Peaky Blinders: The story so far, plus the real figures to expect in season 6
Flat-cap-wearing Birmingham gangster Thomas ‘Tommy’ Shelby and his motley crew are set to return to television screens this month for the sixth and final season of Peaky Blinders. The gritty BBC drama takes inspiration from the gangs of late 19th-century Birmingham – but was there really a gang named the Peaky Blinders who hid razors in their caps? And are characters like Alfie Solomons, Oswald Mosley and Jessie Eden based on real people? Here’s our recap of the plotlines behind seasons one to five, plus what to expect from season six…
**This article contains spoilers for seasons 1–5 of ‘Peaky Blinders’**
When is Peaky Blinders set?
Set in 1920s Birmingham, Peaky Blinders follows the exploits of a back-street razor gang in the aftermath of the First World War. At its head is war veteran, bookmaker, and criminal entrepreneur Thomas Shelby (Cillian Murphy). But Tommy’s ambitions stretch far beyond running the streets of Small Heath and making money for his Irish-Romani family: he is determined to move the Shelbys up in the world and make the family bookmaking business a legitimate enterprise.
In an astronomic rise through British society, by the end of season four Tommy buys himself a sprawling countryside mansion and even manages to get elected as a Member of Parliament (MP).
Follow the links below to jump to each section:
- What happened in season 1 of Peaky Blinders?
- What happened in season 2 of Peaky Blinders?
- What happened in season 3 of Peaky Blinders?
- What happened in season 4 of Peaky Blinders?
- What happened in season 5 of Peaky Blinders?
- What can we expect from season 6 of Peaky Blinders?
How much of Peaky Blinders is drawn from history?
Steven Knight’s BAFTA-award-winning drama was inspired by the real gangs who operated in Birmingham in the late 19th century. But in reality there was no single gang named ‘the Peaky Blinders’. Writing for HistoryExtra, historian Andrew Davies explains it was “quite the reverse: opposing gangs, all sharing [an] outlandish style, sought each other out on the streets of Birmingham and in late-night confrontations outside the city’s music halls”.
The term ‘peaky blinders’ was first coined in Birmingham in the 1890s, Davies explains. It was used to refer to a young man who was assumed to be a gang member and who dressed in a particular style – more on that later. The term was distinctive to Birmingham. “In Manchester and neighbouring Salford, gang members were known as ‘scuttlers’,” says Davies. “In London they became known by the more enduring label ‘hooligan’”.
But the show undoubtedly takes its inspiration from history. In an interview with HistoryExtra in 2016, its creator, Steven Knight, who himself grew up in Birmingham, said he had been influenced by stories told to him by his family about a local group of gangsters, the Sheldons – who eventually became the Shelbys in Peaky Blinders. “People in Small Heath knew these people [the Sheldons] as peaky blinders,” said Knight. The Sheldons were his dad’s mum’s brothers.
“One of the stories that really made me want to write Peaky Blinders is one my dad told me,” Knight explained. “He said that, when he was eight or nine, his dad gave him a message on a piece of paper and said ‘go and deliver this to your uncles’.
“My dad was told to go and deliver this message, so he ran through the streets barefoot, knocked on the door, the door opened and there was a table with about eight men sitting around it, immaculately dressed, wearing caps and with guns in their pockets. The table was covered with money – at a time when no-one had a penny – and they were all drinking beer out of jam jars because these men wouldn’t spend money on glasses or cups. Just that image – smoke, booze and these immaculately dressed men in this slum in Birmingham – I thought, that’s the mythology, that’s the story, and that’s the first image I started to work with.”
Inspired by such stories, when Knight decided to create the television show Peaky Blinders, he said “I thought I’d better look it up and see what really happened. And of course, it was much more violent than I’d been told.
“That’s when I started to fit this together, but I always gave priority to the stories I’d been told rather than what the books said, because I think people who write history look for patterns and they look for order, and they look for things that would make sense. In reality, a lot of the stuff that happens makes no sense; there is no pattern.”
Did peaky blinders really wear caps lined with razors?
In the BBC show Peaky Blinders, the Shelby brothers are instantly recognisable thanks to their trademark attire – a sharp three-piece suit, Oxford-laced boots, a peaked flat cap, and a heavy overcoat. True to history, peaky blinders really did wear “a distinctive uniform” which marked them out as belonging to a gang, says Davies.
The Shelby brothers’ flair for fashion also has some basis in truth. Davies refers to the memoirs of Birmingham paint and varnish manufacturer Arthur Matthison, who saw the city’s warring youths at close quarters and described the typical peaky blinder as “intensely style-conscious”.
Matthison’s memoirs describe how a peaky blinder “took pride in his personal appearance and dressed the part with skill. Bell-bottomed trousers secured by a buckle belt, hob-nailed boots, a jacket of sorts, a gaudy scarf and a billy-cock hat with a long, elongated brim.” This hat “was worn well over one eye” and “his hair was prison cropped all over his head, except for a quiff in front which was grown long and plastered down obliquely on his forehead.”
Thanks to their hob-nailed boots, peaky blinders would have made “quite a racket” while moving in large groups through the city. “You would hear them coming,” says Davies.
But did these Birmingham gang members really wear razor blades in the peaks of their caps to be used as weapons, as is shown in the BBC television drama? Speaking on the HistoryExtra podcast, Davies explains: “The idea that a peaky blinder is named after the razors in the cap is pretty much a Birmingham urban myth. There [were] stories to that effect circulating in local newspapers in Birmingham in the 1930s, but this [was] something like 30 to 40 years after the fact… it’s very much a myth that grows up in Birmingham in the decades after the peaky blinders have effectively died out.”
