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Episode
220

The Real Peaky Blinders

Dec 17, 2021
History
-
23
minutes
True crime
19th Century
The Victorian Era
Crime
Film & Cinema
20th Century
Gambling
Guns
Great Britain

The Peaky Blinders were a violent gang that terrorised the streets of Birmingham in the late 19th century.

Who actually were these men, what did they do, to who and why, and were the "real" Peaky Blinders anything like the ones in the TV series?

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Transcript

[00:00:00] Hello, hello hello, and welcome to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English. 

[00:00:12] The show where you can listen to fascinating stories, and learn weird and wonderful things about the world at the same time as improving your English.

[00:00:22] I'm Alastair Budge, and today is the start of another mini-series, this time a 4-part mini-series. 

[00:00:31] And the subject of this mini-series will be gangsters and villains, organised criminals with illegal, brutal but interesting stories.

[00:00:41] In part one, today’s episode, we’ll talk about The Real Peaky Blinders, the gangsters and criminals who roamed the streets of Birmingham, in England, in the late 19th and early 20th century. 

[00:00:54] Then in part two, which is going to be one of our member-only ones, we’ll move stateside, to the United States, to listen to the story of America’s most notorious organised criminal, Al Capone.

[00:01:08] In part three we will remain in America, and this time follow the story of the most famous bank robber of the 20th century, John Dillinger.

[00:01:19] And then in part four, we’ll come back to the United Kingdom, to the East End of London to be precise, and hear about Reggie and Ronnie Kray, the two twins who terrorised the streets of London in the 1960s.

[00:01:34] This mini-series has been hugely interesting to make, so I hope you’ll enjoy it.

[00:01:40] OK then, the Real Peaky Blinders.

[00:01:45] A quick administrative point if you’ve never watched the series, and you’ve never even heard the name “Peaky Blinders”.

[00:01:53] It doesn’t matter at all - you don’t need to have seen it to enjoy this episode. 

[00:01:59] So, with that out of the way, let me paint you a picture, a picture that will be familiar to those of you who have seen the series.

[00:02:08] The year is 1919 and the location is Birmingham, an industrial city in the Midlands of England.

[00:02:19] A good looking, clean shaven man wearing a wide hat and a fine suit rides an elegant black horse slowly down a long street of back-to-back brick houses populated by Chinese immigrants who look out at the horse and its rider, their eyes full of fear.

[00:02:41] Going about their business on this street were the poorly dressed working-class inhabitants of Birmingham, England. 

[00:02:48] As the people of this inner-city street become aware of the identity of the stony-faced man on his magnificent horse, they continue to scatter indoors, clearly afraid of being near him. 

[00:03:04] Further down the street a young Chinese girl, a fortune teller, appears in front of the horse and, when asked to tell the rider‘s fortune, blows a bright red powder into the horse‘s nostrils; this shot, a beautiful piece of cinematography, lingers as the film moves into Tarantino-like slow motion. 

[00:03:30] As the girl runs away, the man on the horse shouts out the name of the horse that will win a certain race, telling the listeners not to tell anyone else. 

[00:03:41] The man’s name is Thomas Shelby, and he is the protagonist of this series, “Peaky Blinders”, which first aired in 2013 and has gone on to be a cult hit.

[00:03:57] Without revealing too much for those of you who haven’t watched the series, “Peaky Blinders” follows the story of Thomas Shelby as he battles local gangs, expands his criminal enterprise throughout the UK, meets gypsies, communists, fascists, Russian aristocrats, Italian criminal gangs, Irish separatists, corrupt policemen, politicians, Prime Ministers, and generally fights with anyone who gets in his way.

[00:04:28] This series has won critical acclaim for its cinematography, its use of music, its actors, and its narrative. 

[00:04:37] But did Thomas Shelby actually exist, and who were the real “Peaky Blinders”?

[00:04:45] Well, unfortunately Thomas Shelby is an invented character.

[00:04:49] The Peaky Blinders, on the other hand, existed, and a lot of the events of the series have some historical truth to them, but, as is often the case with dramas inspired by historical events, the real history was quite different.

[00:05:08] So, in this episode we are going to unpack the Real Peaky Blinders, and I’m happy to report that the true story is very interesting, albeit slightly less dramatic.

[00:05:21] Let’s start by reminding ourselves that Victorian England, that is England of the mid to late 19th century, was not a great place to be if you were poor. 

[00:05:33] And given that around 25% of the population in the late 19th century lived below the subsistence level, that is the level at which you have enough money to eat, it wasn’t a great place to live for large parts of the population. 

[00:05:51] The Industrial Revolution, which had started in the 18th century, had sucked very large numbers of working class people, who had previously lived and worked in the countryside, into the cities.

[00:06:06] Here people lived in crowded urban spaces with poor sanitation

[00:06:12] And the population of English cities expanded quickly.

[00:06:17] Birmingham, which will be the setting for today’s episode, and the home for both the real and fictional Peaky Blinders, went from 74,000 people to over 630,000 during the 19th century.

[00:06:33] Life was hard. Pay was poor, living conditions were cramped, worker protections were almost non-existent.

[00:06:42] Men tended to work in the factories, or in some sort of manual trade, and women, broadly speaking, would remain at home, bringing up an average of 5 children. 

[00:06:55] For both men and women, there were very few legitimate ways of relaxing, there wasn’t much to do in terms of leisure.

[00:07:05] There were practically no open spaces, parks or places for people to have fun.

[00:07:11] For this new breed of mainly male industrial workers, the typical activity after long working hours, six days a week, would be drinking in the pubs.

[00:07:23] And for many the twin activity of going to the pub would be fighting. 

[00:07:30] Small gangs of often young men would form and one of the main ways they would blow off steam, they would relax and escape from the monotony of their daily working lives would be to fight each other.

[00:07:44] Alongside this, petty crime was rife, it was very common.

[00:07:50] Since the 1850s there had been groups of mainly young men who would go around the city picking people’s pockets, robbing them, taking their money, and generally causing a nuisance, causing problems.

[00:08:05] This was partly due to the fact that there were very few economic opportunities for young people, and school was still not compulsory, it wasn't required. It was also due to the fact that there was little chance of being punished for it.

