It may feel strange to have fallen in love with a violent gangster from early 1900s Birmingham, but we love who we love, and people certainly seem to have a thing for Tommy Shelby, the protagonist of Peaky Blinders. With Season 4 fresh on Netflix, fans of the show are finally about to be gifted with another six episodes featuring everyone's favorite anti-hero (sorry, Walter White). This season promises to be just as bloody and violent as the previous three, and features some new, formidable opponents for Tommy and his family. And the show continues to straddle the line between fiction and reality, because the Peaky Blinders were a real gang.
Unfortunately for his most diehard fans, Tommy Shelby actually never existed. According to historian Carl Chinn, who wrote the book The Real Peaky Blinders: Billy Kimber, the Birmingham Gang and the Racecourse Wars of the 1920s, the television series not only created a fictional protagonist to head the gang, but also placed the real Peaky Blinders out of their historical context. In in an interview with The Birmingham Mail, Chinn shared, "There was no real Tommy Shelby and the Peaky Blinders were around in the 1890s and yet the series is set in the 1920s."
That might be a blow to fans who have loved imagining a real-life Tommy Shelby, preferably one with eyes as beautiful as Cillian Murphy's. But even though there may not have been an actual Tommy Shelby, the Peaky Blinders were still very much a real Birmingham gang. And they were probably just as dapper and armed as Tommy.
According to historian David Cross of the West Midlands Police Museum, the Peaky Blinders used fashion as weaponry. Cross told the BBC:
"They used their hats with razor blades sewn in to rob people. That's what a Peaky Blinder was. When they hit someone or headbutted someone on the nose while wearing one, it would cause their victim temporary blindness."
Hence the name "Peaky Blinders."
Yet there is some debate over whether the hats actually contained razors. Although Cross claims they did, Chinn told The Birmingham Mail in the same interview that these deadly hats are probably mere myths:
"As for the razor blades? They 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."
But not up for dispute? The fact that these gangsters paid particularly careful attention to their appearance and presentation. In the same interview with Cross, the BBC reported:
"Their carefully stylized image was an attempt to bring a touch of class to their actions, Mr Cross said, as well as making them stand out from their rivals. Peaky Blinders would wear a silk scarf tied around their necks, bell-bottom trousers and a flat, bladed cap tilted to one side."
So even if Tommy Shelby in particular isn't a real person, the real members of the gang probably looked quite a bit like him, three-piece-suit and all. And it's possible that his character might have been based on some of the real leaders of the Peaky Blinders, such as Harry Fowler, Ernest Bayles, Stephen McHickie and Thomas Gilbert, according to GQ.
But unlike Murphy's character, these Peaky Blinders were more petty criminals than big-time crime bosses. GQ reported that Fowler and Bayles were arrested and charged for stealing a bike, while McHickie was charged with breaking into a draper's shop 11 doors down from his own house. Not exactly the kind of large-scale heists and violent vendettas that Tommy Shelby often finds himself involved in on the show.
So while history can't tell us what happens to Tommy Shelby, maybe that's for the better. The fictional leader of the fictionalized version of the Peaky Blinders is as complex a character as one would find in the real world, and his fate is left up to the show's creators. That could mean more seasons, more excitement, and more cliffhangers for the viewers. Will Tommy finally meet his match in Luca Changretta? Will he leave his days as a gangster behind him to care for his son? Will he find a love to replace the one he lost, or are Grace and Tommy the OTP? Audiences will get to find out, without the burden of historical facts guiding Tommy's character arc. And at the very least, we know that his on-point fashion game is true to life.