Listen: Historian Andrew Davies discusses the real Birmingham gangsters who inspired Peaky Blinders
Where did the name ‘peaky blinder’ come from?
So where did the name ‘peaky blinder’ really come from? It originated with the headgear worn by the gang members, says Davies. They wore ‘billycock’ or bowler-style hats, made of hard felt, with a rakish, curved rim, two-and-a-half inches wide. They moulded the brims of their hats into an elongated peak, worn tilted over one eye.
“So ‘peaky blinder’ very literally is the name given to a young man who [was] wearing this extraordinary, adapted hat and almost blinding himself in one eye by pulling it right down over that side of his forehead.”
But although in Peaky Blinders Tommy Shelby and his crew dominate the streets of 1920s Birmingham, in fact peaky blinders were obsolete by the 1920s and 30s.
“In the early decades of the 20th century, young people in Birmingham, as elsewhere across Britain, began to look to Hollywood for a new sense of glamour,” Davies explains.
“Had a youth dressed as a peaky blinder made an appearance in Birmingham in the 1920s, he would have been greeted with astonishment – although middle-aged passers-by might have chuckled in recognition.”
By the 1920s and 30s, peaky blinders were “very much a thing of the past… [they were] figures now in local folklore. They [were] not figures that you’d encounter on the streets.”
What do we know about the real gangs of the late 19th century?
From around 1870 onwards, there were reports in Birmingham, but also in Manchester, Liverpool and London, of a spike in the number of young people forming gangs. These gang members were increasingly fighting with weapons, including knives, says Davies.
Why did these young, working-class men decide to form and join gangs? Living in areas plagued by unemployment and underemployment, as well as chronic ill-health, young men joined gangs “partly [as] a quest for excitement, no doubt a quest for belonging as well,” says Davies. Their decision was also “fuelled by territorial pride”.
Early reports of gang fighting in Birmingham dating to the 1870s “appear to have what we might almost understand as a sectarian dimension to them,” says Davies, with some accounts explicitly referring to hostilities between youthful English and Irish gangs. Meanwhile in Manchester, gang hostilities were explained “in terms of English versus Irish or Protestant versus Catholics”.
Interestingly, though, “within five to 10 years, that kind of ethnic and religious dimension seems to [have been] eclipsed by much narrower territorial allegiances,” Davies found. By the 1880s it was the street or the immediate locality that became the point of identification for gang members.
- Read more | The real Peaky Blinders
The sixth and final season of Peaky Blinders was released on 27 February 2022. We find the Shelby family “in extreme jeopardy”, as the show’s creator, Steven Knight, describes it – the stakes have never been higher.
Fascism in Britain is expected to play a big part – at the end of season five we saw Tommy’s plot to assassinate the fascist leader Sir Oswald Mosley (Sam Claflin) during a rally. Steven Knight told NME: “In series six, we’ll be looking at 1934 and things are worse. The drum beat is getting louder, tensions are worse and Tommy is right in the middle of all that. Again, it will be an exploration of what was going on in the ‘30s and how certain things transpired.”
Tommy will be fighting fires on all fronts, not least within his own family: in a clip shared by the BBC’s Twitter account, his sister, Ada Shelby, is seen to issue a warning. “Take a good look, Tom. Because one of us isn’t gonna be here for long.” We also expect the American family of Michael’s wife, Gina – and their possible links to Oswald Mosely – to feature in the new series.
There will be some new faces on the streets of Birmingham, with Line of Duty and Boardwalk Empire star Stephen Graham joining the cast in an as-yet-unknown role (there has been speculation he will play Al Capone). Also joining the cast is actress Amber Anderson – director Anthony Byrne said she will play a “pretty dark” woman who will “give Tommy a run for his money”.
Cillian Murphy, who plays Tommy Shelby in the hit drama, told Rolling Stone: “I think it’s going to be very intense. The word we keep using is ‘gothic’. Yeah, it’s going to be heavy!”
Will there be a season 7 of Peaky Blinders?
Season six will be the last and final television installment of the Peaky Blinders saga, but fans will be relieved to hear that the story won’t end there. Knight said Peaky will continue “in another form” and later confirmed to Deadline that the show will conclude with a film. A Peaky Blinders movie, which is expected to venture into the Second World War and beyond, is due to shoot in 2023.
When will season 6 air?
Season six of Peaky Blinders will reportedly premiere on Sunday 27 February 2022.
Is there a Peaky Blinders season 6 trailer?
Yes! Here’s the first glimpse of the new season:
The fifth season of Peaky Blinders picks up four years after the fourth, in 1929, in a world thrown into turmoil by the Wall Street Crash. The series centres on Tommy’s plot to assassinate the fascist leader Sir Oswald Mosley (Sam Claflin), the show’s newest antagonist.
Having been elected as an MP at the end of season four, Tommy strikes up a friendship with Mosely, who is the MP of the neighbouring constituency as well as being the Minister of the Duchy of Lancaster; the deputy to the Chancellor of the Exchequer; and the cabinet adviser to Winston Churchill. (Peaky Blinders plays with the timeline here – in reality it was Churchill himself who was Chancellor of the Exchequer in 1924). Mosley tries to entice Tommy to join the fascist movement, and while Tommy seems to be along for the ride, we soon learn he is double-crossing the politician and plans to assassinate him at a Blackshirts rally at Bingley Hall in Birmingham.