[00:08:22] There was no official police force until 1856 in the UK, so these young men were able to commit crimes without much fear of being caught.

[00:08:34] After the introduction of the police to Birmingham, they started to crack down on these young men. 

[00:08:41] But instead of simply stopping committing crimes, these young men fought back against the police. They would fight the police, throwing rocks at them, attacking them with belts and hammers, and generally causing a nuisance.

[00:08:58] In the early years of the existence of the police force, policemen were severely outnumbered by the young men they were at war with.

[00:09:07] And policemen would expect to be regularly attacked by these young men. 

[00:09:12] In 1873 there were 450 policemen in Birmingham, and 473 recorded assaults on policemen. So each policeman could expect to be attacked at least once a year.

[00:09:26] These groups of young men, the nemesis of the police force, became known as “sloggers”. 

[00:09:33] This is an unusual word in English as it generally either describes the process of hitting an object, a cricket ball for example, very hard and successfully or, usually as a noun, meaning something that is hard or difficult – so you might say that climbing a particular mountain will be a hard slog. 

[00:09:57] Sloggers in the sense of violent people means men who go around terrorising others and beating them up, usually in the case of the Birmingham sloggers, with fists and the large buckles of belts

[00:10:12] was in the 1880s that we first started hearing about a gang of sloggers that calls itself the Peaky Blinders. 

[00:10:23] They weren’t sophisticated criminals, they didn’t have sprawling criminal empires and alliances with other gangs. They were rough, tough, street fighters.

[00:10:34] They would rob and steal, they would extort local businesses, and they would fight with policemen and other gangs alike.

[00:10:43] And unlike the glamorous and at times honourable Peaky Blinders of the TV series, the Real Peaky Blinders were far from it.

[00:10:53] There is a police record of a police officer encountering six or seven gang members who had been “drinking all the day and fighting all the evening”. 

[00:11:05] When the police officer arrested one of them for “lewd language”, that is for swearing, his friends came to release him. One of the friends, a 19-year-old boy, threw a brick at the policeman’s head, killing him.

[00:11:22] Another story has a peaky blinder seeing someone order a non-alcoholic ginger beer at a pub, and, for the crime of wanting a non-alcoholic drink, he was brutally attacked and his skull fractured.

[00:11:38] Let’s just say that the real Peaky Blinders were incredibly violent criminals.

[00:11:44] Soon enough the term “Peaky Blinder” became synonymous with a particular type of Birmingham small-time violent criminal.

[00:11:54] Although the Peaky Blinders towards the end of the 19th century actually contained up to 50 different street gangs, many of them shared a particular sense of style.

[00:12:06] The Peaky Blinders TV series has the characters all wearing a particular type of hat that would be pulled down over their head, and in the hat these men would have put sharp razor blades that they would use to slash, to cut, their enemies faces.

[00:12:26] There is historical evidence of them wearing particularly fashionable hats, which would often be pulled down over one eye.

[00:12:35] But, as far as these hats containing razor blades and being used as weapons, I’m afraid to say that there is really no historical truth to it.

[00:12:46] There’s simply no evidence that the hats were ever used as weapons. 

[00:12:51] Firstly, these men would use hammers, bricks and heavy belts to fight. 

[00:12:57] A hat, even if it had a sharp razor blade in it, would just not be a very good weapon in the kind of fight that they would be involved in.

[00:13:07] Secondly, the sort of small disposable razors that they use in the TV series weren’t actually invented until the start of the 20th century, and they would have been a luxury item, not something that was affordable to an impoverished member of a street gang.

[00:13:25] But you might be thinking, “hang on, you started by saying that the series starts in 1919, and after World War II, so disposable razor blades would have been invented by this time”

[00:13:39] Well, if this was what you were thinking, well done.

[00:13:43] The series does take place in the post-war period, but the real Peaky Blinders had disbanded at least 20 years before this, the original Peaky Blinders had disappeared.

[00:13:57] Instead, they were replaced by new kinds of gangs, led by more sophisticated and more ambitious criminals, men who were much more like the Thomas Shelby of the TV series, much more like the fictional Peaky Blinders.

[00:14:14] These sophisticated and ambitious criminals also exist in the TV series. 

[00:14:20] The series has characters such as a man called Billy Kimber, who controls the racetracks, the places where horse races take place.

[00:14:30] There’s also another character called Alfie Solomons, a Jewish gangster from London.

[00:14:36] And another called Charles Sabini, an English-Italian gangster also from London.

[00:14:43] These three men really did exist, and the genius of the series is to transport a small violent street gang from the 1880s to the post-war period, in the 1920s, and to have this fictional gang fight against all of the real historical characters.

[00:15:04] And this world, this underworld of post-World War I England, is full of fascinating people.

[00:15:12] Billy Kimber, a real-life gangster who we meet in the first series of Peaky Blinders, was a sophisticated criminal who controlled the bookkeeping activities at race tracks, that is the betting on the result of horse races.

[00:15:29] This was one of the only forms of gambling that was allowed in Britain, and indeed almost all other forms of betting were illegal until 1960.

[00:15:40] The result of this was that betting on horse races was an incredibly popular activity, and one where a lot of money was won and mainly lost.

[00:15:52] It was also a rough world.

[00:15:55] Petty criminals would roam around racetracks waiting to see someone who had won big, who had won a large amount of money, and then rob them, they would steal their money.

[00:16:06] And organised criminals took it a step further. 

[00:16:11] They would intimidate the bookkeepers, forcing them to pay them a proportion of their profits, and then pay them for protection from other criminal gangs.

[00:16:22] Put short, controlling the race tracks was very profitable, and Billy Kimber and his gang, known as the Brummagem Boys or the Birmingham Boys, had a monopoly on race tracks in the Midlands area.

[00:16:37] Given how profitable this activity was, there were fierce fights over control of the racetracks

[00:16:44] Kimber tried to push south to gain control over the more lucrative, the more profitable race tracks in the south of the country, but was pushed back by the English-Italian gangster, Sabini, another character you’ll come across in the Peaky Blinders series.

[00:17:03] The rivalry between these two gangs was played out at the race tracks, where they would fight each other with belts, hammers and bricks, and culminated in something called the Epsom Road Battle. 

