The Real Story Of Thomas Shelby & His Peaky Blinders Gang

Fiction will always mirror reality. The beloved tale of Thomas Shelby & his 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.

First order of business – shattering the Peaky Blinders Thomas Shelby dream

Terribly sorry, but it has to be done to save you from the shock and disappointment:

  1. There was no Thomas Shelby – not even anyone that closely resembled the Thomas Shelby character, his brother Arthur Shelby, the Shelby family, or even the Shelby Company.
  2. The Peaky Blinders were not a force to be reckoned with, as the BBC series suggests.
Tommy Shelby and car

Junior leagues, small potatoes

In terms of organisation and scale, the Peaky Blinders were nowhere near what their pop-cultural counterpart purports them to have been. At their peak, they were probably around the benchmark of their season one portrayal (if that).  

Yes, this street gang engaged in your usual activities of robbery, hijacking, protection rackets, 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 basic economic crimes than the bigger picture. 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 rival gangs. Part of the ongoing “post-code battles” which occurred in areas such as Small Heath. 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 money there was going around, anyways. 

It speaks volumes about the true extent of a gang, when the most notable crimes Tommy Shelby equivalents were arrested for included… bike theft and home invasion. To their credit, these were the only known offences which led to these member’s arrests. Let’s leave what they could have possibly gotten away with to the imagination. 

The real life Peaky Blinders. James Jones was no Thomas Shelby.

The kids certainly aren’t alright

If you were heartbroken about there being no Thomas Shelby and the Peaky Blinders being significantly smaller potatoes than anticipated, then get ready for this next truth bomb. Most of the real Peaky 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, this was a stark reflection of the casualties England had endured post World War One. Picture it now, an entire generation of Lost Boys devoid of guardianship. Chaos was their father, and how they loved their father.  

Thomas Shelby wasn't a real person but the Peaky Blinders gang did exist.

You best believe these kids were mean to the core, though. Case in point, 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.

Thomas Gilbert or Kevin Mooney – the real Thomas Shelby?

On the subject of the gang’s senior members, the older fellas were obviously the ones running the show, akin to the Tommy Shelby depicted in the series. The man named Thomas Gilbert – who may have later become known as Kevin Mooney – was reportedly the leader of the Peaky Blinders (and a possible inspiration for the name Thomas Shelby). For years, this was the individual responsible for instigating the major land grabs.

The real Thomas Shelby, Thomas Gilbert
Senior member Thomas Gilbert.

“My suits are on the house… or the house burns down.”

One thing we can seek comfort in is the fact that the Peaky Blinders gang were dapper to the very end – something the name Tommy Shelby has become synonymous with. Tailored suits (which were uncommon for gangs at the time). Bell-bottom trousers. Overcoats upon overcoats. Silk scarfs. Steel-toed leather boots. And of course, the flat caps, famously paired with razors sewed in to restructure the faces of would-be assailants; via slashing or headbutting, essentially blinding them.

Peaky Blinders: The Real Story

Many believe the whole razor blinding habit is where their name was derived from, though it remains to be a point of contention. Historians like Carl Chinn author of Peaky Blinders: The Real Story 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…”.

As for the razor blades? They were only beginning to come in from the 1890s and were considered a luxury item – much too expensive for the Peaky Blinders to have used. Plus any hard man would tell you it’d be pretty difficult to get direction and power with a razor blade sewn into the soft part of a cap. It was a romantic notion brought about in John Douglas’s novel, A Walk Down Summer Lane.

Carl Chinn for Birmingham Mail

Bigs did fuck smalls

An Irish police constable was actually contracted to gather information, keep a close watch, and enforce law and order – much like the events surrounding the Sam Neil character Chester Campbell 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; with the support of his real-life Birmingham Boys/Brummagem Boys (also portrayed in the first season). 

Violence and bribery allowed Peaky Blinders enormous levels of control in the area. Economically, politically and socially, the Peaky Blinders called the shots and dictated the decisions. Culturally, they were dominating the scene.

– Jessica Brain for Historic UK

The demise of the real Peaky Blinders

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 achieving expansions that enabled them to seize racecourses, they caught the unwanted attention of the real-life Billy Kimber – who was believed to be a Peaky Blinder himself at some point.

There was backlash. The Peaky Blinders moved away into the countryside to avoid any further harm. And it seems like the story ends there – but it doesn’t.

Soon after, the Sabini rival 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. Years later, former members grew ashamed of their actions with old, according to Chinn. The term “Peaky Blinders” or to be a “Peaky Blinder” eventually became nothing more than a generic term describing violent street youth.

RELATED: 4 Life Lessons Every Man Can Learn From Thomas Shelby