'Vicious, vile and violent': the story behind the real Peaky Blinders who haunted Birmingham

‘Vicious, vile and violent’: the story behind the real Peaky Blinders who haunted Birmingham

This note contains spoilers for the series. Peaky Blinders.

Fights, excesses, clandestine games. Towards the end of the 19th century, the city of birminghamthe second most populous in England after London, it was a dark place. had become a mafia city dominated by different street gangsmade up of young, lower-class men ready to beat up anyone who got in their way, especially the police. In this spiral of violence, prevailed a demon that everyone had to fear: the Peaky Blinders.

Vicious, ruthless. The gangsters who blind those who see and cut out the tongues of those who speak“, described Chief Inspector Chester Campbell (played by Sam Neill) in one of the episodes of this series is named after the feared criminal group. Created by the British Steven Knight, Peaky Blinders it has become an international hit since its 2013 premiere on the BBC.

Characters from the Peaky Blinders series

The series features the Shelby family, a gang of Irish origin with gypsy roots who aspire to dominate the world of gambling and illegal business such as arms trafficking in this industrial area. The clan is led by the character of Thomas Shelby Cillian Murphythe second of four brothers, a man haunted by the ghosts of the French trenches of the First World War who oscillates between intelligence and brute force to fulfill his duty to honor the family name.

Still dressed in their signature dress pants, starched shirt and beret, the elegance that characterizes the respected and feared Peaky Blinders clashes with the ferocity with which they take on other rival gangs. They don’t hesitate to use the knives they hide in their caps or the weapons they carry in their waistcoats to carry out the family business.

This drama set in the 1920s, which has racked up multiple awards and has now been available for five seasons on Netflix – the last premiering on June 10 – has won over millions of fans around the world. Despite maintaining several facts of reality, many others are nothing more than fiction.

“The series has been a huge international success. It’s exciting, it’s full of life, it’s powerful, it’s built with charismatic actors, it has a very interesting cinematic theme. But the reality behind this glamor is brutal“, he explained to THE NATION British historian Carl Chin. “It’s not a glamorous Mafia-style gang that respects women or cares for the elderly. The Peaky Blinders were none of that: they were vicious, they were vile, and they were too violent.”.

Trailer for the series “Peaky Blinders”

Originally from the town where the strip takes place, Chinn has studied the history of this gang for more than 40 years. His first research on the subject dates back to 1980, several decades before the premiere of the series. The passion to unveil the mysteries hidden within these gangsters runs through his veins: his great-grandfather was one of them, a Peaky Blinder himself.

One of the first differences highlighted by the leading expert on the subject is the time at which the events took place. The first time the term Peaky Blinder was coined it was in 1890 – and not after the First World War – after an innocent man was brutally attacked in a bar by, he said, a criminal gang which resulted in severe skull damage and emergency surgery.

Years before, groups of young men from the poorer parts of England began to form on the streets, with the sole aim of asserting themselves for their masculinity: “Life in those days was difficult. Poor people had a really bad time. In a society that denigrates them, for a man, the only way to reflect his superiority was to show his strength. That’s why they fought with the police, they hated themChinn explained.

Edward Derrick, great-grandfather of Carl Chinn, member of the real Peaky Blinders
Edward Derrick, great-grandfather of Carl Chinn, member of the real Peaky BlindersCourtesy of Carl Chinn

However, these street gangs did not gain as much clout as the members of the Peaky Blinders, whose name began to be heard among law enforcement as the worst vandals. “They were disgusting, ambitious. They would beat anyone who crossed their path, whether it was a policeman, a man, a woman or an old man. By the end of the century, most of Birmingham’s police force had been beaten down. »

While the iconic look of these gangsters appealed to viewers, the typical attire of these characters only took place on screen. In real life, band members had low purchasing power, so it was impossible for them to afford these costumes. Indeed, they launch the trend with their flared pants, their scarves tied around the neck, and their metal toe boots with which they hit their opponents. They used a particular haircut, shaved on the sides and cut short in the center of the head, to show the wounds of old battles, like insignia.

The origin of the name Peaky Blinders shown in the series is also a myth, although it remains unrecognized. An episode in which the Shelby family takes on the Lee clan shows how They use their berets with razor blades inside as a weapon to slash their opponents’ faces and blind them. There is no historical record or evidence in police reports that this actually happened.

The costumes used in the series do not correspond to the usual clothing of Birmingham gangsters
The costumes used in the series do not correspond to the usual clothing of Birmingham gangsters

“Also the razor blades were expensive and let’s remember we’re talking about poor vandals,” Chinn said. “They also did not use these weapons to fight because they resorted to everything they had at their fingertips: their fists, their boots, their knives, their stones, their belts with big buckles were the best weapon to hurt rapidly.”.

And he added: “My theory is that the name comes from the flat hats that young people used at that time. They had a pointed end that kind of covered the forehead and part of the eye. Hence Peaky Blinders”.

The characters are perhaps one of the greatest similarities between real life and fiction. There is no record that a certain Thomas Shelby ever existed, but the figure is based on the mobster Billy Kimberwho also appears in the series’ first season in a supporting role.

Kimber had been part of the Peaky Blinders, he was a gang member who accumulated several accusations of violence, in particular against the police. It went from dominating the illegal gambling business in Birmingham years after World War I to taking over the kingdom in London. Eventually he became a legit bookie and became a middle class man.

also existed a fearsome Inspector Campbell, whose real name was Charles Horton. In 1899 he came to Birmingham from Belfast in order to restore the police and put an end to the notorious gang, which he eventually succeeded in doing. He prepared a battalion of strongmen capable of taking on the Peaky Blinders, while gaining the trust of the locals, who supported the police, fed up with the violence in the streets. “People respected the police and were really scared” of the criminal gang, Chinn said.

Training police to defeat gangs
Training police to defeat gangsCourtesy of Carl Chinn

For the 1910s, newspapers in England announced the end of the Peaky Blinders. Not only did it have to do with the strengthening of order, but it also had its part in the emergence of neighborhood football and boxing clubs, which many young people joined, turning their backs to gangs. Already with the arrival of the war and the obligation to fight on the front, violence between gangs has practically disappeared.

The British historian highlights the central role of women in the series – like the character of Polly Gray (Helen McCrory) – key figures in Birmingham families, who in reality were threatened by gangsters. It’s one of the reasons he says he’s not proud of his great-grandfather, who beat his wife.

“What worried me after the series was that I visited many schools in poor neighborhoods in England to talk about it and I was surprised by the number of children stunned by the fashion of the gangs”, Chinn warned LA NACION. “But you have to remember that the reality behind the drama is the story of very, very violent men.”

“Based on Real Events” is a series of notes that describes the historical context behind international fictions. In this link you can access all the articles.

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