[00:17:17] In 1921, after a race at a town called Epsom, to the south of London, Billy Kimber’s men waited for Sabini’s men to return home to London. 

[00:17:28] They hid in wait on the main road between Epsom and London, knowing that this would be the route that Sabini’s men would take to return to the city.

[00:17:39] When what they thought was Sabini’s crew arrived, they blocked the road, and a group of 60 men jumped out with axes, bricks and hammers, and violently attacked them. 

[00:17:51] Terrified residents and onlookers cried out as they called the police, fearing that this was a riot by Sinn Fein, the Irish separatists.

[00:18:03] Only afterwards would Kimber’s men find out that it was a case of mistaken identity - the men weren’t Sabini’s at all, they were from a group of bookmakers from Leeds.

[00:18:16] This mistake cost Kimber dearly. Not only did he understandably aggravate the Leeds bookmakers, but 23 of his men were arrested and imprisoned and all of Sabini’s men got away.

[00:18:31] Kimber’s bid to take control of the southern racecourses had failed, and he would actually end up making peace with Sabini, and retiring to the south coast of England where he died in a nursing home in 1945 at the age of 63.

[00:18:48] And as for Sabini, he too seemed to live to a ripe old age, at least for a gangster. He died peacefully at home in 1950, aged 62.

[00:19:01] So, as to the question of who the real “Peaky Blinders” were, the criminals called “Peaky Blinders” were small-time, violent criminals, certainly not the kind of people that you would like to meet on a dark street, and not the sort of people you would like to be caught ordering a non-alcoholic ginger beer in front of.

[00:19:23] In the interests of balance, there are some similarities between the Peaky Blinders of the TV series and the real criminals they are named after. 

[00:19:33] The real Peaky Blinders wore smart clothes, they were violent, and they were mostly young men. 

[00:19:39] But that’s about where the similarities end.

[00:19:43] The world in which the Peaky Blinders of the TV series is set, on the other hand, certainly did exist.

[00:19:50] There was a well-developed criminal underworld, which centred around the race tracks

[00:19:56] Criminal gangs violently fought each other for control of the gambling sites, and winning this control could be very profitable.

[00:20:05] But, the Real Peaky Blinders were never in that world, not at that time at least.

[00:20:11] By the start of the 20th century they had fizzled out, the small-time gangs of Birmingham, which by this time were all given the generic name of the Peaky Blinders, had disbanded and been replaced by these more sophisticated, better organised and better managed criminal enterprises.

[00:20:32] Enterprises run by men such as Billy Kimber and Charles Sabini, men who were just as violent and ferocious, but fought with their brains as well as their fists.

[00:20:44] So then, who were the real Peaky Blinders?

[00:20:47] They were small-time criminals, ruffians and villains

[00:20:51] They were certainly products of a cruel system that denied them economic opportunities. But they were violent, aggressive, and at times murderous thugs, and Birmingham is certainly a safer place without them.

[00:21:08] OK then, that is it for part one, this exploration of The Real Peaky Blinders. 

[00:21:14] For those of you who have seen the show, I hope you enjoyed it and it shed some light on the truth behind the series.

[00:21:22] And if you have never seen the TV Series Peaky Blinders, perhaps you’ll be interested in giving it a watch now. If you have Netflix, it should be on there, and I’m sure you’ll enjoy it.

[00:21:33] And if you’re interested in reading more about the real Peaky Blinders, then there’s an excellent book by a historian named Carl Chinn called Peaky Blinders - The Real Story, which I would highly recommend, and was very helpful when researching this episode.

[00:21:50] As a quick reminder, this is part one of a four-part series. Next up is the Chicago mob-boss Al Capone, then we have the Depression-era bank robber John Dillinger and then it’s the London gangster twins, The Krays.

[00:22:06] As always, I would love to know what you thought of this episode.

[00:22:10] Did you know that the real Peaky Blinders actually aren’t much like the Peaky Blinders you might have seen on the screen?

[00:22:17] If you’ve seen the series, what did you like about it? Who was your favourite character, and why?

[00:22:24] And on an English language level, what did you think of the accent? I know that the accent from Birmingham, the Brummie accent, is one that lots of English learners have a tough time understanding, so I would love to know what you thought.

[00:22:39] You can head right into our community forum, which is at community.leonardoenglish.com and get chatting away to other curious minds.

[00:22:48] The place you can go for all of that is leonardoenglish.com.
You've been listening to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English.

[00:22:59] I'm Alastair Budge, you stay safe, and I'll catch you in the next episode.


[END OF EPISODE]


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[00:00:00] Hello, hello hello, and welcome to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English. 

[00:00:12] The show where you can listen to fascinating stories, and learn weird and wonderful things about the world at the same time as improving your English.

[00:00:22] I'm Alastair Budge, and today is the start of another mini-series, this time a 4-part mini-series. 

[00:00:31] And the subject of this mini-series will be gangsters and villains, organised criminals with illegal, brutal but interesting stories.

[00:00:41] In part one, today’s episode, we’ll talk about The Real Peaky Blinders, the gangsters and criminals who roamed the streets of Birmingham, in England, in the late 19th and early 20th century. 

[00:00:54] Then in part two, which is going to be one of our member-only ones, we’ll move stateside, to the United States, to listen to the story of America’s most notorious organised criminal, Al Capone.

[00:01:08] In part three we will remain in America, and this time follow the story of the most famous bank robber of the 20th century, John Dillinger.

[00:01:19] And then in part four, we’ll come back to the United Kingdom, to the East End of London to be precise, and hear about Reggie and Ronnie Kray, the two twins who terrorised the streets of London in the 1960s.

[00:01:34] This mini-series has been hugely interesting to make, so I hope you’ll enjoy it.

[00:01:40] OK then, the Real Peaky Blinders.

[00:01:45] A quick administrative point if you’ve never watched the series, and you’ve never even heard the name “Peaky Blinders”.

[00:01:53] It doesn’t matter at all - you don’t need to have seen it to enjoy this episode. 

[00:01:59] So, with that out of the way, let me paint you a picture, a picture that will be familiar to those of you who have seen the series.

[00:02:08] The year is 1919 and the location is Birmingham, an industrial city in the Midlands of England.

