Peaky Blinders: Mastermind – did the infamous gang really exist?

Peaky Blinders: Mastermind has managed the herculean feat of being a licensed video game that doesn’t absolutely suck. In fact, perhaps shockingly, it’s actually very good indeed, providing both a satisfyingly fresh take on the real time strategy genre as well as being a meaningful addition to the Peaky Blinders continuity.

For those who haven’t checked out our Peaky Blinders: Mastermind review yet, this is a heist movie done as a video game. A compelling and brain taxing experience that sees six members of the Peaky Blinders crew pull off near impossible missions thanks to a neat time rewinding mechanic. But as I played through the game it got me thinking – risky, I know – who were the real Peaky Blinders?

The game, and the TV series of course, are based on a sprinkling of people and events from real-life to pepper the drama with a sense of authenticity. But where does fact end and fiction begin? Were the Peaky Blinders a bit like Robin Hood and his Merry Men, protecting the people of Small Heath from rival gangs and authoritarian police? Did the Peaky Blinders really use hats with razor blades secreted in the rim as an offensive weapon?  Did Thomas Shelby really exist, and did he have beautiful piercing blue eyes that seem to gaze into the very depths of your soul through the TV screen? And could the Peaky Blinders control space and time as if they had their own personal Infinity Gauntlet? I set to finding out.

First things first, some back story. Yes, the Peaky Blinders were a real gang that operated in the city of Birmingham from the late 19th century, and such was their rise to power that their name became synonymous with all criminal activity in Birmingham. Indeed, it was the state of the city during the latter half of the 19th century that provided the necessary environment for a criminal organisation to flourish and gain such power. Life in Victorian Britain was hard, and Birmingham was certainly consistent with this rule. The population was exploding. Not literally. I’m not suggesting that Queen Victoria detonated all over Prince Albert – though, that’s quite the mental image – but rather the population was booming, with people flocking to the cities seeking work and a better life.

Most didn’t find that. There weren’t nearly enough places for everyone to live, resulting in crazy overcrowding and deeply unsanitary conditions. There was contaminated drinking water and so diseases were easily spread, leading to horrific child death rates. Birmingham saw epidemics of smallpox in 1871 to 1872, 1874, and 1883. Then there were a pair of epidemics of scarlet fever in 1878 and 1882. Considering this suffering and poverty, it’s no surprise that discontent grew and the crime rate rose significantly. The result? More and more draconian policing and public punishment as a deterrent. Those convicted of heinous crimes would be publicly hanged, possibly even tortured too.

These factors – and others which are far too complicated for me to understand – led to even greater discontent, anger and anti-social behaviour. The exact type of anti-social activity that we’re interested in for the purposes of the Peaky Blinders is ‘slogging’. Slogging is basically stoning but with a much more fun name; sloggers would throw stones – and mud and brickbats and the occasional dead dog – at passers-by, buildings and property. Gangs of young men would roam the street, becoming emboldened through the fear and chaos they sowed; they attacked members of the public during the day and scuffled with the police at night. Slogging became so prevalent that entire riots involving hundreds, sometime thousands, of people would break out over the city.

Gangs began to further establish themselves over time, they became more hierarchical and operated within territories. Some of these slogging gangs grew to become the Peaky Blinders. The Blinders fought and defeated other gangs to establish their territory – notably seeing off The Cheapside Sloggers – to then operate various protection rackets as well as conducting robberies, assaults, fraud, hijacking, smuggling and racketeering.

So, with a predilection to violence and outright criminal activity against anyone and everyone, the real Peaky Blinders were unlikely to have operated with the Robin Hood mentality portrayed in the TV show or the game, nor have the popularity amongst the local population of Small Heath that the game suggests.

How about fashion? Were the real Peaky Blinders as dapper and well-dressed as Tommy Shelby and his cohorts? Absolutely! The Peaky Blinders considered their impeccable style to be very important; it demonstrated both power, wealth and a collective identity. Gang members wore tailored jackets, leather boots, immaculate brass buttoned waistcoats and 22 inch bell-bottom trousers. They also wore a distinctive scarf, called a silk daff, which was twisted twice around the neck and then tied together at either end. Like a shoelace for the head. Then there was their iconic head wear; the peaked flat cap.

These have recently filtered their way back into the wardrobes of fashion conscious men, though historians vary considerably in their opinions of whether they were indeed used as weapons. Perhaps the legends are true, that the Peaky Blinders kept razor blades in the brim of these cap. Whilst it’s unlikely they would use the cap to slash and injure their foes as Peaky Blinders: Mastermind depicts, they perhaps could have used the blade to accentuate the severity of an unfriendly head-butt. The bladed skull kiss would cause blood to run down over the eyes of their unfortunate victim; thus the name Peaky Blinders.

Historian, and author of several books on the Peaky Blinders, Carl Chinn, thinks that’s an unlikely explanation though. He told Birmingham Live:

(Razor blades) were only beginning to come in from the 1890s and were a luxury item, much too expensive for the Peaky Blinders to have used. And any hard man would tell you it would be very difficult to get direction and power with a razor blade sewn into the soft part of a cap. It was a romantic notion brought about in John Douglas’s novel, A Walk Down Summer Lane.

So why the name Peaky Blinders? One theory is that the peaked hat helped hide the wearer’s identity. Another is that as the gangsters were dressed so fancily they were considered ‘blinding to the eye’. Another – to me fairly ridiculous – idea, is that Peaky Blinders were named as such because they snuck up behind their victims and pulled their hat down over their head. But that sounds more school prank than violent assault. Anyway, let’s face it, the razor blade thing is much more exciting for TV and video games.

So what of Tommy Shelby, the genius big brained heist planner of Peaky Blinders: Mastermind. Did he exist? Back to Carl Chinn again:

“There was no real Tommy Shelby.”

Yeesh! Thanks for that anticlimactic reveal, Carl! The whole article was building up to that and it went off like a wet firework.

No Tommy Shelby then. And also (and this took me by surprise) no time manipulating super powers for the Peaky Blinders either. Real life, eh? Who’d choose that? I’d rather have my time-travelling, anti-hero, heist conducting, razor blade hat wielding Peaky Blinders any day of the week. Back to playing Peaky Blinders: Mastermind for me then.

Playing with History is our ongoing series spotlighting video games and the real-world people and events that inspire them. From the harrowing historic backdrop fuelling Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice, to the existence of zombies in Days Gone, and a deep dive into Jurassic World Evolution’s T-Rex, join us as continue to expand our timeline. Why not explore the real-world history behind Ghosts of Tsushima, or learn just how authentic the game is, according to a samurai expert.

1 Comment

  1. Good article, thank you!

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