We learn that Alfie Solomons (Tom Hardy), who we thought Tommy had shot dead at the end of season three, is alive and well, having survived the attack. Tommy recruits him to help with the assassination of Mosely, hiring Solomons’ men to disrupt the Blackshirts rally while Tommy’s war comrade Barney Thomas (Cosmo Jarvis) pulls the trigger on the politician as he delivers a speech on stage.
But the plan goes spectacularly wrong – in the end it’s Barney who is shot dead, and Aberama Gold is fatally stabbed (he had wanted to avenge the murder of his son, Bonnie, by knocking off his murderer, Jimmy McGavern, but McGavern’s men got to him first). Worst of all, Mosley walks away unharmed. Someone, somewhere leaked Tommy’s plan to kill Mosley – but who?
Elsewhere in the series, we learn of Michael Gray’s proposal to turn the Peaky Blinders into a drug smuggling gang in America – with him at the head of the operation. Tommy is having none of it, but the power-hungry Michael, who is feeling cocky with his new American wife, Gina (played by The Queen’s Gambit star Anya Taylor-Joy), at his side (who supposedly has connections to Al Capone back in the US), vows to go ahead with his plan anyway and splits from the family. It’s later implied that Polly Gray may join her son in his venture, as she hands in her resignation to Tommy.
Tommy learns of yet another betrayal when his barman, Micky Gibbs (Peter Campion), is outed as a leak of information to the Titanic gang in London – a leak which saw Arthur’s opium exchange with Brilliant Chang hijacked by the new gang. Micky pays for his betrayal with his life, taking a swift bullet to the head from Tommy.
The season ends with the cliffhanger to end all cliffhangers – Tommy, wandering alone in a misty field seeing visions of his dead wife, Grace, who is luring him to take his own life. He takes a gun to his temple and screams – and that’s where the series ends.
- Read more | What were the Opium Wars?
The real Oswald Mosley
Peaky Blinders’ newest villain, Oswald Mosley, was based on a real fascist leader of the same name. Born into an aristocratic family in 1896, the real Oswald Mosley rose to fame as an MP in the 1920s before becoming the head of the British Union of Fascists (BUF) in the 1930s. He led “Britain's virulently anti-Semitic fascist movement, whose streetfighters – known as blackshirts – were notorious for their violence against Jews and left-wing opponents,” this BBC biography explains. He was on friendly terms with Mussolini, and Hitler was guest of honour at his second wedding – which took place at the home of Nazi Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels.
Mosley served in the First World War before working in the Foreign Office. He was elected Conservative MP for Harrow at the age of 22 but later became a Labour politician – the MP for Smethwick (in Tommy Shelby’s West Midlands patch in Peaky Blinders). As chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, Mosley was tasked with finding ways to solve the unemployment crisis caused by the Wall Street Crash, but his proposals were rejected. He left the Labour Party and formed the New Party, before setting up the British Union of Fascists in 1932, “blending his economic programme with explicit anti-Semitism”.
By the time the Second World War broke out in 1939, Mosley was firmly on the British authorities’ radar. In May 1940 he was interned as a suspected enemy sympathiser and “it was widely assumed at the time that, had the Nazis successfully invaded the UK, he would have been installed as head of a pro-German puppet regime,” writes the BBC.
As it was, the war put an end to Mosley’s political career. After trying to revive his party and twice standing (unsuccessfully) for election in London constituencies, he retired to France. His final years were blighted by Parkinson’s disease, and he died in 1980.
But while the Peaky Blinders antagonist was inspired by the real Oswald Mosley, the show’s creators have tweaked the timeline – in real life, Mosley didn’t speak at the Bingley Hall until some years later, in 1934. And this speech was pretty uneventful – it was his 1931 address at Birmingham’s Rag Market that ended in clashes between stewards and anti-fascist protestors.
Who were the Glasgow Billy Boys?
Season five also sees the Shelbys clash with the ‘Billy Boys’, a Protestant street gang from the East End of Glasgow led by Billy Fullerton.
True to history, the Brigton Billy Boys were the biggest and most powerful gang in Glasgow during the 1920s and 1930s, writes historian Andrew Davies in this article for HistoryExtra.
They took their name from the Dutch Protestant monarch William of Orange (‘King Billy’), who later became William III, king of England, Scotland, and Ireland. His victory at the battle of the Boyne in 1690 had secured Protestant rule in England and Scotland, as well as Ireland.
The ‘Billies’ recruited Protestant youths from across Bridgeton (‘Brigton’) and surrounding districts in Glasgow’s East End. At their peak in the late 1920s the Billy Boys numbered 800, making them the largest gang in Britain by far.
You can read more about the real Billy Boys here.
Opening with a bang, episode one of season four sees Polly, John, Arthur and Michael being led to the noose, ready to pay the ultimate price for the train explosion they carried out in season three.
But with just moments to spare, Tommy saves the day by securing reprieves for all four family members. (He blackmailed the Crown into releasing his family using incriminating correspondence from George V discovered in the Russian jewel heist in season three).
- Read more | Could George V have saved the Romanovs?
But the trouble has only just begun for the Shelby family – looking for payback for the murders of Angel and Vicente Changretta in season three, Vicente’s son Luca brings his gang over from New York to avenge the murders and, it transpires, plans to take out the entire Shelby family on Christmas Day 1925.