[00:02:19] A good looking, clean shaven man wearing a wide hat and a fine suit rides an elegant black horse slowly down a long street of back-to-back brick houses populated by Chinese immigrants who look out at the horse and its rider, their eyes full of fear.

[00:02:41] Going about their business on this street were the poorly dressed working-class inhabitants of Birmingham, England. 

[00:02:48] As the people of this inner-city street become aware of the identity of the stony-faced man on his magnificent horse, they continue to scatter indoors, clearly afraid of being near him. 

[00:03:04] Further down the street a young Chinese girl, a fortune teller, appears in front of the horse and, when asked to tell the rider‘s fortune, blows a bright red powder into the horse‘s nostrils; this shot, a beautiful piece of cinematography, lingers as the film moves into Tarantino-like slow motion. 

[00:03:30] As the girl runs away, the man on the horse shouts out the name of the horse that will win a certain race, telling the listeners not to tell anyone else. 

[00:03:41] The man’s name is Thomas Shelby, and he is the protagonist of this series, “Peaky Blinders”, which first aired in 2013 and has gone on to be a cult hit.

[00:03:57] Without revealing too much for those of you who haven’t watched the series, “Peaky Blinders” follows the story of Thomas Shelby as he battles local gangs, expands his criminal enterprise throughout the UK, meets gypsies, communists, fascists, Russian aristocrats, Italian criminal gangs, Irish separatists, corrupt policemen, politicians, Prime Ministers, and generally fights with anyone who gets in his way.

[00:04:28] This series has won critical acclaim for its cinematography, its use of music, its actors, and its narrative. 

[00:04:37] But did Thomas Shelby actually exist, and who were the real “Peaky Blinders”?

[00:04:45] Well, unfortunately Thomas Shelby is an invented character.

[00:04:49] The Peaky Blinders, on the other hand, existed, and a lot of the events of the series have some historical truth to them, but, as is often the case with dramas inspired by historical events, the real history was quite different.

[00:05:08] So, in this episode we are going to unpack the Real Peaky Blinders, and I’m happy to report that the true story is very interesting, albeit slightly less dramatic.

[00:05:21] Let’s start by reminding ourselves that Victorian England, that is England of the mid to late 19th century, was not a great place to be if you were poor. 

[00:05:33] And given that around 25% of the population in the late 19th century lived below the subsistence level, that is the level at which you have enough money to eat, it wasn’t a great place to live for large parts of the population. 

[00:05:51] The Industrial Revolution, which had started in the 18th century, had sucked very large numbers of working class people, who had previously lived and worked in the countryside, into the cities.

[00:06:06] Here people lived in crowded urban spaces with poor sanitation

[00:06:12] And the population of English cities expanded quickly.

[00:06:17] Birmingham, which will be the setting for today’s episode, and the home for both the real and fictional Peaky Blinders, went from 74,000 people to over 630,000 during the 19th century.

[00:06:33] Life was hard. Pay was poor, living conditions were cramped, worker protections were almost non-existent.

[00:06:42] Men tended to work in the factories, or in some sort of manual trade, and women, broadly speaking, would remain at home, bringing up an average of 5 children. 

[00:06:55] For both men and women, there were very few legitimate ways of relaxing, there wasn’t much to do in terms of leisure.

[00:07:05] There were practically no open spaces, parks or places for people to have fun.

[00:07:11] For this new breed of mainly male industrial workers, the typical activity after long working hours, six days a week, would be drinking in the pubs.

[00:07:23] And for many the twin activity of going to the pub would be fighting. 

[00:07:30] Small gangs of often young men would form and one of the main ways they would blow off steam, they would relax and escape from the monotony of their daily working lives would be to fight each other.

[00:07:44] Alongside this, petty crime was rife, it was very common.

[00:07:50] Since the 1850s there had been groups of mainly young men who would go around the city picking people’s pockets, robbing them, taking their money, and generally causing a nuisance, causing problems.

[00:08:05] This was partly due to the fact that there were very few economic opportunities for young people, and school was still not compulsory, it wasn't required. It was also due to the fact that there was little chance of being punished for it.

[00:08:22] There was no official police force until 1856 in the UK, so these young men were able to commit crimes without much fear of being caught.

[00:08:34] After the introduction of the police to Birmingham, they started to crack down on these young men. 

[00:08:41] But instead of simply stopping committing crimes, these young men fought back against the police. They would fight the police, throwing rocks at them, attacking them with belts and hammers, and generally causing a nuisance.

[00:08:58] In the early years of the existence of the police force, policemen were severely outnumbered by the young men they were at war with.

[00:09:07] And policemen would expect to be regularly attacked by these young men. 

[00:09:12] In 1873 there were 450 policemen in Birmingham, and 473 recorded assaults on policemen. So each policeman could expect to be attacked at least once a year.

[00:09:26] These groups of young men, the nemesis of the police force, became known as “sloggers”. 

[00:09:33] This is an unusual word in English as it generally either describes the process of hitting an object, a cricket ball for example, very hard and successfully or, usually as a noun, meaning something that is hard or difficult – so you might say that climbing a particular mountain will be a hard slog. 

[00:09:57] Sloggers in the sense of violent people means men who go around terrorising others and beating them up, usually in the case of the Birmingham sloggers, with fists and the large buckles of belts

[00:10:12] was in the 1880s that we first started hearing about a gang of sloggers that calls itself the Peaky Blinders. 

[00:10:23] They weren’t sophisticated criminals, they didn’t have sprawling criminal empires and alliances with other gangs. They were rough, tough, street fighters.

[00:10:34] They would rob and steal, they would extort local businesses, and they would fight with policemen and other gangs alike.

[00:10:43] And unlike the glamorous and at times honourable Peaky Blinders of the TV series, the Real Peaky Blinders were far from it.

[00:10:53] There is a police record of a police officer encountering six or seven gang members who had been “drinking all the day and fighting all the evening”. 

[00:11:05] When the police officer arrested one of them for “lewd language”, that is for swearing, his friends came to release him. One of the friends, a 19-year-old boy, threw a brick at the policeman’s head, killing him.

[00:11:22] Another story has a peaky blinder seeing someone order a non-alcoholic ginger beer at a pub, and, for the crime of wanting a non-alcoholic drink, he was brutally attacked and his skull fractured.

