Fiction often mirrors reality. And the tale of both Thomas Shelby, as well as the Peaky Blinders, that we’ve come to know/love/binge is no different. You read that correctly: the real Peaky Blinders once roamed Birmingham.
While the mere prospect of all this might sound wildly exciting, the truth is, it really wasn’t any sexier than your standard Birmingham gang during the early 1900s.
First Order of Business: Shattering the Illusion
We apologise for what you’re about to read, but it has to be done to save you from even greater disappointment in the long run:
- There was no real-life Thomas Shelby… not even anyone that closely resembled the Thomas Shelby character, nor his brother Arthur Shelby, the Shelby family as a whole, or even the Shelby Company.
- The real-life Peaky Blinders were not a force to be reckoned with in stark contrast to the deeply influential criminal enterprise creator Steven Knight featured in his universally-acclaimed BBC series.
Junior Leagues, Small Potatoes
In terms of organisation and scale, the Peaky Blinders were nowhere near what their fictional counterpart purported them to have been. At their very height, they were probably around the benchmark of their season 1 portrayal (and that’s still being optimistic).
Yes, this street gang engaged in your usual activities of robbery, hijacking, protection rackets, odd bouts of bribery, fraud, smuggling, and of course, bookmaking. To say they were an organised crime syndicate, however, 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 violence and basic economic crimes as opposed to the bigger picture. Shenanigans associated with taking racecourses and such did occur (more on this later).
The majority of their time was spent brawling on the street with 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. As far as crime went, maintaining territory was the only way to make any real money. What little money there was going around in that era, anyways.
It speaks volumes about the true extent of the gang when the most notable crimes Tommy Shelby equivalents were arrested for included – drum roll, please – bike theft and home invasion. To their credit, these were the only known offences that led to members’ arrests. Let’s leave what they could have possibly gotten away with to the imagination, shall we?
The Kids Certainly Aren’t Alright
If you were heartbroken about there being no real-life Thomas Shelby and the Peaky Blinders being significantly smaller potatoes than anticipated, then get ready for this next truth bomb: most of the real-life gang members of the Peaky Blinders were nothing more than kids.
From the ages of 12 to 29, to be exact, but that isn’t to say this was an exclusively juvenile enterprise. In the context of the 1910s, this was a reflection of the casualties England had endured post-World War I. 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. Case in point, one David Taylor was arrested at age 13 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-Life Thomas Shelby?
On the subject of the gang’s senior members, the older fellas were obviously the ones running the show, similar to the Tommy Shelby depicted in the series.
The man named Thomas Gilbert – who may have later adopted the name Kevin Mooney – was reportedly the Peaky Blinders’ de facto leader (and a possible inspiration for the name Thomas Shelby). For years, this was the individual responsible for instigating the major land grabs.
“My Suits Are On The House… Or The House Burns Down.”
One thing we can seek comfort in is the fact that the real-life Peaky Blinders were immaculately dressed men to the very end – something the name Thomas Shelby has since become synonymous with. Tailored suits (which were uncommon for gangs at the time). Bell-bottom trousers. Overcoats upon overcoats. Silk scarves. 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, thereby blinding them.
Peaky Blinders: The Real Story
Many believe the whole razor-blinding habit is how they derived their name, though it’s still 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 Fook 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 1. But this constable wasn’t sent by Winston Churchill and he certainly wasn’t their downfall.
The end of the Peaky Blinders 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 The 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-Life Peaky Blinders
After a decade-long run of graduating from the junior leagues, achieving local political control through 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.
Obviously, there was backlash. The Peaky Blinders moved away into the countryside to avoid any further harm. Soon after, the Sabini rival gang (portrayed in season 2) made a move on Kimber and the Birmingham Boys, establishing themselves as kings of Central England. The latter slinked away back into 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, ex-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.