While the TV series is by no means 100% accurate, it does reflect life in Birmingham around this period.
Fact and fiction are woven together to create a dramatic and riveting story far more glamorous than the real thing! Actual events such as the introduction into the series of Oswald Mosley, founder of the British Union of Fascists, and the effects of the Wall Street Crash are accurately portrayed.
Although the gangs were centered around low-class industrial areas of Birmingham such as Small Heath and Cheapside, a fair portion of the series is shot in Manchester, Leeds, and Liverpool.
A major difference in the time sequence is that the series is set in 1918 to 1920 as the Shelby boys return from the first World War, whereas the real Peaky Blinders were active around 1890.
Formation of Gangs in 1890 Birmingham
A number of gangs were created out of unemployment, poverty, and squalid living conditions.
Towards the end of the 1880’s the main gangs were The Wainwright Street Gang, The Whitehouse Street Gang, and the Ten Arches Gang. These consisted of young thugs who were responsible for petty theft, assault on passers-by, and vicious attacks on anyone they took a dislike to.
A rare record of one such attack, reported in 1890, was on George Eastwood, a mild-mannered teetotaller who was enjoying a ginger beer in a pub when he was violently and ruthlessly beaten for no apparent reason.
Origin of the Peaky Blinders
By 1895 these gangs had united to become known as the ‘Birmingham Slogging Gang’ or more commonly “Sloggers” or ‘Peaky Blinders.’ Details of their criminal activities are preserved in the West Midlands Police Museum. In the TV series, Thomas Shelby’s mother is depicted as a Romany traveler and the family’s strong ties to travelers is a theme throughout.
It appears that the real Peaky Blinders recruited young men from English, Irish and Romany bloodlines. Thomas Gilbert (aka Kevin Mooney) who, like Thomas Shelby, was based in and around Small Heath, was a recognized boss at the time. He was supported by senior gang members, Harry Fowler, Ernest Haynes, Stephen McHickie (also referred to as McNickle), 12-year-old Charles Lambourne, and 13-year-old David Taylor.
The character of Thomas Shelby is not, as might be expected, based on Gilbert but was most likely inspired by Billy Kimber who created The Birmingham Boys, fierce rivals of the Peaky Blinders. Unlike most of the real gang leaders, Thomas Shelby is portrayed as a wealthy, educated, if ruthless, businessman involved in politics and local affairs.
The Peaky Blinders members consist mainly of his family, who are always very smartly dressed, sporting silk scarves, steel-toed boots, and smart peaked caps. The blades concealed in their caps are thought to have inspired the name Peaky Blinders but, in fact, this is very likely a myth. Blades had only just been invented in the late 1890s when the actual Peaky Blinders were around and were prohibitively expensive. It is more likely that the name originated from their peak caps and the slang word Blinders meaning posh or well-dressed.
Nowadays, gambling is legal in the UK and most countries, with major casinos and related casino sites easily available online for all. However, things were far different and more dangerous back then. The Turf Wars, especially relating to illegal bookmaking, is one aspect of the TV series which correlates accurately with real events of the time. Gambling was prohibited after the Gambling Act was passed in the mid-1800s, and illegal betting at the racecourse was rife.
Billy Kimber and the Birmingham Boys controlled this area and did not take kindly to any other gangs muscling in on their turf. Thomas Shelby’s control of the race tracks starting in the first series lends more weight to the likelihood that his character is based on Billy Kimber.
The gradual phasing out of gangs occurred due to the industrial boom experienced by Birmingham towards the 1930s. Due to the growth experienced by the city, poverty and therefore violence diminished and the notorious Peaky Blinders found their place in history.