Luca serves each member of the Shelby family with a ‘Black Hand’ – a thinly veiled threat to kill them all (more on that below). Tommy sounds the alarm and alerts his family to the threat, but the message fails to reach his brother John (Joe Cole) in time, and he is brutally gunned down outside his home. Michael, Polly’s son, is also injured in the attack but survives.
In the aftermath of John’s death, Tommy decides there’s safety in numbers so recalls the entire Shelby family to his countryside mansion, where they hunker down and prepare to counter any further threats from the Changrettas. Tommy strikes a deal with Romani hitman Aberama Gold (Aiden Gillen), securing his men’s protection in exchange for the Peaky Blinders taking on his son, Bonnie, as a professional boxer.
Meanwhile Polly, still furious with Tommy over her arrest and traumatised by her brush with death, strikes a deal with the enemy – or so it seems. She meets Luca Changretta in person and offers to sacrifice Tommy in exchange for the lives of Arthur, Michael, and Finn.
Really, she’s in cahoots with Tommy all along. Tommy and Polly fake Arthur’s death to draw Luca out, and in a tense final meeting between the rival families, Arthur shoots Luca dead.
We also say goodbye* to Alfie Solomons (Tom Hardy), with whom Tommy had struck up an alliance earlier in season four. In a tense meeting in the season finale, it becomes clear that Alfie has sold Tommy out to the Mafia for his own protection. So Tommy heads to Margate to kill Solomons (who, it transpires, is dying from cancer and wanted Tommy to finish him off anyway).
Elsewhere in season four, Tommy, who now owns and runs a number of Birmingham factories, uses his sexual relationship with unionist factory worker Jessie Eden to get hold of the names of various members of the Communist Party, which he then sells to the British government in exchange for his election to parliament. In the season finale Tommy is named the new Labour representative for Birmingham South. Tommy also becomes a father for the second time, with Lizzie Stark (the ex-prostitute with whom Tommy continues an on-off relationship) giving birth to a baby girl named Ruby.
Meanwhile Arthur’s wife, Linda, becomes deeply troubled by the Peaky Blinders’ way of life and in an attempt to cope “swaps cups of tea for whiskey and cocaine”.
*Read more about what really happened to Alfie Solomons in our season 5 recap below…
The real Jessie Eden
Socialist and activist Jessie Eden causes trouble for Tommy in season four of Peaky Blinders when she leads the female factory workers of Birmingham out on strike, protesting poor working conditions and pay. Tommy strikes up a sexual relationship with Jessie, but it later transpires he was merely using her for information about the communists she works with.
True to history, Jessie Eden’s character was inspired by a real Birmingham activist of the same name. The real Jessie Eden (née Shrimpton) was born in 1902 to a young mother of just 17 who would later become a munitions worker during the First World War, and a father who gave his occupation as “jeweller journeyman” on his daughter’s birth certificate.
Jessie Eden played an instrumental role fighting for women’s rights in the 1926 General Strike, which was the largest industrial dispute in Britain’s history. Working at the Joseph Lucas Motor Components Factory and as a shop-steward for the Transport and General Workers’ Union, in 1926 Eden led her fellow female employees at the car factory out onto the streets as part of the General Strike. When she was interviewed by the Birmingham Post on the Strike’s 50th anniversary in 1976, Eden recalled: ‘Sacrifices had to be made. We had practically no meat during the strike. We lived on bread, jam and marge.’”
A few years later, in 1931, Eden spearheaded a groundbreaking strike in which she led 10,000 women out of the Lucas factory on a week-long walkout over new, gruelling working practices. Having noticed factory management monitoring her production, Eden discovered they were planning to link pay to production outputs and had chosen to time her as the benchmark because she was known to be a fast worker, the TUC explains. “This caused an outcry amongst the women who were already having their toilet breaks timed”.
The strike was successful and the proposed new system linking pay to production outputs was dropped. The walkout was credited with triggering a mass movement towards unionisation among female workers and marked a turning point in the creation of basic working rights for women.
But Eden herself paid a high price – she was victimised at work and eventually lost her job. She would later receive victimisation pay from the Transport and General Workers Union, and for her commitment to helping improve the working conditions of English factory workers she was awarded a gold medal from its then leader, Ernest Bevin.
Eden joined the Communist Party during the 1931 strike. Later, the party sent her to live and work in Moscow for a time during the early stages of Soviet industrialisation. There she protested with Soviet women construction workers employed to build the city’s metro line. She also attended the Comintern’s Lenin School for cadre development, where she honed her public-speaking skills. Eden later told her daughter-in-law, Andrea McCulloch: “I went there but I couldn’t tell anyone where I was going; nobody knew where I was for two years.”
Eden later returned to Birmingham and was a key figure in the 1939 Birmingham Rent Strike, which saw 49,000 tenants successfully demand rent control in the council and private sectors. She brought together more than 8,000 female tenants on one march to the council – some estimates say as many as 10,000. She also contested the 1945 General Election as a Communist Party candidate in Handsworth, winning a respectable 3.4 per cent of the vote, but ultimately lost to Conservative MP Harold Roberts. Eden continued to protest until late in her life – in the late 1960s she marched alongside her husband Walter against the war in Vietnam.
