Created by Steven Knight, Peaky Blinders is technically based on a true story but has also been heavily fictionalized for dramatic purposes. The BBC-Netflix crime drama focuses primarily on the Shelby family, a gang of outlaws who infiltrate high society in 1920s Birmingham, England. But the original Peaky Blinders roamed about Birmingham during an entirely different time frame.
Peaky Blinders stars Cillian Murphy as Thomas Shelby, a war hero who uses his outsider status and intelligence to orchestrate major power moves in Birmingham and beyond. Like The Godfather’s fictional crime boss Michael Corleone, Tommy is stylish and calculating; he’s willing to kill enemies for revenge or power. The character is motivated by haunting memories, both from World War I and the death of his wife, Grace (Annabelle Wallis). Tommy is the face of Peaky Blinders and embodies the appearance and basic philosophies of the real-life gang. However, it's the character’s paranoia and vulnerability that drives the fictional narrative, and infuses his gang members with more depth and world experience than the original Peaky Blinders.
Once upon a time, the Peaky Blinders did indeed make news headlines in Birmingham, and were known for their unique style. In fact, Knight told History Extra created the series based on his father’s stories about men who were “immaculately dressed, wearing caps and with guns in their pockets.” Here’s the Peaky Blinders true story that morphed into the television series.
The Real Peaky Blinders Gang Explained
In the 1890s, a subculture emerged within Birmingham, the result of an economic recession. Overseas, various groups of dispossessed people turned to organized crime in New York City, and the same concept applied to the Peaky Blinders' home city. In this case, the criminals were mostly young men who gambled and robbed to get by, all the while using violence to ensure a certain amount of power. The Peaky Blinders true story dates back to the 1870s. According to historian Barbara Weinberger, the gang first emerged because anti-Irish sentiments “offered a focus and a target for the frustrations of inner city youths which… became institutionalized in gang warfare.” By the 1890s, the subculture became associated with a specific style: bowler-style felt hats, pointed and pulled down over the forehead. Some locals were apparently blinded by the criminals' charisma, while some have made the case that the gang couldn't see too well because of their covered eyes. Whatever the case, the Peaky Blinders made an impression; a concept that translates to Knight's series.
Because the Peaky Blinders were known as working gentlemen from the lower class, their distinct style betrays what they should have been wearing, at least in theory. In addition, the Peaky Blinders consisted of various gangs, and were anything but one single family of outlaws. Criminals like Thomas Gilbert ran with a specific crew, thus making the name "Peaky Blinders" more prominent within Birmingham culture. They were a crime family by association - not by blood or a united code of "omertà", like the Italian-American mafia.
Over time, the so-called Peaky Blinders began referring to themselves as “sloggers," the product of “poverty, squalor and slum environment,” according to Birmingham manufacturer Arthur Matthison. During the early 20th century, the gang of youths maintained the same look and criminal lifestyle, but mostly out of necessity rather than a grand scheme to gain immense power within Birmingham. The Peaky Blinders slowly dissipated because of athletics, movies, and other activities that kept young men busy. In short, life became easier for some - they didn’t have to rely on low-level crime to make ends meet. The Peaky Blinders grew up and faded away. And that’s when Peaky Blinders, the television series, begins.
What Events & Characters Were Real?
Peaky Blinders’ Shelby family isn’t based on real historical figures, but the world they inhabit mirrors real-life Birmingham society of the 1920s. For example, movie star Charlie Chaplin (pictured above) makes an appearance in Peaky Blinders season 2, which makes sense because he was indeed a Birmingham native with a Gypsy upbringing. In actuality, however, the real Chaplin would’ve been fully aware that the Peaky Blinders reached their prime decades before. For the series, Chaplin adds a glamorous twist, as the Shelby's influence reaches all the way to Hollywood.
Tommy’s foes in Peaky Blinders are real historical figures. The leader of the Birmingham Boys, Billy Kimber, was a real-life gangster, along with Charles “Darby” Sabini - a London criminal who controlled racehorse rackets in southern England. Kimber and Sabini were actual rivals who fought for control, and they’re both prominently featured in Peaky Blinders’ storyline. The wildcard is Tommy Shelby, a fictional Peaky Blinder foil.
In Peaky Blinders season 5, Tommy is forced into a partnership with Oswald Mosley, a real-life politician who led the British Union of Fascists in the 1930s. Of course, many Peaky Blinders fans in the UK are certainly familiar with Winston Churchill, who was the United Kingdom’s Prime Minister from 1951 to 1955. Peaky Blinders takes place over two decades before Churchill's major political ascent, thus foreshadowing the future while simultaneously establishing Tommy’s inner circle. Peaky Blinders season 5 also introduces drug runner Brilliant Chang, who makes an opium distribution deal with Tommy. In real life, Chang ran a Chinese restaurant in Birmingham, and was publicly identified in the news as a “dope king"; he was a drug distribution kingpin.
Even if the Peaky Blinders weren’t a major influence on Birmingham society in the 1920s, the television series offers some intriguing revisionist history, and theorizes what might’ve happened if a Peaky Blinder from the 1890s had served in World War I and later conversed with real historical figures like Chaplin, Kimber, Sabini, Mosley, Churchill, and Chang.
What Peaky Blinders Changes
The BBC-Netflix series retains the spirit of the original Peaky Blinders gang but changes who they were, how they operated, and their motivations. In the 1890s, Chaplin would’ve been a toddler, and the filmmaking career of cinema pioneer Georges Méliès had barely commenced. Plus, World War I wouldn’t begin for approximately 20 years, so the Peaky Blinders would’ve been mostly focused on surviving in Birmingham.
Most historians, if not all, agree that the original Peaky Blinders didn’t hide razors in their clothing, primarily because of financial reasons. And many have pointed out that Knight and company don't quite get the Romani language right, not to mention that Peaky Blinders could be as young as 13 and were mostly young men - not grown adults. While the gang members did dress well - or at least differently than typical street criminals - their tactics were practical. The Peaky Blinders also focused on easy targets. For the television series, Knights plucks the Birmingham gang from the late 19th century and drops them into a more sexy Birmingham society. Now, they’re a close-knit family, led by a war hero (Tommy) who is unafraid of real-life figures such as Kimber and Sabini. For dramatic purposes, Tommy murders Kimber in 1919, thus establishing the Peaky Blinders as a rival to both the Birmingham Boys and the Sabini Gang. In real life, Kimber died in 1942 at a nursing home.
As of now, Peaky Blinders is about to enter the 1930s. The fifth season references the 1929 stock market crash and concludes with Tommy’s failed attempt to murder Oswald Mosley, who ultimately lived to be 84 years old. Of course, anything can happen in the Peaky Blinders universe. Knight’s BBC series may not be 100 percent historically accurate, but the Peaky Blinders are indeed symbolic of so many historical social outcasts who attempted to improve their lives way back when, all the while staying cognizant about political and cultural trends, certainly within Birmingham. The original gang members were street-smart; the Peaky Blinders TV characters are similarly in-the-know but also see the bigger picture, if only because they’ve experienced the world a bit more.