Created by Steven Knight, Peaky Blinders is technically based on a true story but has also been heavily fictionalized for dramatic purposes. The BBC-Netflix crime drama focuses primarily on the Shelby family, a gang of outlaws who infiltrate high society in 1920s Birmingham, England. But the real-life Peaky Blinders roamed about Birmingham during an entirely different time frame. Peaky Blinders stars Cillian Murphy as Thomas Shelby, a war hero who uses his outsider status and intelligence to orchestrate major power moves in Birmingham and beyond. Tommy is stylish and calculating; he’s willing to kill enemies for revenge or power. He is the face of Peaky Blinders and embodies the appearance and basic philosophies of the real-life Peaky Blinders gang.
Throughout the six seasons of Peaky Blinders, the show took some influence in creating Thomas Shelby and his world. However, it’s the character’s paranoia and vulnerability that drives the fictional narrative and infuses his gang members with more depth and world experience than the real-life gang. Once upon a time, the real-life Peaky Blinders did indeed make news headlines in Birmingham and were known for their unique style. In fact, Knight told History Extra created the series based on his father’s stories about men who were “immaculately dressed, wearing caps and with guns in their pockets.” Here’s the Peaky Blinders true story that inspired the television series.
The Real Peaky Blinders Gang Explained
Unlike the television show, the real-life Peaky Blinders started in the 1800s. A subculture emerged within Birmingham as a result of an economic recession. Overseas, various groups of dispossessed people turned to organized crime in New York City, and the same concept applied to the real Peaky Blinders’ home city. In this case, the criminals were mostly young men who gambled and robbed to get by, all the while using violence to ensure a certain amount of power. While the show only showcases the early 20th century, The Peaky Blinders true story dates back to the 1870s.
According to historian Barbara Weinberger, the gang first emerged because anti-Irish sentiments “offered a focus and a target for the frustrations of inner-city youths which… became institutionalized in gang warfare.” By the 1890s, the subculture became associated with a specific style: bowler-style felt hats, pointed and pulled down over the forehead which is how the term “Peaky Blinders” originated. Some locals were apparently blinded by the criminals’ charisma, while some have made the case that the gang couldn’t see too well because of their covered eyes. Whatever the case, the real-life Peaky Blinders made an impression; a concept that translates to Knight’s series.
Peaky Blinders Is Based On A True Story
Because the real-life Peaky Blinders were known as working gentlemen from the lower class, their distinct style betrays what they should have been wearing, at least in theory. In addition, the true Peaky Blinders consisted of various gangs and were anything but one single family of outlaws. Criminals like Thomas Gilbert ran with a specific crew, thus making the name “Peaky Blinders” more prominent within Birmingham culture. They were a crime family by association – not by blood or a united code of “omertà”, as the gangsters in The Sopranos or The Godfather.
Over time, the real-life Peaky Blinders began referring to themselves as “sloggers,” the product of “poverty, squalor and slum environment,” according to Birmingham manufacturer Arthur Matthison. During the early 20th century, the gang of youths maintained the same look and criminal lifestyle, but mostly out of necessity rather than a grand scheme to gain immense power within Birmingham. The real Peaky Blinders gangs slowly dissipated because of athletics, movies, and other activities that kept young men busy. In short, life became easier for some – they didn’t have to rely on low-level crime to make ends meet. The real Peaky Blinders grew up and faded away, rather ironically, at around the same point in history when Peaky Blinders begins.
Who The Real-Life Peaky Blinders Were
As previously mentioned, the real-life Peaky Blinders were several gangs, rather than the Shelby family and their various cohorts. That being said, there are a few members of the gang that achieved mild notoriety in Birmingham for their criminal exploits. Tommy Shelby is most likely based on Kevin Mooney aka Thomas Gilbert, though he was known for changing his last name several times. At the height of the real-life gang’s power, Thomas Gilbert was the ringleader. The true story behind the Peaky Blinders’ crimes isn’t quite as sensational as the show. Harry Fowles, or “Baby-faced Harry”, was arrested for stealing a bicycle; a crime that fellow gang member Stephen McNickle was also nabbed for.