[00:11:38] Let’s just say that the real Peaky Blinders were incredibly violent criminals.

[00:11:44] Soon enough the term “Peaky Blinder” became synonymous with a particular type of Birmingham small-time violent criminal.

[00:11:54] Although the Peaky Blinders towards the end of the 19th century actually contained up to 50 different street gangs, many of them shared a particular sense of style.

[00:12:06] The Peaky Blinders TV series has the characters all wearing a particular type of hat that would be pulled down over their head, and in the hat these men would have put sharp razor blades that they would use to slash, to cut, their enemies faces.

[00:12:26] There is historical evidence of them wearing particularly fashionable hats, which would often be pulled down over one eye.

[00:12:35] But, as far as these hats containing razor blades and being used as weapons, I’m afraid to say that there is really no historical truth to it.

[00:12:46] There’s simply no evidence that the hats were ever used as weapons. 

[00:12:51] Firstly, these men would use hammers, bricks and heavy belts to fight. 

[00:12:57] A hat, even if it had a sharp razor blade in it, would just not be a very good weapon in the kind of fight that they would be involved in.

[00:13:07] Secondly, the sort of small disposable razors that they use in the TV series weren’t actually invented until the start of the 20th century, and they would have been a luxury item, not something that was affordable to an impoverished member of a street gang.

[00:13:25] But you might be thinking, “hang on, you started by saying that the series starts in 1919, and after World War II, so disposable razor blades would have been invented by this time”

[00:13:39] Well, if this was what you were thinking, well done.

[00:13:43] The series does take place in the post-war period, but the real Peaky Blinders had disbanded at least 20 years before this, the original Peaky Blinders had disappeared.

[00:13:57] Instead, they were replaced by new kinds of gangs, led by more sophisticated and more ambitious criminals, men who were much more like the Thomas Shelby of the TV series, much more like the fictional Peaky Blinders.

[00:14:14] These sophisticated and ambitious criminals also exist in the TV series. 

[00:14:20] The series has characters such as a man called Billy Kimber, who controls the racetracks, the places where horse races take place.

[00:14:30] There’s also another character called Alfie Solomons, a Jewish gangster from London.

[00:14:36] And another called Charles Sabini, an English-Italian gangster also from London.

[00:14:43] These three men really did exist, and the genius of the series is to transport a small violent street gang from the 1880s to the post-war period, in the 1920s, and to have this fictional gang fight against all of the real historical characters.

[00:15:04] And this world, this underworld of post-World War I England, is full of fascinating people.

[00:15:12] Billy Kimber, a real-life gangster who we meet in the first series of Peaky Blinders, was a sophisticated criminal who controlled the bookkeeping activities at race tracks, that is the betting on the result of horse races.

[00:15:29] This was one of the only forms of gambling that was allowed in Britain, and indeed almost all other forms of betting were illegal until 1960.

[00:15:40] The result of this was that betting on horse races was an incredibly popular activity, and one where a lot of money was won and mainly lost.

[00:15:52] It was also a rough world.

[00:15:55] Petty criminals would roam around racetracks waiting to see someone who had won big, who had won a large amount of money, and then rob them, they would steal their money.

[00:16:06] And organised criminals took it a step further. 

[00:16:11] They would intimidate the bookkeepers, forcing them to pay them a proportion of their profits, and then pay them for protection from other criminal gangs.

[00:16:22] Put short, controlling the race tracks was very profitable, and Billy Kimber and his gang, known as the Brummagem Boys or the Birmingham Boys, had a monopoly on race tracks in the Midlands area.

[00:16:37] Given how profitable this activity was, there were fierce fights over control of the racetracks

[00:16:44] Kimber tried to push south to gain control over the more lucrative, the more profitable race tracks in the south of the country, but was pushed back by the English-Italian gangster, Sabini, another character you’ll come across in the Peaky Blinders series.

[00:17:03] The rivalry between these two gangs was played out at the race tracks, where they would fight each other with belts, hammers and bricks, and culminated in something called the Epsom Road Battle. 

[00:17:17] In 1921, after a race at a town called Epsom, to the south of London, Billy Kimber’s men waited for Sabini’s men to return home to London. 

[00:17:28] They hid in wait on the main road between Epsom and London, knowing that this would be the route that Sabini’s men would take to return to the city.

[00:17:39] When what they thought was Sabini’s crew arrived, they blocked the road, and a group of 60 men jumped out with axes, bricks and hammers, and violently attacked them. 

[00:17:51] Terrified residents and onlookers cried out as they called the police, fearing that this was a riot by Sinn Fein, the Irish separatists.

[00:18:03] Only afterwards would Kimber’s men find out that it was a case of mistaken identity - the men weren’t Sabini’s at all, they were from a group of bookmakers from Leeds.

[00:18:16] This mistake cost Kimber dearly. Not only did he understandably aggravate the Leeds bookmakers, but 23 of his men were arrested and imprisoned and all of Sabini’s men got away.

[00:18:31] Kimber’s bid to take control of the southern racecourses had failed, and he would actually end up making peace with Sabini, and retiring to the south coast of England where he died in a nursing home in 1945 at the age of 63.

[00:18:48] And as for Sabini, he too seemed to live to a ripe old age, at least for a gangster. He died peacefully at home in 1950, aged 62.

[00:19:01] So, as to the question of who the real “Peaky Blinders” were, the criminals called “Peaky Blinders” were small-time, violent criminals, certainly not the kind of people that you would like to meet on a dark street, and not the sort of people you would like to be caught ordering a non-alcoholic ginger beer in front of.

[00:19:23] In the interests of balance, there are some similarities between the Peaky Blinders of the TV series and the real criminals they are named after. 

[00:19:33] The real Peaky Blinders wore smart clothes, they were violent, and they were mostly young men. 

[00:19:39] But that’s about where the similarities end.

[00:19:43] The world in which the Peaky Blinders of the TV series is set, on the other hand, certainly did exist.

[00:19:50] There was a well-developed criminal underworld, which centred around the race tracks

[00:19:56] Criminal gangs violently fought each other for control of the gambling sites, and winning this control could be very profitable.

[00:20:05] But, the Real Peaky Blinders were never in that world, not at that time at least.

