These images from the archives of the West Midlands Police Museum are late 19th and early 20th-century ‘lock-up mugshots’ which show style-conscious criminals staring down the camera. Such men left a lasting folk memory in Birmingham, which writer Steven Knight drew upon when he created Peaky Blinders.
Contrary to the myth that grew in later decades, writes historian Andrew Davies for BBC History Magazine, gang members did not wear caps lined with razors. They wore ‘billycock’ or bowler-style hats, made of hard felt, with a rakish, curved rim, two-and-a-half inches wide. The brims of their hats would be moulded into a point and worn tilted over one eye.
Peaky Blinders could also be distinguished by wearing extravagant flared trousers known as bell-bottoms, traditionally part of a naval uniform. Andrew Davies told the History Extra podcast how gang members would wear flares that were very wide, and also hob-nailed boots which would make “quite a racket” as they moved in large groups around the city.
They would also wear brightly coloured and patterned scarves. These were all features of a distinctive uniform which marked the young person wearing it as a gang member, Davies says.
“Had a youth dressed as a peaky blinder made an appearance in Birmingham in the 1920s he would have been greeted with astonishment,” writes Davies, “although middle-aged passers-by might have chuckled in recognition.”
It wasn’t just in Birmingham that image-conscious young men turned to gangland life, as this photograph below of a hooligan and friends in the capital from c1900 shows.
Read more from historian Andrew Davies on the real history of the Peaky Blinders, and listen to our Peaky Blinders podcast episode. You can also read more about the Billy Boys, the Glasgow gang which features in the latest series.
Andrew Davies is the author of City of Gangs: Glasgow and the Rise of the British Gangster (Hodder & Stoughton, 2014).