The first person to be named as a Peaky Blinder was a man named Henry Lightfoot. Henry later went to fight in WWI, a subject Peaky Blinders touches on with Tommy’s character. Other real-life Peaky Blinders members include Earnest Haynes, Stephen McNickle, and Billy Kimber. Haynes was held in jail for a month after being caught for a home invasion. Billy Kimber is one of the few real-life characters in the early seasons of Peaky Blinders, and he’s played by actor Charlie Creed-Miles. After running with the Peaky Blinders, Billy went on to form the Birmingham Boys. Kimber is a rival of Tommy in the series, and the real-life Birmingham Boys overtook the actual Peaky Blinders gang in 1910.
What Events & Characters Were Real?
Peaky Blinders’ Shelby family isn’t based on a true story, but the world they inhabit mirrors the real-life Birmingham society of the 1920s. For example, movie star Charlie Chaplin makes an appearance in Peaky Blinders season 2, which makes sense because the real-life Charlie Chaplin was indeed a Birmingham native with a Gypsy upbringing. In actuality, the real Chaplin would’ve been fully aware that the Peaky Blinders reached their prime decades before. For the series, Chaplin adds a glamorous twist, as the Shelby’s influence reaches all the way to Hollywood. Peaky Blinders season 6 adds another cheeky not to this as Lizzie Shelby (Natasha O’Keefe) yells at a group of kids to pay attention to the movie projector because it was a gift from Charlie Chaplin himself.
Tommy’s foes in Peaky Blinders are real historical figures. As previously mentioned, the leader of the Birmingham Boys, Billy Kimber, was a real-life gangster, along with Charles “Darby” Sabini – a London criminal who controlled racehorse rackets in southern England. The real-life Kimber and Sabini were actual rivals who fought for control, and they’re both prominently featured in Peaky Blinders’ storyline. The wildcard is Tommy Shelby, a fictional Peaky Blinder foil whose story will finally culminate with the Peaky Blinders movie.
In Peaky Blinders season 5, as part of a larger scheme, Tommy Shelby enters into a partnership with a representation of the real-life politician, Oswald Mosley (Sam Claflin). Oswald Mosley really did form the British Union of Fascists, but did not do so until 1932, rather than in Peaky Blinders season 5’s 1929 setting. While there was not an assassination attempt against his life, in 1940 he was nearly wounded in an assault as World War II turned public sentiment fiercely against his ideology.
Interestingly, Mosley survives Peaky Blinders season 5 and Peaky Blinders’ season 6 setting in 1933 would fit more accurately to his actual political timeline and his rise to prominence. Along with Mosley, other real political figures have appeared in Peaky Blinders, most notably Winston Churchill who has come to have an interesting relationship with the fictionalized Tommy Shelby. Peaky Blinders season 5 also introduces drug runner Brilliant Chang, who makes an opium distribution deal with Tommy. The true story behind Brilliant Chang is that he ran a Chinese restaurant in Birmingham, and was publicly identified in the news as a “dope king“; he was a Walter White style drug distribution kingpin.
Even if the real-life Peaky Blinders weren’t a major influence on Birmingham society, the television series offers some intriguing revisionist history, and theorizes what might’ve happened if a Peaky Blinder from the 1890s had served in World War I and later conversed with real historical figures like Chaplin, Kimber, Sabini, Mosley, Churchill, and Chang.
What Peaky Blinders Changes
The BBC-Netflix series retains the spirit of the real-life Peaky Blinders gang, but changes the true story in terms of who they were, how they operated, and their motivations. In the 1890s, Chaplin would’ve been a toddler, and the filmmaking career of cinema pioneer Georges Méliès had barely commenced. Plus, World War I wouldn’t begin for approximately 20 years, so the real-life Peaky Blinders would’ve been mostly focused on surviving in Birmingham.
