Was Peaky Blinders’ Tommy Shelby a real person? Discover the true story of Birmingham’s most famous gangsters.
Millions of working class people moved into Britain’s booming industrial cities during the 19th century. With this influx, slum areas expanded rapidly, becoming tense, over-crowded melting pots where different social, religious, ethnic and political groups were forced to fight for their place in a new community.
These tensions gave rise to powerful street gangs who realised that a life of crime was much easier, more profitable and had higher chances of success with the help of like-minded people. In Birmingham, one of the most prominent of these criminal mobs were known as the Peaky Blinders and we’ve discovered some of the Brummie brutes in our records.
The real-life Peaky Blinders gang members
There are some marked differences between the BAFTA-winning BBC drama series named after the gang and the story of the real Peaky Blinders. Firstly, Tommy Shelby, played by Cillian Murphy, and most of the other main characters, are fictional. And, while Peaky Blinders is set in the years following the First World War, the real gang mainly operated from the late 19th century until the start of the war.
However, the real gang did rule the industrialised areas of Bordesley and Small Heath, as portrayed in the TV series. And, like in the programme, they allegedly earned their name by sewing razor blades into the peaks of their flat caps. The series also loosely charts their factual evolution from little more than young thugs and petty thieves to a sophisticated criminal empire built on illegal betting, protection rackets and Birmingham’s black market. The real Peaky Blinders were just as identifiable as the on-screen characters, their distinct sartorial style consisting of of donkey jackets, silk scarfs, bell-bottom trousers, steel-capped boots and their infamous caps.
So, who were the main players in the Peaky Blinders?
Kevin Mooney (real name Thomas Gilbert)
Thomas Gilbert regularly changed his name to avoid the authorities.
Under the moniker of Kevin Mooney, he was one of the most powerful members of the Peaky Blinders and led many of the gang’s land grabs.
Thought to be one of the founding members of the gang, Thomas Mucklow was involved in the organisation of some of its most violent assaults, including the one detailed below. This is one of the earliest mentions of the Peaky Blinders in historical newspapers.
Harry Fowles, Ernest Bayles and Stephen McNickle
This uncouth trio were all arrested around the same time in 1904. 'Baby-faced Harry' and Bayles stole a bike, while McNickle broke into a drapery.
Court reports from the time referred to the three gang members as;
“foul-mouthed young men who stalk the streets in drunken groups, insulting and mugging passers-by.”
It seems age was no barrier for joining the Peaky Blinders. Gang member David Taylor was just 13 years old when he was arrested for carrying a loaded firearm.
Our newspapers and crime records reveal that Peaky Blinders member, Thomas Walters stabbed a police constable named Bennett in 1901.
The emergence of more powerful rival gangs, particularly the Birmingham Boys and the Sabini gang, led to the eventual decline of the Peaky Blinders in the 1930s. Many of them retreated away from urban Birmingham to the relative obscurity of the rural countryside.
Could you be related to a Peaky Blinder? Explore our ever-growing archive of historical British newspapers and our exclusive collection of England & Wales, Crime, Prisons & Punishment records to find out.