Eden was twice-married – she wed her first husband, Albert Eden, in the summer of 1923, acquiring the surname she would become famous with. But the marriage was short-lived, and she later spoke of the “folly” of being married to someone who did not share her interest in politics. The couple adopted a son named Douglas, known as ‘Douggie’ to friends, who was a blood relative of Albert. (Later in life Eden told her daughter-in-law she believed she had sustained injuries during a traumatic birth that had left her unable to bear children herself).
In 1948 Eden got married for a second time, to fellow Communist Party activist Walter McCulloch. In 1950 the couple adopted a five-year old boy from an orphanage in Bromsgrove, which was run by a fellow Communist Party member. “One of the many ‘GI babies’ of the Second World War, Jessie viewed his adoption as being something of a social duty,” wrote the late Eden biographer Graham Stevenson. Jessie and Walter stayed together until his death from lung cancer in 1977.
Jessie Eden died in Birmingham on 27 September 1986, aged 84, from heart failure and dementia.
“Mainstream historians are only now just beginning to grasp the essential importance of her role in the 1930s,” writes Stevenson. “Jessie was a real history-maker, and her life and personality deserves to be better known.”
A Black Hand – or Mano Nera in Italian – was a note printed with a menacing black hand or dagger sent to extort money from its victim on pain of death, bodily harm, kidnap, or destruction of property. The tactic was used by immigrant Sicilian and Italian gangsters living in the Italian communities of US cities such as New York and Kansas City from about 1890 to 1920. The Black Hand practice died out in the mid-1920s amid negative public opinion.
American newspapers in the first half of the 20th century also often referred to an Italian criminal organisation in the US known as the “Black Hand Society”. In a 1908 edition of The North American Review, Gaetano D’Amato wrote: “Most Americans believe that a terrible organization named the ‘Black Hand Society’ exists in Italy and is sending its members to establish branches for the purpose of plundering the United States, since nearly every newspaper in the country conveys that impression to its readers.”
But in reality, there was no such organisation. “In the United States, the ‘Black Hand Society’ is a myth,” wrote D’Amato. He explained how Italian criminals living in the US at this time were “no more organized… than are the many thousands of lawbreakers of other nationalities in America” and concluded that newspapers “manufactured a ‘Black Hand’ scare” in a shameless bid to increase sales.
Set in 1924, two years after the events of season two, the third season of Peaky Blinders sees Tommy and his crew go to war with another Italian mafia family, the Changrettas – with tragic consequences – and become embroiled with the Economic League and a family of Russian aristocrats.
The series opens with the lavish wedding of Tommy to his beloved Grace, following the hushed-up suicide of her husband. Tommy and Grace now have a son, Charlie, who was conceived during their extramarital fling in season two.
The marriage proves to be short-lived; Grace is shot dead in a revenge attack ordered by the head of the Changretta mafia, Vicente Changretta. But the bullet had been meant for Tommy. In retaliation for various acts of violence inflicted upon Changretta’s son Angel by the Peaky Blinders, a gunman had been sent to a Shelby charity foundation fundraiser, and, aiming for Tommy, shot and killed Grace by mistake. A devastated Tommy avenges his wife’s death by having Angel Changretta and his mob boss father killed.
There’s more high drama in season three when Tommy goes into business with a family of Russian aristocrats ousted by the Soviet Revolution, agreeing to help move artillery vehicles for them in exchange for a large sum of money and jewels smuggled from Russia, which are being kept in a secret vault underneath the River Thames.
The Economic League – a far-right organisation who worked to suppress the threat of communist revolt – ostensibly arranged the arms deal between the Peaky Blinders and the Russian aristocrats but were in fact double-crossing both parties.
As part of the arms deal, the Peaky Blinders agree to blow up a train thought to contain the artillery as a decoy while the goods are secretly exported out of the country. Tommy later backs out of the plan and decides to rob the Russians instead.
Tommy then recruits the Jewish mob boss Alfie Solomons, who is also a jeweller, to value the hoard of Russian gems, which includes an incredibly valuable Fabergé egg and other delights. Looking to make a quick buck, Alfie betrays Tommy to the Economic League in exchange for a cut of the loot the League planned to take from Tommy after he and his men had robbed the Russians.
But the story doesn’t end there – the Peaky Blinders also get caught up with a villainous priest named Father Hughes (Paddy Considine), a key player in the Economic League. But it transpires that the holy man is working as an informant to the Soviets, and Tommy becomes intent on killing him.
In short, Father Hughes was hoping to provoke an attack on British soil that would force the British to sever diplomatic relations with the communists. Upon discovering that Tommy plans to betray the Russians, Father Hughes has him badly beaten in an attack it takes the Peaky Blinder months to recover from.
The priest then blackmails Tommy into doing his bidding by kidnapping his young son, Charlie, and threatens to kill him unless Tommy blows up the train.
But in the end, it’s Father Hughes who gets killed – at the hands of Michael Gray, Polly’s son, who, it transpires, was sexually abused by Father Hughes as a boy while in the care of the parish. Tommy gets his son back safely and successfully robs the Russians.
Elsewhere in the series, Arthur meets his future wife, Linda – a devout Christian and Quaker who tries to keep her husband on the straight and narrow. She announces to Arthur that she is pregnant with his child.
But it isn’t happily ever after for the Peaky Blinders – in the dramatic season finale, police officers descend upon the house and arrest Arthur, John, Michael, and Polly. “I’ve made a deal with people even more powerful than our enemies, trust me… it’s all taken care of,” Tommy assures his bewildered relatives.