Most historians, if not all, quote that the real Peaky Blinders didn’t hide razors in their clothing, primarily because of financial reasons. And many have pointed out that Knight and company don’t quite get the Romani language right, not to mention that the real-life Peaky Blinders could be as young as 13 and were mostly young men – not grown adults. While the gang members did dress well – or at least differently than typical street criminals – their tactics were practical. The real Peaky Blinders also focused on easy targets.
For the television series, Knights plucks the Birmingham gang from the late 19th century and drops them into a more glamorous Birmingham society. Now, they’re a close-knit family with matriarch Polly Gray (Helen McCrory), led by a war hero who is unafraid of real-life figures such as Kimber and Sabini. For dramatic purposes, Tommy murders Kimber in 1919, thus establishing the Peaky Blinders as a rival to both the Birmingham Boys and the Sabini Gang. In real life, Kimber died in 1942 at a nursing home. The fifth season references the 1929 stock market crash and concludes with Tommy’s failed attempt to murder Oswald Mosley, whose real-life counterpart lived to be 84.
Were Peaky Blinders Season 6’s Boston Gangs and Jack Nelson Real?
In Peaky Blinders season 6, the show reintroduces Michael Gray (Finn Cole) after a four-year absence and shows that he is now part of the Boston gangs, led by the mysterious Jack Nelson, Gina Gray’s (Anya Taylor-Joy) uncle. The Boston Gangs of the 1920s and 1930s were certainly real. One example of this was the Gustin Gang, an Irish-American gang who took part in various criminal activities led by Frank Wallace and his brother Stephen. While Jack Nelson is not a real name from history, the character of Uncle Jack is clearly based upon Joseph Kennedy Sr., the father of JFK. There have long been rumors, largely refuted by historians, that Kennedy made his initial fortune through rumrunning.
While this might not be the case and is simply creative license on the part of Steven Knight to add it to the fictional Jack Nelson, the inspiration for Peaky Blinders’ season 6 antagonist certainly engaged in some suspect dealings, making money on Wall Street through practices that would later become illegal, in addition to allegedly framing a man for rape just so he could buy up his business holdings.
While Joseph Kennedy Sr. never became President of the United States as his son did, he did have strong connections to the White House and knew President Roosevelt well. During the war, Kennedy became an ambassador to the United Kingdom but was recalled over his anti-British statements and his sympathies for the Germans and the Nazis, making him an ideal basis for an antagonist who can work alongside Oswald Mosley.
Of course, anything can happen in the Peaky Blinders universe. Knight’s BBC series may not be 100 percent historically accurate, but Cillian Murphy’s performance as Tommy Shelby is one for the books. The Peaky Blinders are symbolic of many historical social outcasts who attempted to improve their lives way back when; all the while staying cognizant of political and cultural trends. The real-life gang members were street-smart; the Peaky Blinders TV characters are similarly in-the-know but also see the bigger picture, if only because they’ve experienced the world a bit more.
The US Came Too Close To Working With The Nazi Party
Jack Nelson’s role in Peaky Blinders season 6 also explores another often-forgotten fact of history – how close the U.S. came to working with the Nazis prior to entering WW2. While opposition to Hitler was vocal in the States from the outset, there was equally loud pro-Nazi sentiment until the United States joined the Allies in 1941. The US public didn’t learn of the mass extermination camps and the Holocaust until 1942, so Jack Nelson’s real-life counterparts who pushed for closer ties to the 3rd Reich didn’t necessarily know the horror with which they’d made their bed. It’s still a part of history many would rather swept under the rug, though — especially the Kennedy family PR team.
