Fiction will always mirror reality. The beloved tale of the Peaky Blinders that we've come to know/love/binge is no different. You read that correctly, there were actual Peaky Blinders. And although this might sound wildly exciting, it really wasn't any sexier than your usual Birmingham gang. Here's the story behind the real-life Thomas Shelby & his Peaky Blinders.
First order of business - shattering the dream. Terribly sorry, but it has to be done to save anyone from potential disappointment:
- There was no Thomas Shelby (not even anyone that closely resembled him in character).
- They were not a force to be reckoned with as the show suggests.
Junior leagues, small potatoes
In terms of organisation and scale, the Blinders were nowhere near what their pop cultural counterpart purports them to have been. At their peak, the closest benchmark for what they actually were would probably be the season one portrayal (if that).
Yes, they engaged in your usual acts of robbery, hijacking, protection rackets, your odd bouts of bribery, fraud, smuggling, and yes, bookmaking. But to say they were an organised crime syndicate would be giving them far too much credit. As historians from institutions such as the University of Leeds will tell you, they were more of a street gang interested in basic violent and economic crimes than the supposed larger scheme. Shenanigans associated with taking racecourses and such did occur, but more on that later.
The majority of their time was spent street fighting against other gangs. Part of the ongoing "post-code battles" with rivals and whatnot. In the economically disadvantaged slums of Birmingham between the 1890s and 1930s, territory was everything. And as far as crime went, maintaining territory was the only way to make any real money. What little there was going around, anyways.
It speaks volumes about the true extent of a gang when some of the most notable crimes senior members were arrested for included bike theft and home invasion. To their credit, these were the only known offences they were caught for. Lets leave what they could have possibly gotten away with to the imagination.
The kids aren't alright
If you were heartbroken about there being no Thommy Shelby and the Blinders being significantly smaller potatoes than anticipated, then get ready for this next truth bomb. Most of the Blinders were nothing more than kids. From the ages of twelve to twenty-nine. And that isn't to say this was a purely juvenile enterprise. In the context of the 1910s, around the middle of their lifespan, this was a reflection of the casualties England had endured post WWI. Picture it now, an entire generation of Lost Boys devoid of guardianship. Chaos was their father, and how they loved their father.
You best believe these kids were mean to the core, though. A one David Taylor was arrested at age thirteen for carrying a loaded gun. Taylor would remain in the gang into adulthood, later becoming a senior member.
On the subject of senior members, the older fellas were obviously the ones running the show. Members like Thomas Gilbert, the most prominent of the Blinders, was responsible for instigating the major land grabs. Sort of a soft hierarchy.
"My suits are on the house... or the house burns down." - Thomas Shelby
One thing we can seek comfort in is the fact that the Peaky Blinders were dapper to the very end. Tailored suits - uncommon for gangs at the time. Bell-bottom trousers. Overcoats upon overcoats. Silk scarfs. Steel-toed leather boots. And of course, the flat caps with razors sewed in to restructure the faces of would-be assailants via slashing or headbutting, essentially blinding them. Many believe this is where their name is derived from, though this remains to be a point of contention. Historians like Carl Chinn assert that "peaky" was a common descriptor for their cap with a peak at the time, and "blinder" was common Birmingham slang to describe someone who was dapper, "... striking enough to blind...".
Bigs did fuck smalls
An Irish police constable really was contracted to enforce law and order, much like the events surrounding Sam Neil's character in season one. But this constable wasn't sent by Churchill, and he certainly wasn't their downfall. The end of the Peaky Blinders as Birmingham knew them came into effect when they were overtaken by the real-life Billy Kimber and his real-life Birmingham Boys/Brummagem Boys (also portrayed in the first season).
After a decade long run of graduating from the junior leagues, achieving local political control via bribery and intimidation, generating a respectable amount of black revenue, and expansions that lead to the seizures of racecourses, they caught the unwanted attention of Kimber and the Birmingham Boys.
There was backlash. Violent backlash. The Blinders moved away into the countryside to avoid any further harm. And it seems like the story ends there. But it doesn't.
Big really did fuck small.
Soon after, the Sabini gang (portrayed in the second season) made a move on Kimber and the Birmingham Boys, establishing themselves as king shit of Central England. The latter slinked away in their hidey holes when they were faced by a more dominant criminal force. Heavy lies the crown, as they say. And if you can't bear the brunt of the weight, someone else will.
The Peaky Blinders faded into the margins of history, gangs no longer identifying under the namesake. Former members grew ashamed of their actions as they aged, according to Chinn. The term "peaky blinders" became the generic term to describe violent street youth.
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