The Economic League
True to history, there really was an anti-socialist organisation named the Economic League operating in Britain in the 1920s and 30s. Many other such organisations existed, but the Economic League was by far the most active and the most powerful – it was essentially a private employment vetting agency that worked with MI5 to blacklist workers suspected of associating with left-wing groups such as Communists and trade unionists, and, later in the 20th century, those campaigning for nuclear disarmament. Such individuals posed a threat to capitalism, the League believed.
Founded in 1919 by conservative politicians and industrialists, the Economic League had the published aim of “preserving the good health of British industry for all engaged in it”. In leaflets handed out at factory gates, the League vowed to “fight all kinds of extremist activity seeking to undermine that good health”.
The League was heavily investigated by the press during the 1980s and there was a parliamentary investigation into its blacklist. Consequently, the League was forced to disband in 1993.
In season three of Peaky Blinders, the Economic League is also referred to as ‘Section D’; ‘The Vigilance Committee’; and ‘The Odd Fellows’. “One could never quite grasp who they are – it’s like gripping wet soap,” says Father Hughes.
The Russian civil war
Season three sees Tommy get into bed with a family of Russian aristocrats ousted by the Soviet Revolution. The Romanov-Petrovna family strike a deal with the Economic League to purchase tanks and weaponry to supply their compatriots fighting the Bolsheviks in Georgia.
The real civil war in Russia began in June 1918.
Writing for HistoryExtra, historian Nick Hewitt explains: “Russia’s tsarist autocracy had been tottering for decades. In 1917 it finally broke under the pressure of a world war for which it was ill-equipped to fight, and growing demands for greater freedom by a resentful and hungry population.
“Tsar Nicholas II’s regime collapsed in March, to be replaced by a Provisional Government. The new administration, however, failed to extricate Russia from the war, and paid the price when Vladimir Lenin’s Bolsheviks seized the capital, Petrograd, on 7 November 1917. Less than three weeks after the Bolshevik revolution, Lenin began negotiations with the Germans, which ended with the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk on 3 March 1918.
“But no sooner had Russia quit one conflict than it entered another. Counterrevolutionary armies and alternative governments, known collectively as ‘White Russians’, now began to form all over the country. They were soon posing a serious threat to Bolshevik authority. By the end of July 1918, Nicholas II and his family had been executed, and Russia had disintegrated into a chaotic civil war.”
Faced with this anarchy, Russia’s former Allies in the First World War opted to intervene on behalf of the ‘White Russians’.
“The Allied intervention utterly failed, costing a fortune in blood and treasure which the exhausted Allies, Britain and France in particular, could ill afford, and leaving a legacy of bad feeling between Russia and the west that arguably still persists today,” says Hewitt.
The Russian civil war effectively ended with the founding of the Soviet Union on 30 December 1922, although some insurgencies continued into the 1930s. In total, the conflict may have cost as many as 12 million lives.
Season two of Peaky Blinders picks up two years after Grace and Officer Campbell’s train station cliffhanger. Grace, we discover, shot Campbell first with a hidden purse-gun – wounding him seriously but not mortally. She’s now married and living in America but returns to London to seek fertility treatment with her husband (where she ends up spending the night with Tommy and becoming pregnant with his child). Meanwhile, Ada Thorne is mourning the loss of her husband, Freddie, who we learn died of “the pestilence” – probably a reference to the Spanish Flu of 1918–20.
Ever the shrewd businessman, Tommy has decided that now is the time for the Blinders to expand into London territory. There, rival Italian and Jewish gangs – led by Darby Sabini (Noah Taylor) and Alfie Solomons (Tom Hardy) respectively – are engaged in a brutal turf war. Tommy eventually agrees to ally with Solomons and his Jewish gang, and with Solomons’ blessing the Blinders quickly and violently start taking over the capital. But the alliance does not last – Solomons and Sabini call a truce and hatch a plan to take down the Shelbys together.
As for Officer Campbell, who now walks with a cane after having been shot by Grace at the end of season one, he has been tasked by Winston Churchill with assassinating a traitor, Field Marshal Henry Russell, and he partners up with a faction of the IRA to make it happen. Tommy is chosen to be the gunman.
Season two introduces another new character: Polly’s long-lost son, Michael Gray (Finn Cole), who was taken from her as a child and put into care. Tommy tracks down the 17-year-old Michael and tells him who his mother is. Michael and Polly reunite, and Michael becomes involved with the family business – but when he is arrested by Campbell as part of the police officer’s crusade against Tommy and the Blinders, Polly is forced to sleep with Campbell in exchange for her son’s freedom.
Tensions escalate at Epsom Racecourse where, in a bid to distract Sabini’s bookmakers so that the Peaky Blinders can burn their licenses, Tommy assassinates the Field Marshal with the help of his secretary and ex-prostitute Lizzie Stark. Meanwhile, Polly exacts revenge on Officer Campbell, shooting him dead in a phone box. “Don’t f**k with the Peaky Blinders,” she whispers in his ear as he breathes his last.
The series reaches its climactic conclusion with the abduction of Tommy by three IRA members in police uniform, under the orders of the now-deceased Officer Campbell. But as Tommy stands in a field over an open grave waiting for the end, one of the assassins shoots dead the other two. The assassin tells Tommy that Churchill has another job for him and lets him go. And that’s where season two ends.
The real Alfie Solomons
Tom Hardy fans might be interested to learn that there was a real-life Jewish gang leader named Alfie Solomon (not Solomons) operating in Camden Town in the 1920s. According to the Jewish Chronicle, Alfie and his brother Harry, aided by an Italian gang run by Charles ‘Darby’ Sabini (who also features in season two of Peaky Blinders) “controlled north London and terrorised racecourses around the country”.
