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Birmingham’s Real Peaky Blinders

DeathsDoor
May 05, 2016
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The dank, slum streets are ruled by gangs made up of hundreds of youths armed with knives, razor blades and hammers.

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Murders are rife. Robberies, thefts and riots are a daily occurrence at the hands of young gang members who hold the entire city in a fearful, bloody grip. Police do their best to control the daily nightmare but are vastly outnumbered.

Their chilling nickname was derived from the razor blades carefully stitched into the front of their caps which could be used to blind their victims. But who were the gangs that inspired the BBC Two series, and why were they formed?

‘Sloggers and brawlers’

From as early as the 1870s, inner-city Birmingham streets were filled with overcrowded slums and extreme poverty – and the lure of crime was a pull for some. It soon led to an eruption of gangs and violence across the city. Battles to “own” areas such as Small Heath and Cheapside broke out. These saw hundreds of youths fighting – sometimes to the death – in mass brawls that lasted for hours. The most prominent – and ruthless – of these early gangs were known as the Sloggers, or the Cheapside Slogging Gang. For 30 years they ruled the city’s streets with protection rackets and violence. Led by John Adrian, and his trusted lieutenant James Grinrod, they began their reign of terror in about 1870. Their weapon of choice was a heavy-buckled belt used to pummel male and female victims of all ages into submission.

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Peaky Blinders Harry Fowler, Ernest Bayles, Stephen McHickie and Thomas Gilbert are revealed in archived police photos

An 1872 Birmingham Mail report records a typical example of the Sloggers’ antics. It states how “400 roughs brought indiscriminate violence to the Cheapside area, attacking and stealing”. “A small body of police were sent to deal with the Slogging Gang,” the report continues. “Officers made three arrests, including two very poor youths of no fixed home.” Notorious Sloggers included Aston’s Simpson Brothers and George “Cloggy” Williams, whose notoriety grew quickly after the 1897 killing of PC George Snipe. Many rival gangs formed, and one in particular soon became the most fearful force on the city’s streets. The Peaky Blinders as a gang were as deliberately stylish as they were violent.

‘Blinders and blindness’

Historian David Cross, of the West Midlands Police Museum in Sparkhill, is curator of the country’s largest collection of prisoner photographs. The collection contains court papers which document the exploits of the city’s bygone gangs. “If you think of your grandfather’s cap in those days, then it would have had a very hard peak,” said Mr Cross. “They used their hats with razor blades sewn in to rob people. That’s what a Peaky Blinder was. “When they hit someone or headbutted someone on the nose while wearing one, it would cause their victim temporary blindness.”

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Many of the violent gang members were children, such as 12-year-old Charles Lambourne

Victims were chosen indiscriminately, regardless of whether they were male or female, young or old, rich or poor, according to Mr Cross. “They would target anybody who looked vulnerable, or who did not look strong or fit,” he said. “Anything that could be taken, they would take it.”

Their carefully stylised image was an attempt to bring a touch of class to their actions, Mr Cross said, as well as making them stand out from their rivals. Peaky Blinders would wear a silk scarf tied around their necks, bell-bottom trousers and a flat, bladed cap tilted to one side. Children, in the same desperate situation as adults, were also recruited regularly into the ranks. Prominent members included 13-year-old David Taylor, jailed for carrying a gun, and 12-year-old Charles Lambourne.

Older gang members ruled the roost, such as Stephen McHickie, Harry Fowler and Tom Gilbert. Members were loyal – and local legends. It was often impossible to tell how many fighters in a gang were actually Peaky Blinders, and how many were claiming to be simply for the status it gave them. As families began to move out of the city centre in the early 20th Century, the rule of the gangs started to decline. As areas such as Small Heath grew, so did the physical distance between the rivals. Most of the once-feared names of the gang members are now forgotten, but their reputations are cemented in Birmingham’s folklore.

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The Peaky Blinders ran their crime ring in the backstreets of Birmingham

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A collection of young gang members are pictured in Birmingham’s Clyde Street

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The Summer Lane area of Birmingham, pictured, was plagued by crime


REVEALED: THE CRIMES OF THE REAL-LIFE PEAKY BLINDERS

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Police records show that baby-faced Harry Fowler was actually 19 when his mugshot, was committed to police records.

Basic information about the youth, who was born in 1885, is recorded – a note was made that his hair is light brown, his eyes grey and that he has a ‘pale’ composition. It lists a round scar on his left cheek as a distinctive feature. He gave his occupation as ‘barman’, but police had caught up with him thanks to his membership of the Peaky Blinders. The charge, which dates from October 5 1904 sheet says Fowler had been taken in for stealing a bicycle. It also notes that he was given one month in prison for the offence.

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Ernest Bayles

taken in for the same crime of stealing a bicycle, which was left unattended outside a factory for just four minutes when the larcenous pair laid their hands on it. They were spotted almost immediately afterwards trying to make easy money selling it on the street. The sheets show that Bayles, born in 1885, was also 19. His is also said to have had light brown hair and grey eyes, but, unlike his companion, he had a ‘fresh’ complexion. It notes a mole on his right cheek, near the nose. He received two months in prison for the theft.

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Stephen McHickie, His year of birth is given as 1879, making him 24 in the picture.

The record notes his black hair and brown eyes, and says he has a ‘sallow’ complexion. It lists his distinctive features as tattoos of a woman on both his left and right arms, one of whom was labelled ‘Louisa’. McHickie said he was a metal roller by occupation, but was recorded on October 24 1904 as having broken into a shop – reportedly a drapers just a few doors down the road from his own home. For his crime, the record states, he received eight months behind bars.

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Thomas Gilbert was the final entrant in the row of entries.

His year of birth, listed 1866, makes him 38 – significantly older than the other Peaky Blinders listed on the record. The bald man is listed as having brown eyes and also brown hair – presumably deduced from his full moustache. The record says Gilbert, who said he was a fishmonger, had missing fingers and a distinctive mark on his right knee. He was charged on 18 October 1904, and his crime is listed as ‘false pretences’ – perhaps suggesting that he not involved with the more physical crimes like younger gang members.


Peaky Blinders: Series 3  Launch Trailer – BBC Two

But theft and muggings was by no means the only illegal activity of the Peaky Blinders, who built a criminal empire on illegal betting, protection rackets and Birmingham’s black market. The were known to fight with rival gangs, and at times would even turn on the police. Their previously unheard story is set to be told in the new BBC 2 six-part drama which was written by Birmingham-born Steven Knight, who claims members of his family were in the gang two generations ago.

Irish actor Cillian Murphy plays Tommy Shelby, the leader of the Peaky Blinders.