The real Peaky Blinders

At the end of the 19th century, the law-abiding citizens of Birmingham were terrorised by a new breed of gang member with two defining passions: natty streetwear and extreme violence. Andrew Davies reveals why so many young, working-class men were drawn to the brutal glamour of the peaky blinders

19th-century mugshots

Surely all respectable and law-abiding citizens are sick of the very name of ruffianism in Birmingham and assaults on police. No matter what part of the city one walks, gangs of ‘peaky blinders’ are to be seen, who ofttimes think nothing of grossly insulting passers by, be it a man, woman or child. I venture to say that 99 times out of 100, they are not even brought to justice.” This anguished letter, signed “Workman”, was published in the Birmingham Daily Mail on 21 July 1898.

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‘Peaky blinders’ were easily recognised. Contrary to the myth that grew in later decades – and the BBC drama series – they did not wear caps lined with razors. In fact, 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 a point, worn tilted over one eye – hence their nickname. They did not belong to a single gang. Quite the reverse: opposing gangs, all sharing this 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 blinder, adopted in the 1890s, was distinctive to Birmingham. In Manchester and neighbouring Salford, gang members were known as ‘scuttlers’. In London, they became known by the more enduring label ‘hooligan’.

The frustration of ‘Workman’ was understandable. Three days earlier, Police Constable George Snipe had been fatally injured in a disturbance that shocked the city. PC Snipe and a fellow constable named Mead were patrolling a poor district to the north of the city centre between 9.30pm and 10pm when they ‘moved on’ a group of six or seven young ‘roughs’ who had gathered outside the Tram Stores pub in Hockley Hill. As one member of the group later admitted, the men had spent the day, a Sunday, on a spree, “drinking all the day, and fighting all the evening”. The constables followed the men to the junction of Bridge Street West, where PC Snipe arrested 23-year-old William Colerain for using vile language. When the two constables tried to take Colerain in, he kicked out and the prisoner’s friends attempted to rescue him. A crowd gathered. In the ensuing melee, someone hurled a brick at PC Snipe’s head with such force that it knocked his helmet off. The stricken constable was taken by cab to the city’s General Hospital, where he died in the early hours of the following morning. A post-mortem revealed that his skull had been fractured in two places.

The death of PC Snipe caused an outcry. Editorial commentaries in the Birmingham press railed against the brutality, violence and degradation that confronted the city’s magistrates on a daily basis. According to the Mail, “A large percentage of the rising generation are emerging from boyhood into manhood without acknowledging any authority whatever, and with all the instincts of the savage brute implanted in them.”

The Mail was not alone in demanding the introduction of flogging for crimes of violence. As it pointed out, a public meeting in St George’s Ward, attended by a large number of working people – many of whom lived locally, close to the scene where PC Snipe had been assaulted – “enthusiastically applauded” calls for brutal street ruffians to be flogged. “Public feeling has reached a white heat,” the Mail commented, “and very properly so.”

A riot in 19th-century Birmingham
In the late 1860s, inflamed by Protestant orator William Murphy, anti-Catholic rioting broke out in Birmingham – disorder that foreshadaowed the gangland feuding that was to follow. (Photo by The Print Collector/Getty Images)

Mistaken identity

A local woman named Polly Mullins identified the brick-thrower as James Franklin. Aged 19, Franklin worked as a file-cutter. He stood trial at the Birmingham Assizes on 16 December 1897, but the case against him collapsed when defence witnesses testified that the brick had been thrown not by Franklin, but by 19-year-old George ‘Cloggy’ Williams. Franklin was found not guilty.

Williams went on the run as soon as he heard that PC Snipe had died. He evaded arrest until 9 January 1898. When he made his first appearance before the city’s stipendiary magistrate, reporters noted that, “his hair, which is of a light colour, was dressed in the approved ‘peaky blinder’ style, short at the back, and pulled down in a fringe over his forehead”. His former employer testified that Williams had worked as a glass-beveller for four years before leaving abruptly, without drawing his wages, on the day of Snipe’s death. Contrary to the prevailing depiction of peaky blinders as workshy, the employer said Williams had been “very industrious”.