Other gangs also operated in London at the time, but few were as well remembered as the one run by Solomon. While carrying out his research, Peaky Blinders creator, Steven Knight, found that Sabini and Solomon kept “recurring in court records as immigrant gangs rose to control the betting and protection rackets”.
In his interview with the Jewish Chronicle, Knight explains how Solomon’s men would offer protection to Jewish people who flocked to the races to place bets. “They would be carrying a lot of cash and might be a bit drunk, so they would be easy prey for straightforward robbery. A lot of the bookies were Jewish and, as they became the target for people stealing money from them, they got themselves protection from the Jewish gangsters. One gang would be protecting, while another would be attacking.”
This, says Knight, is how the gang run by Alfie Solomon became both famed and feared. “His gang became a formidable force, and inevitably they came into contact with powerful Birmingham gangs.”
However, while the Alfie Solomons in Peaky Blinders is based on a real-life gangster, the way in which the character is portrayed is pure fiction. In the BBC drama, Solomons is larger-than-life, unpredictable, and borderline unstable – often to comic effect – but in fact little is known about the real Jewish gang leader’s personality. “But when you have an actor of the standard of Tom Hardy you want to make the most of him,” says Knight, “so we have portrayed him as funny but with an edgy character.”
The real Alfie Solomon “disappeared from history in the early 1930s,” writes Professor Heather Shore of Leeds Beckett University.
Listen: Tim Grady reveals how German Jews played a central role in the First World War, and considers how they were impacted by the legacies of the conflict
The real Darby Sabini
Alfie Solomons isn’t the only star of season two who was inspired by a real person. So too was Tommy’s newest adversary, the Italian gang leader Darby Sabini.
At the centre of what were dubbed the ‘racecourse wars’ of the 1920s and 30s, where gang activity coalesced around betting and gambling, was an Anglo-Italian family from Little Italy, in Clerkenwell, London – the Sabinis. The family, who had lived in the Clerkenwell area since at least the 1890s, included Charles Sabini, better known as ‘Darby’, along with his brothers Harry, Joseph, George, and Fred. “Charles ‘Darby’ Sabini was a central figure in the police records and press reporting about the racecourse wars, with dramatic references to the ‘Italian Gang’ or ‘Sabini Gang’ commonly dropped into reports,” writes Prof Shore. “Their Italian origins drew inevitable comparisons to the hot-blooded feuds of Italian history.”
Writing for The Racing Post, David Ashforth explains how although Sabini “preferred persuasion to violence”, his gang of villainous crooks “owed its success to physical intimidation”.
“There is no doubt that some, perhaps many, police were in the pay of the Sabinis, and gang leaders who controlled teams of violent thugs were sometimes referred to in surprisingly complimentary terms, even by senior officers,” he writes. In 1928, an anonymous ‘Londoner’ informed the Home Secretary that: “Upon the racecourse, the Sabini gang reign supreme. The police never interfere with them. It is foolish to cry ‘God save the King’ – one is safer if one shouts ‘God save the Emperor, Darby Sabini’, a far more powerful monarch.”
But in the late 1920s, with their racecourse operations being increasingly curtailed by police, the Sabini brothers turned their attention to West End clubs and greyhound tracks. Darby moved to Brighton while his brothers remained in London.
“As the 1930s progressed, blatant intimidation of racecourse bookmakers became rare, and Darby Sabini, reaching his fifties, reduced his involvement,” says Ashforth. “This left the way open for Alfred White, his former lieutenant, who was also active at point-to-point meetings, to challenge the Sabinis' control.”
And whatever control Darby Sabini retained ended when Italy joined the war on Germany’s side in 1940, Ashforth explains. Darby and his brother Harry were both interned as ‘persons of hostile origin’. But Darby appealed and was released shortly afterwards, after it was concluded that “the Sabini gang can rightly be said to be non-existent”. Darby had lost his reputation as a dangerous gangster.
While Darby Sabini faded into insignificance, a new generation of gangsters took control of London in the postwar period. He died “barely noticed, in 1950, aged 62, his death certificate giving his occupation as ‘turf commission agent’”, writes Ashforth. “It was a quiet end to an explosive life.”
- Read more | The A-Z of British gangs and gangsters
It’s 1919, Birmingham, England. Having returned from the Great War, the eldest brothers of the Shelby family – Arthur, John, and Tommy – run the Shelby Company Limited, with the help of their Aunt Polly, who managed the business while the brothers were fighting abroad. Polly, played by the late Helen McCrory, who died in 2021, is the matriarch of the family, having raised the Shelby brothers along with their sister, Ada, and youngest brother, Finn. She is Tommy’s trusted confidante and one of the few people he will listen to.
Determined to establish the Peaky Blinders as the largest bookmaking operation in the region, Tommy sets his sights on taking out his main rival – the incredibly wealthy and powerful crime boss Billy Kimber, who controls the legal and illegal bookmaking sites at racecourses across England. Tommy makes a strategic deal with Kimber but plans to betray him further down the line.
The action in season one centres around a consignment of stolen machine guns and ammunition, which the Peaky Blinders come to acquire by mistake but decide to keep to use as leverage. The Home Secretary Winston Churchill sends Inspector Campbell (played by Sam Neill) – an Irish agent of the British crown – to Birmingham to hunt down the guns. Campbell places his agent Grace (Annabelle Wallis) as an undercover barmaid in the Garrison pub, which the Shelby family frequents (and later buys). But they’re not the only ones looking for the guns – the IRA and the communists want them too.
