The Peaky Blinders were an urban street gang based in Birmingham, England, that operated from the end of the 19th century to after the First World War. The group, which grew out of the harsh economic deprivations of working class Britain, was composed largely of young men of lower to middle-classes. They derived social power from robbery, violence, racketeering, illegal bookmaking and the control of gambling. Members of this gang wore a signature outfit that included tailored jackets, lapel overcoats, button waistcoats, silk scarves, bell-bottom trousers, leather boots, and peaked flat caps. The gang was highly organized with its own systems of hierarchy.
The Blinders’ dominance came about from beating rivals, such as the "Sloggers", whom they fought for territory in Birmingham and its surrounding districts. They held control for nearly 20 years until 1910, when a larger gang, the Birmingham Boys led by Billy Kimber, overtook them. However, even though they had disappeared by the 1920s, the name of the "Peaky Blinders" became synonymous slang for any street gang in Birmingham.
In 2013, the name was reused for a BBC television series entitled Peaky Blinders. The series, which stars Cillian Murphy, Paul Anderson, and Joe Cole, is a crime story about a fictional crime family operating in Birmingham just after World War I.
EtymologyThe name is said to be derived from the gang members' practice of stitching disposable razor blades into the peaks of their flat caps which could then be used as weapons. However, as the Gillette company only introduced the first replaceable safety razor system in 1903, in America, and it was not until 1908 that the first factory manufacturing them in Great Britain opened, this version of the name is considered apocryphal. British author John Douglas, from Birmingham, claimed hats were used as a weapon in his novel A Walk Down Summer Lane – members with razor blades sewn into their caps would headbutt enemies to potentially blind them. However, according to English professor Carl Chinn, Chair of Community History at the University of Birmingham, this theory is a myth and there is no evidence to support it.
Birmingham historian Carl Chinn believes the name is actually a reference to the gang's sartorial elegance. He says the popular usage of "peaky" at the time referred to any flat cap with a peak. "Blinder" was a familiar Birmingham slang term to describe something or someone of dapper appearance. A further explanation might be from the gang's own criminal behaviour: they were known to sneak up from behind, then pull the hat peak down over a victim's face so they could not describe who robbed them.
HistoryEconomic hardship in England led to a violent youth subculture. Poor youths frequently robbed and pickpocketed men walking on the streets of slum Birmingham. These efforts were executed through assaults, beatings, stabbings, and manual strangulation. The origins of this subculture can be traced back to the 1850s, in a time where Birmingham's streets were filled with gambling dens and kids playing rough sports. When the police started to crack down on these activities due to pressure from the higher classes, the youth fought back, banding together in what would become known as “slogging gangs”. These gangs frequently fought the police, and assaulted members of the public walking in the streets. During the 1890s, youth street gangs consisted of men between the ages of 12 and 30. The late 1890s saw the organisation of these men into a soft hierarchy.
The most violent of these youth street gangs organised themselves as a singular group known as the "Peaky Blinders". They were likely founded in Small Heath, possibly by a man named Thomas Mucklow, as suggested by a newspaper article entitled, "A murderous outrage at Small Heath, a man's skull fractured". This article is possibly the earliest evidence of the Peaky Blinders in print:
After some gangsters attacked a man in 1890, they sent a letter to various national newspapers declaring themselves as members of this specific group. Their first activities primarily revolved around occupying favourable land, notably the communities of Small Heath and Cheapside, Birmingham. Their expansion was noted by their first gang rival, the "Cheapside Sloggers", who battled against them in an effort to control land. The Sloggers originated in the 1870s and were known for street fights in the Bordesley and Small Heath areas – extremely poor slums of Birmingham.
The Peaky Blinders, after they established controlled territory, in the late 19th century began expanding their criminal enterprise. Their activities included protection rackets, fraud, land grabs, smuggling, hijacking, robbery, and illegal bookmaking. Historian Heather Shor of the University of Leeds claims that the Blinders were more focused on street fighting, robbery, and racketeering, as opposed to more organised crime.