The recession that followed the boom of the 1870s threw thousands of unemployed and disenfranchised youths onto the streets

Williams in turn stood trial at Birmingham Assizes on 17 March 1898. After just two days of hearings, he was found guilty of manslaughter and sentenced to penal servitude for life. Passing sentence, the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Russell, described the crime as “atrocious”, noting that it was “thinly removed” from murder. The judge evidently thought the jury had been unduly lenient in finding Williams guilty only of manslaughter. The local newspapers applauded the sentence. As the Birmingham Daily Post put it: “We hope that every rowdy in Birmingham will take the lesson to heart.”

If the term peaky blinder was new in the 1890s, concern at violence among youths in Birmingham’s industrial districts was not. As historian Barbara Weinberger notes, clashes between rival youth gangs were first reported in the city during the early 1870s, their origins in territorial wars fought between English and Irish street gangs. Hostility towards Birmingham’s Irish-Catholic population had intensified during the previous decade. In June 1867, Park Street in the city’s Irish quarter had been largely demolished during the Murphy riots, provoked by an anti-Catholic tirade by the militant Protestant orator William Murphy. Anti-Irish feeling was subsequently inflamed by reports of ‘Fenian’ activity. During the 1870s, according to Weinberger, anti-Irish sentiment “offered a focus and a target for the frustrations of inner city youths which… became institutionalised in gang warfare”.

No work, no prospects

Weinberger offers two further explanations for a reported upsurge in street disturbances and gang warfare in Birmingham from around 1873–74. The recession that followed the boom of the early 1870s threw thousands of unemployed and disenfranchised youths onto the streets. At the same time, police clampdowns on drunkenness and street gambling were resented in working-class districts. Young men featured prominently in the disturbances that ensued. Weinberger contrasted the vigour of campaigns to reform “public manners” with the indifference shown by the civic authorities to the “welfare or rights of a section of the community who had no power or votes… and for whose behaviour they had nothing but disdain”.

Youthful members of Birmingham’s street gangs described themselves as ‘sloggers’. According to historian Philip Gooderson, the ethnic hostility that sparked gang conflict in the 1870s was later eclipsed by narrower, territorial loyalties. Most of the feuds reported in the press during the 1880s and 1890s involved gangs from adjacent districts. Conflicts spread across the Birmingham conurbation, extending from the central ‘slums’ to Aston, Perry Barr and Balsall Heath, all of which lay outside the jurisdiction of the Birmingham police in 1890.

Street gangs also confronted each other at music halls. On 23 December 1893, John Metcalfe, aged 20, was fatally stabbed in the neck during a fight between rival gangs from Park Street and Barford Street. The gangs clashed outside ‘the Mucker’, the concert hall in Digbeth, fighting with the buckle ends of their belts as well as knives. Thomas Cherry, a 19-year-old nailmaker, was subsequently convicted of manslaughter. He was sentenced to five years’ penal servitude.

By the 1890s, Birmingham’s sloggers had adopted a distinctive uniform. One of the witnesses at Cherry’s trial, William Bond, sported a “cropped head and bell-bottomed trousers”. It was a style shared by the sloggers’ counterparts in Manchester and London, the scuttler and the hooligan.

A steam tram travels past Smithfield Market in Birmingham in the 1890s
A steam tram travels past Smithfield Market in Birmingham in the 1890s. It was a decade when different areas of the city each had gangs that jealously guarded ‘their’ turf. (Photo by English Heritage/Heritage Images/Getty Images)

Bootboy style

The Birmingham paint and varnish manufacturer Arthur Matthison saw the city’s warring youths at close quarters when his family moved to Summer Lane, close to the spot where PC Snipe was fatally injured and notorious as a rendezvous of the ‘peakies’. In his memoirs, Matthison painted the peaky blinder as intensely style-conscious: “He 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, hence the name ‘peaky blinder’. 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.”

