The dank, slum streets are ruled by gangs made up of hundreds of youths armed with knives, razor blades and hammers. 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. Welcome to Birmingham, England, 1919.
Now – nearly a century later – a six-part BBC drama series explores the lives of the members of the city’s most notorious gang from a century ago – the Peaky Blinders. 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?
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. The Garrison Lane slums were home to Henry Lightfoot; one of the first to be referred to as a “Peaky Blinder”
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. Edited from Birmingham’s real Peaky Blinders.