TV & Movies

The IRL Peaky Blinders Were Truly Terrifying

A BBC documentary has revealed the inspiration behind the hit TV series.

As fans are enjoying the sixth and final series of Peaky Blinders, the BBC has released a documentary exploring the truth behind the characters we’ve come to know so well. The Real Peaky Blinders dissects the street gang phenomenon that arose in Birmingham and beyond towards the end of the 19th century. But who were the real Peaky Blinders?

The documentary was pitched to the BBC by historian Carl Chinn and is based on several of his books, including The Aftermath and The Legacy. Chinn explains that the Peaky Blinders were not one specific gang. In fact, the term “Peaky Blinder” was used to describe men who belonged to any of the backstreet gangs in Birmingham during the 1890s and the turn of the 20th century.

As per Radio Times, the BBC period drama is largely inspired by the Wild West atmosphere of England’s industrial cities between 1918 and 1928 — an era series creator Steven Knight describes as “madness.” The esteemed producer says of the time: “There was a lot of cocaine, a lot of opium, a lot of dancing, a lot of nightlife.” Knight, whose father’s uncle was a known Peaky Blinder, based some of the show’s central characters on the mobsters who were at the forefront of this ruthless gang culture.

As noted in the BBC documentary, the leading character of Tommy Shelby, portrayed by Cillian Murphy in Peaky Blinders, is inspired by the real-life gang leader Sam Sheldon. As the Daily Mail reports, Sam was the brutal leader of the infamous Sheldon family gang, who were said to be involved in the “worst gang war” in Birmingham’s history. Chinn notes: “He's only 5'1 and a quarter but he's not a man you want to mess with.”

Professor Chinn believes that some other members of the real Sheldon family, including John and Samuel Sheldon, have inspired the BBC’s Peaky Blinders. As per The Sun, Chinn is also convinced that renowned criminal Henry Lightfoot, who was born in 1873, inspired the character of Arthur Shelby, played by Paul Anderson in the BBC series.

Some other real-life figures who inspired Knight’s BAFTA-winning drama include the “baby-faced” Harry Fowler. Born in 1885, Fowler was known by police as a Peaky Blinder, despite claiming that he made a living as a barman. Ernest Bayles, 19, was another known gang member, and, like Fowler, spent time in prison for theft. Meanwhile, Peaky Blinder Stephen McHickie listed his occupation as a metal roller. However, he was known for a life of crime, and spent eight months in prison in 1904 after breaking into a local shop.

As per the Daily Mail, one of the older gang members, Thomas Gilbert, is thought to have been another source of inspiration. Born in 1866, Gilbert claimed he worked as a fishmonger. Although he was known to dabble in criminality, police records suggested that he didn’t have much to do with the physical crimes committed by the aforementioned younger mobsters.

The Real Peaky Blinders is available on BBC iPlayer.