[00:20:11] By the start of the 20th century they had fizzled out, the small-time gangs of Birmingham, which by this time were all given the generic name of the Peaky Blinders, had disbanded and been replaced by these more sophisticated, better organised and better managed criminal enterprises.

[00:20:32] Enterprises run by men such as Billy Kimber and Charles Sabini, men who were just as violent and ferocious, but fought with their brains as well as their fists.

[00:20:44] So then, who were the real Peaky Blinders?

[00:20:47] They were small-time criminals, ruffians and villains

[00:20:51] They were certainly products of a cruel system that denied them economic opportunities. But they were violent, aggressive, and at times murderous thugs, and Birmingham is certainly a safer place without them.

[00:21:08] OK then, that is it for part one, this exploration of The Real Peaky Blinders. 

[00:21:14] For those of you who have seen the show, I hope you enjoyed it and it shed some light on the truth behind the series.

[00:21:22] And if you have never seen the TV Series Peaky Blinders, perhaps you’ll be interested in giving it a watch now. If you have Netflix, it should be on there, and I’m sure you’ll enjoy it.

[00:21:33] And if you’re interested in reading more about the real Peaky Blinders, then there’s an excellent book by a historian named Carl Chinn called Peaky Blinders - The Real Story, which I would highly recommend, and was very helpful when researching this episode.

[00:21:50] As a quick reminder, this is part one of a four-part series. Next up is the Chicago mob-boss Al Capone, then we have the Depression-era bank robber John Dillinger and then it’s the London gangster twins, The Krays.

[00:22:06] As always, I would love to know what you thought of this episode.

[00:22:10] Did you know that the real Peaky Blinders actually aren’t much like the Peaky Blinders you might have seen on the screen?

[00:22:17] If you’ve seen the series, what did you like about it? Who was your favourite character, and why?

[00:22:24] And on an English language level, what did you think of the accent? I know that the accent from Birmingham, the Brummie accent, is one that lots of English learners have a tough time understanding, so I would love to know what you thought.

[00:22:39] You can head right into our community forum, which is at community.leonardoenglish.com and get chatting away to other curious minds.

[00:22:48] The place you can go for all of that is leonardoenglish.com.
You've been listening to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English.

[00:22:59] I'm Alastair Budge, you stay safe, and I'll catch you in the next episode.


[END OF EPISODE]


[00:00:00] Hello, hello hello, and welcome to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English. 

[00:00:12] The show where you can listen to fascinating stories, and learn weird and wonderful things about the world at the same time as improving your English.

[00:00:22] I'm Alastair Budge, and today is the start of another mini-series, this time a 4-part mini-series. 

[00:00:31] And the subject of this mini-series will be gangsters and villains, organised criminals with illegal, brutal but interesting stories.

[00:00:41] In part one, today’s episode, we’ll talk about The Real Peaky Blinders, the gangsters and criminals who roamed the streets of Birmingham, in England, in the late 19th and early 20th century. 

[00:00:54] Then in part two, which is going to be one of our member-only ones, we’ll move stateside, to the United States, to listen to the story of America’s most notorious organised criminal, Al Capone.

[00:01:08] In part three we will remain in America, and this time follow the story of the most famous bank robber of the 20th century, John Dillinger.

[00:01:19] And then in part four, we’ll come back to the United Kingdom, to the East End of London to be precise, and hear about Reggie and Ronnie Kray, the two twins who terrorised the streets of London in the 1960s.

[00:01:34] This mini-series has been hugely interesting to make, so I hope you’ll enjoy it.

[00:01:40] OK then, the Real Peaky Blinders.

[00:01:45] A quick administrative point if you’ve never watched the series, and you’ve never even heard the name “Peaky Blinders”.

[00:01:53] It doesn’t matter at all - you don’t need to have seen it to enjoy this episode. 

[00:01:59] So, with that out of the way, let me paint you a picture, a picture that will be familiar to those of you who have seen the series.

[00:02:08] The year is 1919 and the location is Birmingham, an industrial city in the Midlands of England.

[00:02:19] A good looking, clean shaven man wearing a wide hat and a fine suit rides an elegant black horse slowly down a long street of back-to-back brick houses populated by Chinese immigrants who look out at the horse and its rider, their eyes full of fear.

[00:02:41] Going about their business on this street were the poorly dressed working-class inhabitants of Birmingham, England. 

[00:02:48] As the people of this inner-city street become aware of the identity of the stony-faced man on his magnificent horse, they continue to scatter indoors, clearly afraid of being near him. 

[00:03:04] Further down the street a young Chinese girl, a fortune teller, appears in front of the horse and, when asked to tell the rider‘s fortune, blows a bright red powder into the horse‘s nostrils; this shot, a beautiful piece of cinematography, lingers as the film moves into Tarantino-like slow motion. 

[00:03:30] As the girl runs away, the man on the horse shouts out the name of the horse that will win a certain race, telling the listeners not to tell anyone else. 

[00:03:41] The man’s name is Thomas Shelby, and he is the protagonist of this series, “Peaky Blinders”, which first aired in 2013 and has gone on to be a cult hit.

[00:03:57] Without revealing too much for those of you who haven’t watched the series, “Peaky Blinders” follows the story of Thomas Shelby as he battles local gangs, expands his criminal enterprise throughout the UK, meets gypsies, communists, fascists, Russian aristocrats, Italian criminal gangs, Irish separatists, corrupt policemen, politicians, Prime Ministers, and generally fights with anyone who gets in his way.

[00:04:28] This series has won critical acclaim for its cinematography, its use of music, its actors, and its narrative. 

[00:04:37] But did Thomas Shelby actually exist, and who were the real “Peaky Blinders”?

[00:04:45] Well, unfortunately Thomas Shelby is an invented character.

[00:04:49] The Peaky Blinders, on the other hand, existed, and a lot of the events of the series have some historical truth to them, but, as is often the case with dramas inspired by historical events, the real history was quite different.

[00:05:08] So, in this episode we are going to unpack the Real Peaky Blinders, and I’m happy to report that the true story is very interesting, albeit slightly less dramatic.

[00:05:21] Let’s start by reminding ourselves that Victorian England, that is England of the mid to late 19th century, was not a great place to be if you were poor. 

[00:05:33] And given that around 25% of the population in the late 19th century lived below the subsistence level, that is the level at which you have enough money to eat, it wasn’t a great place to live for large parts of the population. 

