy Kimber’s Birmingham Boys. Sabini and Kimber were rivals, and, after a feud, Sabini drove Kimber and other rival gangs out of their position as protection rackets at racetracks. There’s no evidence, however, to suggest that the Sabinis came into conflict with the Peaky Blinders.
The Real Winston Churchill
Of course, Winston Churchill was another real-life character seen in Peaky Blinders. The cabinet minister was portrayed in the first season by Andy Nyman and in the second by Richard McCabe. He appeared in the show as a cabinet minister long before he led the country.
Churchill made several appearances in the show, and even though it’s cool to feature one of history’s most important figures, it didn’t make much sense from a historical standpoint. Churchill would never have interacted with the real Peaky Blinders and that’s because of the time period.
The Real Oswald Mosley
The show’s other villain, Oswald Mosley (played by Sam Claflin), is also borrowed from the history books. During the 1930s, Mosley was a British politician who led the nation’s anti-Semitic fascist movement. According to the BBC, his streetfighters – known as “blackshirts” – were known for their violence against Jews and left-wing opponents.
He was friendly with Mussolini, and Hitler was guest of honor at his second wedding. Mosley was arrested in 1940, but he was never formally charged with a crime, nor did he stand trial. He and his wife were later interned under Defense Regulation 18B.
The Real Brilliant Chang
Season Five’s drug kingpin Brilliant Chang (played by Andrew Koji) was another real-life figure. A restaurant owner and a powerful criminal known as the “dope king,” Chang was born in China in 1886, and when he came to the U.K. in 1913, he opened a Chinese restaurant in Birmingham.
He later relocated to London and started dealing opium and cocaine. A 1928 British newspaper dubbed Chang a “dope king.” His downfall came when he was implicated in the death of a bar maid named Freda Kempton, who died from an overdose of cocaine in 1922.
The Real Economic League and Section D
Season Three of the show featured Paddy Considine, the priest and member of a shady far-right organization, identified as the Economic League or Section D. There actually was an Economic League, and it was founded in 1919 by wealthy industrialists.
They blacklisted left-wing figures whom they regarded as rebellious. The Guardian reported that the League was finally closed in 1993 after a campaign in parliament. However, its activities continued under a new name. There was a U.K. military intelligence wing called Section D, and it was created in 1922. They performed covert political actions during times of war.
If you’re anything like me, after seeing scene after scene of the series’ stars smoking non-stop, you probably wondered ‘just how many cigarettes did they smoked on the set?!’ As it turns out, the cigarettes the characters are constantly smoking were neither real nor period-accurate.
GQ Australia tells us that Cillian Murphy alone went through an estimated 5,000 cigarettes over the course of the first five seasons. Smoking, however, is forbidden on set, so the “cigarettes” Murphy and his co-stars are perpetually holding are actually herbal rose cigarettes. The actors said they avoid inhaling the smoke. Helen McCrory (who plays Polly Gray) jokingly put it: “No actors were killed in the making of Peaky Blinders.”
Dressing the Part
The stylish 1920s fashion plays a huge part in Peaky Blinders’ appeal. So much so that Esquire has released a guide on how to dress like the characters. The show’s costume designer Stephanie Collie revealed the secret to the series’ tailored allure. The secret is staying faithful to the era while giving it a slight “Hollywood” twist.
The main characters’ suits are tailored, but some things were largely dropped, like the typical bell-bottom pants and silk scarfs that the Blinders had an affinity for. The men’s haircuts were inspired by the book Crooks Like Us, which features Australian convicts’ photos.
The White Stuff
The presence of cocaine seems strange in the world of Peaky Blinders, right? Arthur Shelby is shoveling incredible amounts of it into his nose. Even his do-gooder wife Linda picks up the habit. But there was a reason the writers involved the drug in the show.
According to Volteface, cocaine was very much around during WWI, so it would be very likely that Arthur, a veteran of many battles in France, would have picked up the dirty habit at some point. Even if he didn’t, post-war society didn’t exactly erase the taste for the drug. Sherlock Holmes himself used it for “intellectual stimulation.”
The Price of War
Peaky Blinders never intended to be historically accurate, but Knight said that he did want to make a general point about Britain’s history, particularly the psychological damage war had on young men. “One of the wider issues that I wanted to point out was that all of these men had returned from the First World War where they had been instructed to carry out mass murder every day on an unprecedented, industrial scale,” Knight said.
He explained how these young men returned extremely damaged and became violent because of their experiences. “So, you have that very interesting dynamic of men returning from the front line and finding they cannot live an ordinary life.”
Real Communism Fears
We’ve mentioned characters who were real, but there are also themes in Peaky Blinders that were historically accurate. One was the fear of Communism. Alongside the First World War was another political development: the Communist Revolution in Russia.
The fear of Communism that was seen in the show was a real thing, and it spread rampantly across the rest of Europe. In the show, we saw the suspicion of someone being outed as a communist, and it was clear the level of distrust and hatred that many felt towards the movement.
Horse Racing Was Very Real
Something else we saw on the show was that Peaky Blinders was running bets on horse races. This is an accurate representation of the time, as gambling was prohibited. With the lack of other organized forms of gambling, there was a serious rise in horse racing.
With that, large amounts of money were bet on the races. The Peaky Blinders used it to their advantage to make a serious profit from the whole operation. The show is also pretty accurate regarding the day’s betting practices, as gangs often ran the operations.
The IRA Was Fabricated
We’ve been on a roll with the people and issues that were historically accurate in Peaky Blinders. But one common theme of the show was the Peaky Blinders’ dealings with the IRA (the Irish Republican Army). The truth is the IRA rose to prominence immediately after World War I.
And while it’s accurate that the IRA was active during the era of the show, most of what was shown of the organization is inaccurate. Peaky Blinders uses the IRA to create, undoubtedly, an interesting story. However, they weren’t worried too much about the historical accuracy.
Visiting Birmingham Anytime Soon?
Prisons were another recurring theme throughout the show. The HM Prison Birmingham now offers tours, seeing that it was one of the Birmingham prisons that hosted the real-life Peaky Blinders during their heyday.
The prison sits inside Birmingham’s Steelhouse Lane police station. The Victorian-era building operated as a Police facility until 2017 when it was shuttered. It’s known as the Lock-Up and was taken over by a private company that turned it into a museum telling the rich story of the affiliation with crime and gang activity in the area.
Inspector Steve Rice laid down some facts about the real-life Peaky Blinders. “People often ask me if the Peaky Blinders are a real gang. They were, and they caused misery to a lot of people in the city, so we are careful not to glorify their actions.”
But he noted that they like to give people the facts about them. For instance, instead of being transported to a major prison, as seen in the series, many petty criminals of the Peaky Blinders type were held at the Lock-Up while waiting to go to court.