The real Peaky Blinders: Victorian gang who terrorised the streets of Birmingham and sewed razor blades into their caps to headbutt rivals

By Sofia Munez 0

  • Violent 'Peaky Blinders' oversaw a crime wave in Victorian Birmingham
  • They sewed razor blades into the peaks of their caps to headbutt rivals
  • New BBC2 drama will bring the gangsters to life, starring Cillian Murphy

By Kieran Corcoran

PUBLISHED: 05:05 EST, 11 September 2013 | UPDATED: 06:50 EST, 11 September 2013

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With their flat caps and jackets, the crooks in these old mugshots might remind you of the Artful Dodger, the lovable rogue from Oliver Twist.

But the Victorian boys and men, pictured in photos from a police archive, did much worse than pick a pocket or two.

Harry Fowler, Ernest Bayles, Stephen McHickie and Thomas Gilbert, pictured, were members of the notorious 'Peaky Blinders' gang which terrorised Birmingham around the turn of the 20th century - and now their exploits will be shown in a new BBC drama.

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Left to right, Peaky Blinders Harry Fowler, Ernest Bayles, Stephen McHickie and Thomas Gilbert are revealed in archived police photos from 1904

Left to right, Peaky Blinders Harry Fowler, Ernest Bayles, Stephen McHickie and Thomas Gilbert are revealed in archived police photos from 1904

The shots were brought out of the archives today by West Midlands Police ahead of the six-part series, which will be shown on BBC2 from tomorrow.

The gang earned its chilling nickname through the practice of sewing razor blades into the peaks of their flat caps, so that they could blind rival gangsters by headbutting them.

They ruled the industrialised areas of Bordesley and Small Heath from the 1880s through to the early 1900s, when the city was one of the world's most important manufacturing hubs.

But their gritty story will receive a Hollywood sparkle with the broadcast of the new series - simply named Peaky Blinders - which will feature Inception and Batman star Cillian Murphy in the leading role.

The records of the gang members were part of a roll of old charge sheets from the West Midlands Police Museum

The records of the gang members were part of a roll of old charge sheets from the West Midlands Police Museum

To coincide with the release of the series, West Midlands Police dug up the original charge sheets for some of the gang members, which are now more than 100 years old.

The fading sheets show that, despite the reputation of the gang for terrible crimes, these men and boys had been hauled up on relatively trivial offences.

Fowler and Bayles, aged just 19 in the photographs, were charged with 'bike theft' after stealing the unattended item and attempting to sell it on.

Stephen McHickie, 25 when pictured, was charged with breaking into a drapers shop which was just 11 doors from his own home.

Gang members could start out as young as 13, like David Taylor, left, and often had run-ins with Birmingham's police

The Peaky Blinders ran their crime ring in the backstreets of Birmingham (pictured)

The Peaky Blinders ran their crime ring in the backstreets of Birmingham (pictured)

The city was a vital centre of industry during the period the Peaky Blinders were active

Thomas Gilbert, much older than the others at 38, was arrested for the crime of 'false pretences'.

All four gangsters are shown wearing the traditional Peak Blinders outfit, of donkey jackets, silk scarfs, bell-bottom trousers, steel-capped boots and a distinctive flat cap.

Court reports from the time refer to the gang members as "foul mouthed young men who stalk the streets in drunken groups, insulting and mugging passers-by."

West Midlands Police museum worker David Cross, 69, who works at the West Midlands Police Museum, explained the method behind the gangsters' signature weapon.

He said: 'It was quite a strange weapon they used to rob people, although makes sense when you think about it.

'When they would hit someone on the nose with their cap, it would bring tears to their victim's eyes and cause temporary blindness - that's when they'd thump you and rob you.

'It is a very quick manoeuvre - that is how they worked. They would target anybody who looked vulnerable, the gentleman on his way to work who didn't look strong or fit, ladies, teenage girls, anyone - they would take anything they could convert into money.'

But theft and muggings was by no means the only illegal activity of the Peaky Blinders, who built a criminal empire on illegal betting, protection rackets and Birmingham's black market.

The were known to fight with rival gangs, and at times would even turn on the police.

Their previously unheard story is set to be told in the new BBC 2 six-part drama which was written by Birmingham-born Steven Knight, who claims members of his family were in the gang two generations ago.

Irish actor Cillian Murphy plays Tommy Shelby, the leader of the Peaky Blinders, along with Sam Neill and Helen McCrory.

 
Cillian Murphy will play Tommy Shelby, leader of the Peaky Blinders, in a new BBC series

Cillian Murphy will play Tommy Shelby, leader of the Peaky Blinders, in a new BBC series

The upcoming series will show the full extent of the Peaky Blinders' violent crimes

The upcoming series will show the full extent of the Peaky Blinders' violent crimes

Cillian Murphy (left) said playing Tommy Shelby was the toughest role of his career

Cillian Murphy (left) said playing Tommy Shelby was the toughest role of his career

In a recent interview, Mr Murphy, who had leading roles in Hollywood blockbusters Inception and Batman Begins, described the his character Tommy Shelby as 'by far the toughest I have ever portrayed' because of his physicality and the volume of fight scenes in the programme.

The plot focuses on the Peaky Blinders era of the early 20th century, highlighting the gang members who returned to the poor and crime-ridden streets of Birmingham after the First World War.

Mr Knight first had the idea for the drama 17 years ago based on stories he had been told by his parents, who grew up in Small Heath, Birmingham.

The Peaky Blinders often came to blows with the police - as shown here between Paul Anderson, left, as Arthur Shelby, and Sam Neill, right, as Chief Inspector Campbell

The Peaky Blinders often came to blows with the police - as shown here between Paul Anderson, left, as Arthur Shelby, and Sam Neill, right, as Chief Inspector Campbell

Writer Steven Knight said the inspiration from the new series came from stories his father told him

Writer Steven Knight said the inspiration from the new series came from stories his father told him

In a previous interview he said: 'My mum was a bookie’s runner when she was ten. The police used to look out for people making illegal bets, so they used kids.

'And my dad told me about his uncles, who he said were part of the Peaky Blinders gang.

'When he was a kid he was told to take a message to them. He remembers running into a house and finding a table covered in money, and immaculately dressed men sitting around drinking beer out of jam jars.'

  • Peaky Blinders will begin on BBC2 on Thursday September 12 at 9pm

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