The group was known for its violence not only on innocent civilians but also on rival gangs and constables. Gang wars between rival gangs frequently erupted in Birmingham which led to brawls and shootouts. The Peaky Blinders also deliberately attacked police officers, in what became known as "constable baiting". Constable George Snipe was killed by the gang in 1897, and Charles Philip Gunter in 1901. Hundreds more were injured and some left the force because of the violence.
Soon, the term "Peaky Blinder" became a generic term for young street criminals in Birmingham. In 1899, an Irish police chief named Charles Haughton Rafter was contracted to enforce local law in Birmingham. However, police corruption and bribery diminished the effectiveness of his enforcement for a time.
Notorious membersContrary to popular belief, most Peaky Blinders were from the middle class and had jobs. The most powerful member of the Peaky Blinders was a man known as Kevin Mooney. His real name was Thomas Gilbert, but he routinely changed his last name. He initiated many of the land grabs undertaken by the gang.
Other prominent members of the gang were David Taylor, Earnest Haynes, Harry Fowles, and Stephen McNickle. Harry Fowles, known as "Baby-faced Harry", was arrested at age 19 for stealing a bike in October 1904. McNickle and Haynes were also arrested at the same time, for stealing a bicycle and home invasion, respectively. Each was held for one month for their crimes. West Midlands police records described the three arrested as "foul mouthed young men who stalk the streets in drunken groups, insulting and mugging passers-by." Taylor was arrested at age 13 for carrying a loaded firearm.
Many gang members were veterans of the First World War. Henry Lightfoot, the first person to be named as a Peaky Blinder, had joined the British Army three times in his life and participated in the Battle of the Somme in 1916. One of the youngest members, Henry Fowler, was buried alive in the trenches and could not speak or see for some time following the war.
The notorious gangster Billy Kimber was also a former Peaky Blinder.
Weapons and fashionThe Peaky Blinders used an assortment of melee weapons from belt buckles, metal-tipped boots, fire irons, canes and knives. In the case of George Eastwood, he was beaten by belt buckles. Percy Langridge used a knife to stab Police Constable Barker in June 1900. Firearms such as Webley revolvers were also used, such as in the shooting and killing of a Summer Hill gang member by Peaky Blinder William Lacey in September 1905.
Gang members frequently wore tailored clothing which was uncommon for contemporary gangs of the time. Almost all members wore a peaked flat cap and an overcoat. Their sporting of the flat cap lends itself to debate regarding the naming of the gang. The Peaky Blinders wore tailored suits usually with bell-bottom trousers and button jackets. The weather conditions of the slums prompted members to incorporate steel-toed leather boots into their outfits. Wealthier members wore silk scarves and starched collars with metal tie buttons. Their distinctive dress was easily recognisable by city inhabitants, police, and rival gang members. The wives, girlfriends, and mistresses of the gang members were known for wearing lavish clothing. Pearls, silks, and colourful scarves were commonplace.
DeclineAfter nearly a decade of political control, their growing influence brought on the attention of a larger gang, the Birmingham Boys. The Peaky Blinders' expansion into racecourses led to violent backlash from the Birmingham Boys gang. Peaky Blinder families physically distanced themselves from Birmingham's centre into the countryside. With the Blinders' withdrawal from the criminal underworld, the Sabini gang moved in on the Birmingham Boys gang and solidified political control over Central England in the 1930s.
Other elements such as education, discipline and harsher policing and sentencing also contributed to the decrease of the Blinders' influence, and by the 1920s they had disappeared. As the specific gang known as the Peaky Blinders diminished, their name came to be used as generic term to describe violent street youth. The gangs' activities lasted from the 1890s until the 1930s.
In popular cultureThe BBC television drama series Peaky Blinders, starring Cillian Murphy, Sam Neill, and Helen McCrory, premiered in September 2013. It presents a fictional story in which the Peaky Blinders contend in the underworld with the Birmingham Boys and the Sabini gang, and follows a single fictional gang based in post-World War I Birmingham's Small Heath area. The gang had houses located in and around Birmingham, ranging from Longbridge to Sutton Coldfield. Many of the show's exteriors have been filmed on location at the Black Country Living Museum.
The song "Cheapside Sloggers" by the Danish hard rock band Volbeat is written about the rivalry between the two gangs.