The Real Peaky Blinders episode 2: As the Peaky Blinders start to evolve from a mass gang movement interested in territory and fighting into the first organised crime gangs in Britain, we follow the career of petty thief Billy Kimber. With his Birmingham gang, Billy rises to dominate the illegal money-spinning rackets around horse racing at the start of the 20th century.
World War I disrupts his quest to build an empire, but after the war Kimber moves south to take over the rackets in the lucrative southern English racecourses. This brings him into conflict with powerful London gangs, including Jewish bookmakers like Alfie Solomon and Edward Emanuel, who seek help from the notorious Sabini Gang of Clerkenwell’s Little Italy. It leads to the racecourse wars of 1921, with hundreds of gangsters fighting pitched battles for control of Britain’s racecourses.
The boom in horse racing and its associated off- and on-course betting is fertile ground for gangsters who want to both control the trade and carve up the rich pickings from protection and extortion on Britain’s racecourses. The Birmingham gang are ultimately outmanoeuvred by Emanuel when he uses the Jockey club to help legitimise the London gang’s activity, forcing Kimber and his Birmingham to move back to the Midlands and the north of England.
As the focus of gang activity shifts away from the races to Soho and clubland, we explore the influence of US gang culture. Most of the main players become semi-legitimate – Billy dies as a respectable bookmaker and a rich man. Later, more familiar gangsters like the Krays acknowledge their debt to the likes of the Sabinis.
The Real Peaky Blinders episode 2
Economic hardship in Birmingham led to a violent youth subculture. Poor youths frequently robbed and picked the pockets of men walking on the streets of slum areas of the city. These efforts were executed through assaults, beatings, stabbings, and manual strangulation. The origins of this subculture can be traced back to the 1850s, in a time where Birmingham’s streets were filled with gambling dens and youth playing rough sports. When the police started to crack down on these activities due to pressure from the higher classes, the youth fought back, banding together in what became known as “slogging gangs”. These gangs frequently fought the police, and assaulted members of the public walking in the streets. During the 1890s, youth street gangs consisted of men between the ages of 12 and 30. The late 1890s saw the organisation of these men into a soft hierarchy.
The most violent of these youth street gangs organised themselves as a singular group known as the “Peaky Blinders”. They were likely founded in Small Heath, possibly by a man named Thomas Mucklow, as suggested by a newspaper article entitled, “A murderous outrage at Small Heath, a man’s skull fractured” (printed in the 24 March 1890 edition of The Birmingham Mail). The most powerful member of the Peaky Blinders was a man known as Kevin Mooney. His real name was Thomas Gilbert, but he routinely changed his last name.
Other prominent members of the gang were David Taylor, Earnest Haynes, Harry Fowles, and Stephen McNickle. Harry Fowles, known as “Baby-faced Harry”, was arrested at age 19 for stealing a bicycle in October 1904. McNickle and Haynes were also arrested at the same time, for stealing a bicycle and home invasion, respectively. Each was held for one month for their crimes. West Midlands police records described the three arrested as “foul-mouthed young men who stalk the streets in drunken groups, insulting and mugging passers-by”. Taylor was arrested at age 13 for carrying a loaded firearm.
Many gang members later fought in the First World War. Henry Lightfoot, the first person to be named as a Peaky Blinder, joined the British Army three times in his life and participated in the Battle of the Somme in 1916. One of the youngest gang members when he joined, Henry Fowler was years later buried alive in the trenches, and after being extricated, could not speak or see for some time following the war.
Notorious gangster Billy Kimber was also a former Peaky Blinder.