As Matthison pointed out, most peakies belonged to a slogging gang. He saw these youths as “the product of poverty, squalor and slum environment”. To Matthison, living in Summer Lane with “slums abounding all around”, it was all too apparent that youth violence was the by-product of harsh social and economic conditions. Historian Philip Gooderson qualifies this assessment, pointing out that gang conflicts not only extended beyond the city’s slums but also drew in many youths in full-time work. The occupations of the sloggers who appeared in droves before the magistrates, according to Gooderson, read like “a roll-call” of Birmingham’s industrial workforce: “brass caster, iron caster, fender maker, striker, hinge maker, filer, stamper, chandelier maker, gun polisher, coach builder, spectacle maker, glass blower”. Half of them worked in the iron or the brass industries, the dominant sectors of the local economy. None of them, however, could be described as middle-class. Slogging, like scuttling in Manchester and Salford, was a working-class pastime, reflecting the kudos attached to displays of fighting prowess and toughness in working-class neighbourhoods. Middle-class youths, with greater opportunities and better prospects, had no incentive to risk injury and imprisonment.

Peaky blinder style had a limited shelf-life. In the early 20th century, young people began to look to Hollywood for a new sense of glamour

The Mail dispatched a reporter to Summer Lane, where Matthison lived in the early 1890s, and the correspondent relayed an encounter with a peakie’s ‘moll’. She too was easily identified by her appearance, since it mirrored those of the peaky blinder himself: “There was the same lavish display of pearl buttons, the well-developed fringe obscuring the whole of the forehead and descending nearly to her eyes, and the characteristic gaudy-coloured silk neckerchief covering her throat. Her head was hidden beneath an elaborate hat of considerable dimensions and decorated with feathers and poppies.” (Interestingly, by the late 1890s, the peaky blinder’s uniform incorporated the pearl buttons typically associated with the London costermonger.) The reporter concluded, ruefully, that Summer Lane’s molls were a “long-suffering lot”.

The glamour fades

In the years before the First World War, Birmingham’s peaky blinders faded from view. Gooderson attributes the decline of slogging gangs and the concomitant disappearance of the peakies to a number of factors, ranging from the growth of football as an alternative source of excitement for working-class youths to a belated clampdown by the police and judiciary.

Like all youth fashions, peaky blinder style had a limited shelf-life. 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. 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.

In 1936, nearly 40 years after their demise, memories of the peaky blinders were stirred by a series of letters published in the “Notes and Queries” column of the Birmingham Weekly Post. One reader had seen “many a policeman” and civilians alike “laid out” by them. In reply, “Bred and Born Brum” insisted that the peaky blinder was “just an ordinary working man… He could always be found at work during the day in some brass foundry, doing his bit at the lathe or vice or perhaps as a polisher or in the casting shop.”

Another correspondent, F Atkins, was adamant that “a good many readers have a wrong conception” of peaky blinders: “Their actions were mostly restrained to rival gangs and the police. The general public was seldom interfered with unless they interfered.” Mr Atkins also revealed how the hat that gave the peakie his name was fashioned. It was a “Bowler hat with the brim made to fit the sides, the front of the brim came to a point almost like the spout of a jug. This was done by wetting the brim, warming it by the fire, them making it the shape required. This was worn on the side of the head to show the hair on the other side done in a ‘quiff’.”

The peaky blinders had long ceased to stalk Birmingham’s toughest streets. But their fashion sense and penchant for violence had guaranteed their spot in the second city’s collective memory.

Andrew Davies is the author of City of Gangs: Glasgow and the Rise of the British Gangster (Hodder & Stoughton, 2013). He’ll be discussing the real peaky blinders in a forthcoming episode of our podcast

READ The Gangs of Birmingham: The True Story of the Peaky Blinders by Philip Gooderson (Milo Books, 2010)

WATCH Series 5 of the BBC One drama Peaky Blinders is scheduled to begin in late August

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This article was first published in the September 2019 edition of BBC History Magazine