|Founding location||Birmingham, England|
|Years active||Early 1890s to 1918|
|Territory||Primarily the West Midlands of England|
|Ethnicity||Primarily English, Irish and Gypsy|
|Membership (est.)||c. < 100; membership fluctuated widely with alliances and joined forces|
|Criminal activities||Bookmaking, assault, extortion, fraud, murder, fencing, hooliganism, bribery, smuggling, hijacking and robbery|
|Rivals||Sabinis; Brummagem Boys; the Sloggers|
The Peaky Blinders were an urban street gang based in Birmingham, England, that operated from the end of the 19th century until the start of First World War. The group, which grew out the harsh economic deprivations of working class Britain, was composed largely of young unemployed men. They derived social power from robbery, violence, political influence 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 organised 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 twenty years until 1910 when a larger gang, the Birmingham Boys led by Billy Kimber, overtook them. However, even though they had disappeared by the 1930s, their name the "Peaky Blinders", became synonymous as slang for any street gang in Birmingham.
In 2013 the name was reused for a TV BBC series entitled the 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.
The popular origin of the name Peaky Blinder is said to be derived from the practice of gang members 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.
Historian and criminal profiler John Douglas asserts hats were used as a weapon, members with razor blades sewn into their caps would headbutt enemies to potentially blind them. Alternatively the caps would be used to slash foreheads causing blood to pour down into the eyes of their enemies causing temporary blindness.
However 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 (still used today) 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 couldn't describe who robbed them.
Economic 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. During the 1890s, youth street gangs consisted of men between the ages of twelve and thirty. The late 1890s saw the organisation of these men into a soft hierarchy. The most powerful member of the Peaky Blinders was known as Kevin Mooney. His real name was Thomas Gilbert; however, he routinely changed his last name. Many of the land grabs undertaken by the gang were initiated by him. 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 this newspaper article, entitled A murderous outrage at Small Heath, a man's skull fractured., suggests, printed in the Monday, March 24th, 1890 edition of The Birmingham Mail. This newspaper is possibly the earliest evidence of the Peaky Blinders put to paper:
A serious assault was committed upon a young man named George Eastwood. Living at 3 court, 2 house, Arthur Street, Small Heath, on Saturday night. It seems that Eastwood, who has been for some time a total abstainer, called between ten and eleven o'clock at the Rainbow Public House in Adderly Street, and was supplied with a bottle of gingerbeer. Shortly afterwards several men known as the "Peaky Blinders" gang, whom Eastwood knew by sight from their living in the same neighborhood as himself, came in.
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 known for street fights in the Bordesley, and Small Heath areas–extremely poor slums of Birmingham. In 1899, an Irish police constable was contracted to enforce local law in Birmingham. However, police corruption and bribery diminished the effectiveness of his enforcement.
The most prominent members of the gang were David Taylor, Earnest Haynes, Harry Fowles, Stephen McNickle, and Thomas Gilbert. Fowles, known as "Baby-faced Harry", was arrested at 19 for stealing a bike in October 1904. McNickle and Haynes were also arrested at the same time for stealing a bike 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.
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 leather steel-toed 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.
The Peaky Blinders, after they established controlled territory, in the late 19th century began expanding their criminal enterprise. Their activities included protection rackets, fraud, bribery, smuggling, hijacking, robbery, and 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.
After 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 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.
As the specific gang known as the Peaky Blinders diminished, their namesake was used as generic term to describe violent street youth. The gangs' activities lasted from the 1890s until the 1930s.
In popular culture
The BBC television drama series Peaky Blinders, starring Cillian Murphy, Sam Neill and Helen McCrory premiered in October 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. Many of the scenes for the show were shot at the Black Country Living Museum.
- The Birmingham Boys, also known as the Brummagem Boys
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