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By Megan Murphy, Gale Ambassador at the University of Liverpool
I’m a third year History student at the University of Liverpool, a Gale Student Ambassador, and a self-proclaimed Jane Austen fanatic. As a modern historian, my main research interests revolve around the development of Victorian cities – particularly the crime and deviance that took place within them. Outside of my studies, in the rare time I spend without my head in a nineteenth-century newspaper, I specialise in binge-watching Louis Theroux documentaries.
The hit BBC drama series Peaky Blinders – which is set in Birmingham and follows the lives of the Shelby brothers and their criminal gang the ‘Peaky Blinders’ – has captivated the minds and imagination (and – thanks to lead star Cillian Murphy – the hearts) of the British public. Given the recent fascination with Birmingham’s criminal underworld that the series has generated, I thought it would be interesting to use Gale Primary Sources to investigate the ‘real’ Peaky Blinders of late nineteenth-century Birmingham.
To begin with, a document contained in Gale’s Archives Unbound series ‘Papers of Joseph Chamberlain’, titled ‘A Foreign View of Birmingham and Joseph Chamberlain’ provides us with a detailed and damning description of the Peaky Blinders of Birmingham in 1899:
‘… en masse they make a somewhat imposing army, a terror to the small shop-keeper, an ever irritating bait on the policeman’s otherwise monotonous beat, a continual menace to his peace and pleasure, not to mention safety, or even life… Born of careless or indifferent parents, early realising the streets to be his only playground, finding his chums amongst similarly ill-favoured lads, feeling that no one cares for him, and that he in turn need care for none, the Peaky Blinder soon learns to know, and to measure, the full force of his enemies’
This document – which also labels the gang as a ‘social plague-spot’ – immediately gives us a sense of the severity of the social troubles caused by the Peaky Blinders.
A survey of contemporary newspapers also alerts us to the extent of which ‘roughs’, ‘hooligans’ and ‘slogging gangs’ plagued the streets of Birmingham in the late nineteenth century. Yet most notably, many of the reports of violence, criminality and disturbances were specifically linked to ‘Peaky Blinders’. One article from the Daily Mail Historical Archive reports on the most disturbing (albeit most notorious) act of the gang which gives rise to their infamous name. The report explains how the gang ‘had the ingenious habit of wearing steel plates in the peaks of their caps, with which they playfully butted the eyes of their victims’ – an act that frequently appears in the television series Peaky Blinders.
Newspaper reports also highlight the extent to which the Birmingham Police force seemed to be in constant battle with the Peaky Blinders – so much so that an article found in the collection of 19th Century UK Periodicals described the ongoing struggles between the gang and the police as ‘something like a contest’ in which ordinary people placed odds on whom they thought would win. A further testimony to the turbulent relationship between the two is highlighted in an article found in The Telegraph Historical Archive which states that it became necessary for Birmingham police constables to patrol the streets in couples, given the ‘serious outbreak of ruffianism’ and the stabbing of a policeman by ‘two youths described as of the “Peaky Blinders” class’.
However, contemporary newspaper reports also remind us how the lives of nineteenth-century Peaky Blinders are far removed from the glamorous lifestyles of their twenty-first century television counterparts, for whom desperation, poverty and despair are replaced with hedonism, alcohol and glamour. Indeed, one report, found in the Daily Mail Historical Archive, highlights how newly recruited Peaky Blinders were often young boys who had been forced out of education; whether that be by the failing schooling system, or by parents who were desperate for their children to bring in additional income.
An assessment of such reports also highlights the extent to which Peaky Blinders suffered legal consequences for their criminal actions (appearing in court, prison sentences, hard labour) – consequences that don’t seem to apply to the fictional characters of the Peaky Blinders television series.
Blog post cover image citation: By West Midlands Police [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons