The Boys Are Back in Town:
The Historical Significance of the Peaky Blinders
By Torri Haubert
With the rise in popularity of shows such as Downton Abbey, the world has become accustomed to romanticized depictions of the British upper middle classes. Peaky Blinders, however, takes a fresh look at the turbulent working classes that gripped Birmingham, England in the early twentieth century. While some critics criticized the film, released in 2013, as being a poor British imitation of American gang culture movies, Peaky Blinders is seen as a representation of an almost forgotten part of British culture: the representation of working class gangs in Birmingham as symbolizing core social issues of the time. Thus, despite unfavorable critical comparisons to American culture, the BBC series Peaky Blinders makes a provocative film well worth watching.
The show introduces a street gang in Birmingham, England known as the Peaky Blinders, famous for sewing razor blades into their caps and wreaking violent havoc in British streets and race courses. However, the gang depicted in the show is a fictional representation of real life street gangs, rather than a direct depiction of any specific gang. Thus, typically Peaky Blinders started as boys fighting in the streets after work. Over time these boys began to form neighborhood gangs which would carry the names of their neighborhoods. As Philip Gooderson explains in a study of gangs in late nineteenth-century Birmingham, these violent outbreaks were caused in part by youthful "free time." Yet, these children grew up and many of them became life-long offenders. According to Gooderson, "by about 1900, distinct gangs would become harder to identify and new, local generic terms would come to dominate as 'hooligans' in London, and 'peaky blinders' or 'peaks' in Birmingham." Gang members would wear their caps down low and slightly covering one or both eyes giving a "fringed look" thus "Blinder," creating the common slang for the Birmingham gangs "Peaky Blinders."
This look is shown in the character of younger Shelby brother, John, played by Joe Cole, who wears his hat in this manner. The gangs of Birmingham were mostly composed of working class men. They started as young teenage metal workers, although after the Great War (WWI) in the post-war era, most members were actually older men employed as poorly paid, skilled laborers, or living as criminals. For Gooderson, these gangs "read like a roll-call of Birmingham’s manual skills," making them a phenomenon. The laborers of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries commonly wore flat cap hats, rather like a modern golfing cap. The Peaky Blinders, although distinguished by their blinder caps, represented a wider culture of the time.
Although these gangs often started out as street fighters or pickpockets, by the 1920s, their efforts focused on racetracks, terrorizing bookmakers and providing protection of various sorts. After World War I, the gangs became more organized and merged into one gang, the Brummagem Boys. These began to reach out under the leadership of Billy Kimber, a Birmingham native. Kimber and his boys constantly terrorized racetrack goers and bookies and spread crime across the country. At one point, as the Bath Chronicle and Weekly Gazette wrote, a group of men arrived at the Bath and Somerset Races and began to terrorize local bookmakers. Such actions eventually led to the gang acting as illegal bookmakers as well as to providing protection at a fee to legal bookmakers across the country. Thus, the various gangs known as the Peaky Blinders developed a complex, violent history emerging from the large working class population of Birmingham at the time. Their actions were widespread and significant in severity, but often forgotten or ignored in the history of the turbulent twenties and thirties. Are they merely a footnote in the past or symptoms of the contentious development of such groups in Europe and America?
Created by Birmingham native Steven Knight, Peaky Blinders is based in the Small Heath neighborhood of the city. The movie depicts an organized Birmingham gang named after their choice costume, peaked caps with razor blades sewed into the brim to be used as weapons. Starring Cillian Murphy, (as the gang leader Thomas Shelby) this story, according to Knight, is based loosely on stories told to him by his family and on othe oral histories of Birmingham. Few written accounts of the actions of such gangs exist. His Peaky Blinders depicts a gang dealing unhappily with social issues of the twentieth century, such as communism and women's rights. While the historical Peaky Blinders' issues revolved around the racecourse, street crime, and profit, Knight’s narrative in this series pieces together reality and fiction by taking real gang concerns and applying them to a wider social context for the time. Although the real life Peaky Blinders was the name given to "Hooligans belonging to various gangs," Knight's story is similar to the Brummagem Boys "who stole from onlookers…and extorted protection money from book makers" at racetracks across the Midlands.
The movie, beginning just after World War I follows a local gang that, according to Carl Chinn, “was not firmly organized like that of a mafia family” but developed later under the powerful leader Billy Kimber into a crime unit. Throughout the film, the gang members are often referred to as "The Boys"-a clear link to the aforementioned Brummagem Boys. Characters are tied with known gangs of London as the leader Thomas Shelby extends the Peaky Blinder influence across the country, in much the same way Billy Kimber did in reality. Thomas Shelby makes alliances with the Jewish gangs of London in order to take down the Sabini gang's hold on the Derby races. Shelby orders: "you will make your way on to Sabini's pitches, you confiscate his takings, destroy his licenses… complete the takeover without a shot being fired."
In reality, Billy Kimber allied with the South London hooligans like the Elephant gang to combat Sabini control while the Brummagem Boys allied with the MacDonald Brothers of the Elephant gang. Although Knight's story of the take-over of racecourses is not entirely faithful to actual events, his portrayal of the interactions between the gangs accurately shows Billy Kimber's reliance on larger, more organized Mafia-style gangs of London in order to take control of the desired racecourses in his territory. Therefore, the complex gang politics in the story are indicative of a similar phenomenon in reality. The broad social issues of the time, as well as the personal issues of the gang, lend accuracy and realism to the story. As the national mood towards key social issues such as communism, women's rights, politics, international tension, and faltering economic turmoil would have directly affected Birmingham working citizens, the film gives them a face with the Peaky Blinders. It builds sympathy for the common people, fighting for rights of the working class as well as basic survival. The characters in Peaky Blinders reflect the times. Knight used Thomas Shelby as a model of Billy Kimber, the most notorious "peaky blinder" who stretched the Brummagem Boys' racecourse territories south and north from Manchester to London. The movie shows him to be an ambitious gangster intent on spreading his gang's influence across the nation.
The problem of shell shock during the post war period is shown in many of the male characters, but most notably in the character of Arthur Shelby( played by Paul Anderson). A frequent reference was made throughout the film to shell shock as it was a major problem in post-war England. This accurate portrayal reveals that a large number of men were dealing with the trauma in different ways; for instance, "the ravings of an old soldier with shell shock," was one character's reaction to the news of a missing machine gun sighting.
The 1920s also saw a shift in the Women’s Rights movements, which is shown by the tough Aunt Polly, played by Helen McRory, who shows herself as an equal member of the gang's higher ranks as she states "this whole bloody enterprise was women's while you boys were away at war, what's changed?" Indeed, the role of women in rebellion is well portrayed throughout the film.
Iddo Goldbury plays the communist supporter Freddie Throne, accurately portrayed as being hunted by the law for his constant protests and union organization. In his first appearance, he is seen giving a speech to union protestors stating, Who reaps the rewards? Is it you? Is it your wives? Well, who then? Do they stand among us or do they sit at home, comfortable, with a full belly while you scrape to find enough to put shoes on your children’s feet." These arguments continued among workers and union supporters as men and women fought for rights in the workplace and as a ground swell of social and economic rebellion, only daunted by the Great Depression and World War II, created a tsunami of change in a post-war era. The film is not merely a direct representation of a fictional gang: it becomes a depiction of social problems surrounding twentieth century working class people in the industrial areas of Birmingham. The story deals with people with specifically labor concerns. These issues make the film stand out from American gangster shows and make it uniquely a British narrative.
Peaky Blinder’s reviews often described the movie as a British answer to ‘Boardwalk Empire’ and state that te drama loses its Birmingham culture by creating a “generic industrial northern grime with some canals thrown in.” However, unlike American films, which have mythicized the lower classes, making them seem unrealistic and romanticized caricatures of reality, British nineteenth and twentieth century period narratives have glamorized the British upper middle classes and aristocracy, with concerns relevant only to these smaller segments of society. Peaky Blinders, however, brought viewers a new look at the poor children of a Midlands to late Victorian-Edwardian England. By bringing to light "lost Birmingham history," the stories which Knight used to create his narrative were mostly oral, told to him by his family as well as what is left of the accounts in newspaper reports collected by Chinn, and the few police reports (saved from the bombing of the city during World War II.) Midland working class history has not been in the forefront of British productions because it is viewed as unimportant and not worthy of being examined in narrative dramas. Peaky Blinders thus fills the "big black hole in the middle of the country as far as TV production goes." In the way that it places working class Midlands history in a position of relevance, it is something worth examination. Knight sets out to rebel against the upper class drama by bringing the viewer worthwhile, gritty histories of Birmingham – a city often forgotten in both media and history. The historical accuracies and focus on a typically ignored aspect of British history create a show original on its own and separate from either the influence of American gangster or aristocratic glamour, to which most viewers are accustomed.
The accuracies (and inaccuracies) in Steven Knight’s Peaky Blinders create a show which portrays the dichotomy between the reality of specific gang histories and the wider working class social concerns in the early twentieth century. Peaky Blinders brings to light history through the rediscovery of previously forgotten historical accounts. Although centered primarily on a gang, Knight’s creation has brought a new interest with working class television history. This Peaky Blinders narrative accurately portrays life in a turbulent society. This film rebels against conventional historical dramas and provides perspective to a genre usually dominated by the glamour of upper classes elegance. About time!