[00:05:51] The Industrial Revolution, which had started in the 18th century, had sucked very large numbers of working class people, who had previously lived and worked in the countryside, into the cities.

[00:06:06] Here people lived in crowded urban spaces with poor sanitation

[00:06:12] And the population of English cities expanded quickly.

[00:06:17] Birmingham, which will be the setting for today’s episode, and the home for both the real and fictional Peaky Blinders, went from 74,000 people to over 630,000 during the 19th century.

[00:06:33] Life was hard. Pay was poor, living conditions were cramped, worker protections were almost non-existent.

[00:06:42] Men tended to work in the factories, or in some sort of manual trade, and women, broadly speaking, would remain at home, bringing up an average of 5 children. 

[00:06:55] For both men and women, there were very few legitimate ways of relaxing, there wasn’t much to do in terms of leisure.

[00:07:05] There were practically no open spaces, parks or places for people to have fun.

[00:07:11] For this new breed of mainly male industrial workers, the typical activity after long working hours, six days a week, would be drinking in the pubs.

[00:07:23] And for many the twin activity of going to the pub would be fighting. 

[00:07:30] Small gangs of often young men would form and one of the main ways they would blow off steam, they would relax and escape from the monotony of their daily working lives would be to fight each other.

[00:07:44] Alongside this, petty crime was rife, it was very common.

[00:07:50] Since the 1850s there had been groups of mainly young men who would go around the city picking people’s pockets, robbing them, taking their money, and generally causing a nuisance, causing problems.

[00:08:05] This was partly due to the fact that there were very few economic opportunities for young people, and school was still not compulsory, it wasn't required. It was also due to the fact that there was little chance of being punished for it.

[00:08:22] There was no official police force until 1856 in the UK, so these young men were able to commit crimes without much fear of being caught.

[00:08:34] After the introduction of the police to Birmingham, they started to crack down on these young men. 

[00:08:41] But instead of simply stopping committing crimes, these young men fought back against the police. They would fight the police, throwing rocks at them, attacking them with belts and hammers, and generally causing a nuisance.

[00:08:58] In the early years of the existence of the police force, policemen were severely outnumbered by the young men they were at war with.

[00:09:07] And policemen would expect to be regularly attacked by these young men. 

[00:09:12] In 1873 there were 450 policemen in Birmingham, and 473 recorded assaults on policemen. So each policeman could expect to be attacked at least once a year.

[00:09:26] These groups of young men, the nemesis of the police force, became known as “sloggers”. 

[00:09:33] This is an unusual word in English as it generally either describes the process of hitting an object, a cricket ball for example, very hard and successfully or, usually as a noun, meaning something that is hard or difficult – so you might say that climbing a particular mountain will be a hard slog. 

[00:09:57] Sloggers in the sense of violent people means men who go around terrorising others and beating them up, usually in the case of the Birmingham sloggers, with fists and the large buckles of belts

[00:10:12] was in the 1880s that we first started hearing about a gang of sloggers that calls itself the Peaky Blinders. 

[00:10:23] They weren’t sophisticated criminals, they didn’t have sprawling criminal empires and alliances with other gangs. They were rough, tough, street fighters.

[00:10:34] They would rob and steal, they would extort local businesses, and they would fight with policemen and other gangs alike.

[00:10:43] And unlike the glamorous and at times honourable Peaky Blinders of the TV series, the Real Peaky Blinders were far from it.

[00:10:53] There is a police record of a police officer encountering six or seven gang members who had been “drinking all the day and fighting all the evening”. 

[00:11:05] When the police officer arrested one of them for “lewd language”, that is for swearing, his friends came to release him. One of the friends, a 19-year-old boy, threw a brick at the policeman’s head, killing him.

[00:11:22] Another story has a peaky blinder seeing someone order a non-alcoholic ginger beer at a pub, and, for the crime of wanting a non-alcoholic drink, he was brutally attacked and his skull fractured.

[00:11:38] Let’s just say that the real Peaky Blinders were incredibly violent criminals.

[00:11:44] Soon enough the term “Peaky Blinder” became synonymous with a particular type of Birmingham small-time violent criminal.

[00:11:54] Although the Peaky Blinders towards the end of the 19th century actually contained up to 50 different street gangs, many of them shared a particular sense of style.

[00:12:06] The Peaky Blinders TV series has the characters all wearing a particular type of hat that would be pulled down over their head, and in the hat these men would have put sharp razor blades that they would use to slash, to cut, their enemies faces.

[00:12:26] There is historical evidence of them wearing particularly fashionable hats, which would often be pulled down over one eye.

[00:12:35] But, as far as these hats containing razor blades and being used as weapons, I’m afraid to say that there is really no historical truth to it.

[00:12:46] There’s simply no evidence that the hats were ever used as weapons. 

[00:12:51] Firstly, these men would use hammers, bricks and heavy belts to fight. 

[00:12:57] A hat, even if it had a sharp razor blade in it, would just not be a very good weapon in the kind of fight that they would be involved in.

[00:13:07] Secondly, the sort of small disposable razors that they use in the TV series weren’t actually invented until the start of the 20th century, and they would have been a luxury item, not something that was affordable to an impoverished member of a street gang.

[00:13:25] But you might be thinking, “hang on, you started by saying that the series starts in 1919, and after World War II, so disposable razor blades would have been invented by this time”

[00:13:39] Well, if this was what you were thinking, well done.

[00:13:43] The series does take place in the post-war period, but the real Peaky Blinders had disbanded at least 20 years before this, the original Peaky Blinders had disappeared.

[00:13:57] Instead, they were replaced by new kinds of gangs, led by more sophisticated and more ambitious criminals, men who were much more like the Thomas Shelby of the TV series, much more like the fictional Peaky Blinders.

[00:14:14] These sophisticated and ambitious criminals also exist in the TV series. 

[00:14:20] The series has characters such as a man called Billy Kimber, who controls the racetracks, the places where horse races take place.

[00:14:30] There’s also another character called Alfie Solomons, a Jewish gangster from London.

[00:14:36] And another called Charles Sabini, an English-Italian gangster also from London.

