The Peaky Blinders were a street gang based in Birmingham, England, that operated from the end of the 19th century to the early 1900s. The group, which grew out of the harsh economic deprivations of working-class Britain, was composed largely of young men of lower to middle classes. They derived social power from robbery, violence, racketeering, illegal bookmaking, and the control of gambling. Members of this gang wore a signature outfit that included tailored jackets, lapel overcoats, button waistcoats, silk scarves, bell-bottom trousers, leather boots, and peaked flat caps.
The Blinders’ dominance came about from beating rivals, such as the “Sloggers”, whom they fought for territory in Birmingham and its surrounding districts. They held control for nearly 20 years until 1910, when a larger gang, the Birmingham Boys led by Billy Kimber, overtook them. Though they had disappeared by the 1920s, the name of the “Peaky Blinders” became synonymous slang for any street gang in Birmingham.
In 2013, the name was reused for a BBC television series entitled Peaky Blinders. The series, which stars Cillian Murphy, Paul Anderson, and Joe Cole, is a crime story about a fictional crime family operating in Birmingham just after World War I.
The folk etymology of Peaky Blinder is that the gang members would stitch disposable razor blades into the peaks of their flat caps, which could then be used as weapons. However, as the Gillette company introduced the first replaceable safety razor system in 1903, in America, and the first factory manufacturing them in Great Britain opened in 1908, this idea of the origin of the name is considered to be apocryphal. British author John Douglas, from Birmingham, claimed hats were used as a weapon in his novel A Walk Down Summer Lane – members with razor blades sewn into their caps would headbutt enemies to potentially blind them, or the caps would be used to slash foreheads, causing blood to pour down into the eyes of their enemies, temporarily blinding them.
Birmingham historian Carl Chinn believes the name is actually a reference to the gang’s sartorial elegance. He says the popular usage of “peaky” at the time referred to any flat cap with a peak. “Blinder” was a familiar Birmingham slang term (still used today) to describe something or someone of dapper appearance. A further explanation might be from the gang’s own criminal behaviour; they were known to sneak up from behind, then pull the hat peak down over victims’ faces so they could not describe who robbed them.
Economic hardship in England led to a violent youth subculture. Poor youths frequently robbed and picked the pockets of men walking on the streets of slum Birmingham. 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 between the ages of 12 and 30. The late 1890s saw the organisation of these men into a soft hierarchy.
The most violent of these youth street gangs organised themselves as a singular group known as the “Peaky Blinders”. They were likely founded in Small Heath, possibly by a man named Thomas Mucklow, as suggested by a newspaper article entitled, “A murderous outrage at Small Heath, a man’s skull fractured” (printed in the 24 March 1890 edition of The Birmingham Mail). This article is possibly the earliest evidence of the Peaky Blinders in print:
A serious assault was committed upon a young man named George Eastwood. Living at 3 court, 2 house, Arthur Street, Small Heath, on Saturday night. It seems that Eastwood, who has been for some time a total abstainer, called between ten and eleven o’clock at the Rainbow Public House in Adderly Street, and was supplied with a bottle of gingerbeer. Shortly afterwards several men known as the “Peaky Blinders” gang, whom Eastwood knew by sight from their living in the same neighborhood as himself, came in.
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 favourable 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 organised crime.
The group was known for its violence, not only on innocent civilians, but also on rival gangs 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.