Peaky Blinders is well-loved because it’s a historical drama that takes artistic license. Jack Nelson is only based on Joseph Kennedy Sr., mixing real facts with historic hearsay and total fiction. One Jack Nelson trait that wasn’t invented by the Peaky Blinders writers was that Joseph Kennedy Sr. was a Nazi sympathizer and anti-Semite. During his time as ambassador, Kennedy Sr. put continued pressure on the US government to appease Hitler and abandon the Allies. His anti-Semitic views were widely known but, unfortunately, also mirrored by many of his contemporaries and weren’t the career impediment they’d rightly be today.
In the end, it was Kennedy Sr.’s defeatist attitude annoying Tommy Shelby’s sometimes ally Churchill that saw him recalled to the U.S. in 1940, rather than his Nazi-aligned prejudice. Roosevelt didn’t see Kennedy Sr.’s anti-Semitism as a reason to bar him from political life — even roping in Kennedy Sr. to win the Irish Catholic vote in the 1940 election. Joseph Kennedy Sr. wasn’t involved in a full-scale plot alongside Oswald Mosley and Adolf Hitler. That side of Jack Nelson’s arc is entirely fictional. The U.S. still came close to working with Hitler, and even siding with him during the war, on several occasions, though.
U.S. ambivalence in the early years of WW2 is widely documented, with public support for joining the Allies not peaking until after Peal Harbor. Joseph Kennedy Sr. was far from the only prominent politician who believed the US would be better served siding with the Third Reich. Until 1939, the US Armed Forces actively maintained War Plan Red, a strategy for a military invasion of the UK. Fascist movements, similar to Oswald Mosley’s inner circle in the UK, had strong political voices. Joe Kennedy Sr. might not have been a gun-toting Boston gangster, but he was one of several prominent U.S. figures who, if they had their way, might have seen the U.S. enter WW2 on the side of the Nazis.
How Accurately Peaky Blinders Showed The TB Epidemic
The tuberculosis (TB) epidemic was a major plot theme in Peaky Blinders season 6. Tommy is deliberately misdiagnosed with tuberculoma. While he learns at the series climax that he was deceived by Oswald Moseley and, possibly, Adolf Hitler, he spent much of the season believing he was terminally ill. He has reason to be fearful, too: TB was endemic throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, and, according to the World Health Organization still kills over 1 million people annually. Effective TB vaccines weren’t developed until the mid-20th century. A tuberculoma diagnosis is akin to a death sentence for Tommy Shelby. In the 1930s, when Peaky Blinders season 6 takes place, TB was among the leading causes of death, especially in infants.
This is where one of Peaky Blinders’ most tragic moments carries its full historical significance — the death, and funeral, of Ruby Shelby, Tommy’s daughter. Mortality rates and statistics only show one side of the rampaging impact TB had on people’s lives prior to the development of vaccines. Peaky Blinders showed the other side of that reality. Not only was Ruby’s passing understandably heart-wrenching, but it was also made all the more bitter to modern audiences because of the Shelby family’s futile attempts to save her with practices long since known to be snake oil.
A key example is “Gold Salts” treatment, which involved injections of sanocrysin (sodium-gold-thio-sulfate) into the muscles. This is exactly as dangerous as it sounds, and thousands are thought to have died from Gold Salts and other unproven TB treatments like it. Therein lays the other way Peaky Blinders portrayed the ironic tragedy of so many epidemics. Tommy even believes the illness to be a gypsy curse, that his daughter’s affliction and death are due to a sapphire worn by Grace Shelby. As such, he spends many of his daughter’s last days trying to undo nonexistent magic instead of being by her side with his family.
There are a string of idiosyncracies and coincidences to add some mystique to Peaky Blinders‘ curse plotline, Ruby dying at age 7 from TB was commonplace. Belief in supernatural explanations for diseases like TB was also shockingly regular. The show is set less than a hundred years ago, but it can’t be overstated how much medical science and understanding have skyrocketed in that time. Peaky Blinders did a fantastic job of showing how dangerous tuberculosis, the “treatments” used to fight it, and the superstitious beliefs many held around it actually were.
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