[00:14:43] These three men really did exist, and the genius of the series is to transport a small violent street gang from the 1880s to the post-war period, in the 1920s, and to have this fictional gang fight against all of the real historical characters.

[00:15:04] And this world, this underworld of post-World War I England, is full of fascinating people.

[00:15:12] Billy Kimber, a real-life gangster who we meet in the first series of Peaky Blinders, was a sophisticated criminal who controlled the bookkeeping activities at race tracks, that is the betting on the result of horse races.

[00:15:29] This was one of the only forms of gambling that was allowed in Britain, and indeed almost all other forms of betting were illegal until 1960.

[00:15:40] The result of this was that betting on horse races was an incredibly popular activity, and one where a lot of money was won and mainly lost.

[00:15:52] It was also a rough world.

[00:15:55] Petty criminals would roam around racetracks waiting to see someone who had won big, who had won a large amount of money, and then rob them, they would steal their money.

[00:16:06] And organised criminals took it a step further. 

[00:16:11] They would intimidate the bookkeepers, forcing them to pay them a proportion of their profits, and then pay them for protection from other criminal gangs.

[00:16:22] Put short, controlling the race tracks was very profitable, and Billy Kimber and his gang, known as the Brummagem Boys or the Birmingham Boys, had a monopoly on race tracks in the Midlands area.

[00:16:37] Given how profitable this activity was, there were fierce fights over control of the racetracks

[00:16:44] Kimber tried to push south to gain control over the more lucrative, the more profitable race tracks in the south of the country, but was pushed back by the English-Italian gangster, Sabini, another character you’ll come across in the Peaky Blinders series.

[00:17:03] The rivalry between these two gangs was played out at the race tracks, where they would fight each other with belts, hammers and bricks, and culminated in something called the Epsom Road Battle. 

[00:17:17] In 1921, after a race at a town called Epsom, to the south of London, Billy Kimber’s men waited for Sabini’s men to return home to London. 

[00:17:28] They hid in wait on the main road between Epsom and London, knowing that this would be the route that Sabini’s men would take to return to the city.

[00:17:39] When what they thought was Sabini’s crew arrived, they blocked the road, and a group of 60 men jumped out with axes, bricks and hammers, and violently attacked them. 

[00:17:51] Terrified residents and onlookers cried out as they called the police, fearing that this was a riot by Sinn Fein, the Irish separatists.

[00:18:03] Only afterwards would Kimber’s men find out that it was a case of mistaken identity - the men weren’t Sabini’s at all, they were from a group of bookmakers from Leeds.

[00:18:16] This mistake cost Kimber dearly. Not only did he understandably aggravate the Leeds bookmakers, but 23 of his men were arrested and imprisoned and all of Sabini’s men got away.

[00:18:31] Kimber’s bid to take control of the southern racecourses had failed, and he would actually end up making peace with Sabini, and retiring to the south coast of England where he died in a nursing home in 1945 at the age of 63.

[00:18:48] And as for Sabini, he too seemed to live to a ripe old age, at least for a gangster. He died peacefully at home in 1950, aged 62.

[00:19:01] So, as to the question of who the real “Peaky Blinders” were, the criminals called “Peaky Blinders” were small-time, violent criminals, certainly not the kind of people that you would like to meet on a dark street, and not the sort of people you would like to be caught ordering a non-alcoholic ginger beer in front of.

[00:19:23] In the interests of balance, there are some similarities between the Peaky Blinders of the TV series and the real criminals they are named after. 

[00:19:33] The real Peaky Blinders wore smart clothes, they were violent, and they were mostly young men. 

[00:19:39] But that’s about where the similarities end.

[00:19:43] The world in which the Peaky Blinders of the TV series is set, on the other hand, certainly did exist.

[00:19:50] There was a well-developed criminal underworld, which centred around the race tracks

[00:19:56] Criminal gangs violently fought each other for control of the gambling sites, and winning this control could be very profitable.

[00:20:05] But, the Real Peaky Blinders were never in that world, not at that time at least.

[00:20:11] By the start of the 20th century they had fizzled out, the small-time gangs of Birmingham, which by this time were all given the generic name of the Peaky Blinders, had disbanded and been replaced by these more sophisticated, better organised and better managed criminal enterprises.

[00:20:32] Enterprises run by men such as Billy Kimber and Charles Sabini, men who were just as violent and ferocious, but fought with their brains as well as their fists.

[00:20:44] So then, who were the real Peaky Blinders?

[00:20:47] They were small-time criminals, ruffians and villains

[00:20:51] They were certainly products of a cruel system that denied them economic opportunities. But they were violent, aggressive, and at times murderous thugs, and Birmingham is certainly a safer place without them.

[00:21:08] OK then, that is it for part one, this exploration of The Real Peaky Blinders. 

[00:21:14] For those of you who have seen the show, I hope you enjoyed it and it shed some light on the truth behind the series.

[00:21:22] And if you have never seen the TV Series Peaky Blinders, perhaps you’ll be interested in giving it a watch now. If you have Netflix, it should be on there, and I’m sure you’ll enjoy it.

[00:21:33] And if you’re interested in reading more about the real Peaky Blinders, then there’s an excellent book by a historian named Carl Chinn called Peaky Blinders - The Real Story, which I would highly recommend, and was very helpful when researching this episode.

[00:21:50] As a quick reminder, this is part one of a four-part series. Next up is the Chicago mob-boss Al Capone, then we have the Depression-era bank robber John Dillinger and then it’s the London gangster twins, The Krays.

[00:22:06] As always, I would love to know what you thought of this episode.

[00:22:10] Did you know that the real Peaky Blinders actually aren’t much like the Peaky Blinders you might have seen on the screen?

[00:22:17] If you’ve seen the series, what did you like about it? Who was your favourite character, and why?

[00:22:24] And on an English language level, what did you think of the accent? I know that the accent from Birmingham, the Brummie accent, is one that lots of English learners have a tough time understanding, so I would love to know what you thought.

[00:22:39] You can head right into our community forum, which is at community.leonardoenglish.com and get chatting away to other curious minds.

[00:22:48] The place you can go for all of that is leonardoenglish.com.
You've been listening to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English.

[00:22:59] I'm Alastair Budge, you stay safe, and I'll catch you in the next episode.


[END OF EPISODE]