Tommy strikes up a deal with Officer Campbell, agreeing to tell him where the guns are in exchange for assurances that the Peaky Blinders will be left alone while they expand their business. Tommy wants to join forces with Billy Kimber to defeat the rival Lee family. Tommy and Campbell agree that once the Blinders have achieved their goal, Tommy will tell him where the guns are hidden. But Grace – who has fallen in love with Tommy – scuppers the plan by making her own agreement with Campbell, disclosing the location of the guns in return for his assurance that Tommy will not be harmed. Crucially, she also tells Campbell about the Peaky Blinders’ plan to betray Billy Kimber, on what Tommy has told her in confidence will be ‘Black Star Day’.
In a final bid to bring the Peaky Blinders to their knees, Officer Campbell tells Kimber about Tommy’s plan to betray him, knowing that a war will break out. The season ends with Kimber dead (shot in the head by Tommy during a standoff outside the Garrison), and Grace, who has resigned from the police, at the train station fleeing Birmingham for America – but will Inspector Campbell let her get away?
Elsewhere in the series, Tommy’s sister, Ada – the fourth and only female Shelby sibling initially not involved with the Peaky Blinders – becomes pregnant by the known communist Freddie Thorne. Freddie fought alongside Tommy in the First World War and has been in a long-term secret relationship with Ada. He proposes to Ada when he learns about the pregnancy and the pair secretly marry before Freddie is forced into hiding by a police crackdown on the Peaky Blinders gang.
Season one ends in dramatic fashion, with Officer Campbell confronting Grace with a pistol at a train station. Gunshot rings out as the credits roll…
The real Billy Kimber
True to history, there really was a Birmingham gangster named William ‘Billy’ Kimber. He was the leader of the Brummagem Gang (also known as ‘The Birmingham Boys’), a powerful street gang that operated in the north of England and in London in the 1910s and 1920s.
But in reality, Kimber’s death was much less eventful than Peaky Blinders suggests. The real Billy Kimber died not at the hands of a Brummie gangster, but after a prolonged illness at the age of 63, writes historian and writer Carl Chinn. And by the time of his death, in 1945, Kimber seems to have restyled himself as a legitimate businessman.
In the mid-to-late 1920s, with the authorities determined to “stamp out the gangs that preyed on bookies and onlookers”, Kimber fled to America, escaping first to Los Angeles and then to Chicago, where he was hidden by a friend from England named Murray Humphreys – who was a member of Al Capone’s notorious gang, Chinn explains. Kimber is thought to have returned to England some years later and remarried.
In 1938, the Western Morning News featured several advertisements urging readers to “Bet with a reliable man Bill Kimber”, in notices that included a Yeovil telephone number, and in 1940 the same newspaper noted Kimber as the president of the Devon and Cornwall Bookmakers’ Association. “There was a certain irony in that, as it was the founding of the Bookmakers' Protection Associations that had sounded the death knell for [Kimber’s] protection rackets on England’s racecourses,” writes Chinn.
William Kimber died in 1945 at the Mount Stuart Nursing Home in Torquay. “His obituary in the local newspaper asserted that ‘his great interest in life, both personal and professional, was racing and he was well known and respected on every racecourse in England’”, writes Chinn.
Shellshock and post-war trauma
Several characters in Peaky Blinders are seen struggling with shellshock after witnessing the horrors of the First World War. Throughout season one (and beyond), Tommy suffers with flashbacks and bouts of aggression, while his brother Arthur struggles to control his anger. During the first season, Tommy’s friend and fellow veteran Danny ‘Whizz-Bang’ Owen suffers from psychotic breaks where he believes he is still in the conflict. And in season two, becoming increasingly unhinged, Arthur accidentally beats to death a young boy in the boxing ring.
True to history, many servicemen suffered from shellshock and struggled to readjust to civilian life after the war. Some 80,000 cases of shellshock were recorded in the conflict.
It was the British psychologist Charles Myers who first coined the term ‘shell shock’, in 1915, at the height of the war. “Hysteria had previously been understood as a female malady; now shell shock was framed as a ‘male hysteria’, implying a lack of masculine stoicism,” historians Emma Butcher and Hannah Partis-Jennings explain in this article for BBC History Magazine.
“Given that soldiers were expected to adhere to masculine ideals of bravery and resilience, shell shock… was not always treated with sympathy. For example, while he was working at London’s National Hospital for the Paralysed and Epileptic, Dr Lewis Yealland applied electric shocks to men with mutism until they started to speak again.”
Listen: Dan Snow explores the history of war trauma from the First World War onwards
What was Churchill’s position in Peaky Blinders?
In season one of the BBC drama – which is set in 1919 – Winston Churchill is depicted as the Home Secretary. But Churchill was in that job almost a decade earlier – from February 1910 until October 1911.
In 1919, Churchill was the Secretary of State for Air, a position he held until 1921.
Where to watch Peaky Blinders season 6?Season six of Peaky Blinders will reportedly premiere on Sunday 27 February 2022 on BBC One and iPlayer.
It is likely to consist of six episodes, though this is yet to be confirmed.
It is not yet known when the episodes will be made available on Netflix internationally.
You can watch every episode of seasons 1–5 on iPlayer now.