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December 13, 2023

The Original Peaky Blinders: Mugshots of the Gangs of Birmingham From the Early 20th Century

The Peaky Blinders, street-based Birmingham gang from the 19th century who slashed victims across the face with razor blades sewn in peaks of their caps. Gang members including David Taylor, who was jailed at the age of 13 for carrying a gun, displayed this classic look. Other Peakies included baby-faced Harry Fowles, Ernest Haynes, Stephen McNickle and Thomas Gilbert who were all jailed.

Mugshots of the real Peaky Blinders who operated in Birmingham, England in the early 20th century. Pictured from left to right are Harry Fowles, Ernest Hayles, Stephen McHickie and Thomas Gilbert.

Economic hardship in Birmingham led to a violent youth subculture. Poor youths frequently robbed and picked the pockets of men walking on the streets of slum areas of the city. These efforts were executed through assaults, beatings, stabbings, and manual strangulation. The origins of this subculture can be traced back to the 1850s, in a time where Birmingham’s streets were filled with gambling dens and youth playing rough sports. When the police started to crack down on these activities due to pressure from the higher classes, the youth fought back, banding together in what became known as “slogging gangs.” These gangs frequently fought the police, and assaulted members of the public walking in the streets. During the 1890s, youth street gangs consisted of men and boys between the ages of 12 and 30. The late 1890s saw the organization of these men into a soft hierarchy.

The most violent of these youth street gangs organized themselves as a singular group known as the Peaky Blinders. They were likely founded in Small Heath, possibly by a man named Thomas Mucklow.

After some gangsters attacked a man in 1890, they sent a letter to various national newspapers declaring themselves as members of this specific group. Their first activities primarily revolved around occupying favorable land, notably the communities of Small Heath and Cheapside, Birmingham. Their expansion was noted by their first gang rival, the Cheapside Sloggers, who battled against them in an effort to control land. The Sloggers originated in the 1870s and were known for street fights in the Bordesley and Small Heath areas – extremely poor slums of Birmingham.

The Peaky Blinders, after they established controlled territory in the late 19th century, began expanding their criminal enterprise. Their activities included protection rackets, fraud, land grabs, smuggling, hijacking, robbery, and illegal bookmaking. Historian Heather Shor of the University of Leeds claims that the Blinders were more focused on street fighting, robbery, and racketeering, as opposed to more organized crime.

The group was known for its violence, not only towards rival gangs, but also against innocent civilians and constables. Gang wars between rival gangs frequently erupted in Birmingham, which led to brawls and shootouts. The Peaky Blinders also deliberately attacked police officers, in what became known as “constable baiting.” Constable George Snipe was killed by the gang in 1897, as was Charles Philip Gunter in 1901. Hundreds more were injured and some left the force because of the violence.

Soon, the term “Peaky Blinder” became a generic term for young street criminals in Birmingham. In 1899, an Irish police chief named Charles Haughton Rafter was contracted to enforce local law in Birmingham. However, police corruption and bribery diminished the effectiveness of his enforcement for a time.

In addition to guns, the Peaky Blinders used an assortment of melee weapons, such as belt buckles, metal-tipped boots, fire irons, canes, and knives. In the case of George Eastwood, he was beaten by belt buckles. Percy Langridge used a knife to stab Police Constable Barker in June 1900. Firearms such as Webley revolvers were used, such as in the shooting and killing of a Summer Hill gang member by Peaky Blinder William Lacey in September 1905.

Gang members frequently wore tailored clothing, which was uncommon for gangs of the time. Almost all members wore a flat cap and an overcoat. The Peaky Blinders wore tailored suits usually with bell-bottom trousers and button jackets. Wealthier members wore silk scarves and starched collars with metal tie buttons. Their distinctive dress was easily recognizable by city inhabitants, police, and rival gang members. The wives, girlfriends, and mistresses of the gang members were known for wearing lavish clothing. Pearls, silks, and colorful scarves were commonplace.

The BBC television drama series Peaky Blinders, starring Cillian Murphy, Paul Anderson, Sam Neill and Helen McCrory, premiered in September 2013. It presents a fictional story in which the Peaky Blinders contend in the underworld with the Birmingham Boys and the Sabini gang, and it follows the gang based in post-World War I Birmingham’s Small Heath area. The gang had houses located in and around Birmingham, ranging from Longbridge to Sutton Coldfield. Many of the show’s exteriors have been filmed on location at the Black Country Living Museum.


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