Exploring the Real-Life Inspiration Behind ‘Peaky Blinders’

An atmospheric street of early 20th-century Birmingham, England, shrouded in fog, with vintage cars parked along cobblestone roads, and shadowy figures wearing flat caps and trench coats, resembling characters from

Exploring the Real-Life Inspiration Behind ‘Peaky Blinders’

The gritty streets of early 20th century Birmingham serve as the backdrop for the widely acclaimed British television series Peaky Blinders. Centered around the Shelby family’s criminal endeavors and their dominion over the city, the show delves into politics, loyalty, and the impacts of the First World War on British society. Its blend of historical fiction, compelling storytelling, and a memorable soundtrack has garnered a global fan base. Beyond its dramatic narratives, Peaky Blinders draws inspiration from the real-life gang of the same name, delving into the history and myths that shaped Birmingham during this tumultuous period. This article explores the historical truths behind the fictional saga of the Shelby family and their empire.

The Historical Peaky Blinders

The real Peaky Blinders were indeed a criminal gang based in Birmingham, although they rose to prominence a bit earlier than the series suggests, primarily during the late 19th century. These were small-time gangsters known for their distinctive dress code that included tailored suits, overcoats, and peaked flat caps from which they allegedly derived their name. While the show depicts the gang as involved in various large-scale criminal activities, historical records suggest that the real Peaky Blinders were more involved in petty crime, such as street fighting, robbery, and racketeering.

The myth that they sewed razor blades into their caps, as depicted in the series, has been widely debunked by historians. The notion likely adds a dramatic flair to the narrative but lacks evidence in historical records. Razor blades were considered a luxury item during this period, making it unlikely for a street gang to waste them in this manner. However, their attire and style did set them apart and were integral to their identity on the streets of Birmingham.

The Transition to the Shelby Family

The series ‘Peaky Blinders’ takes considerable creative license in portraying the activities and influence of the gang. The Shelby family, at the heart of the narrative, is a fictional creation, although their exploits are loosely based on reports and stories of various gangs that operated in Birmingham and other parts of England at the time. By integrating characters and events from history, such as Winston Churchill and the IRA, the show weaves a narrative that blurs the lines between fact and fiction, effectively capturing the essence and atmosphere of the era.

However, the involvement of the Peaky Blinders in horse racing, a central theme in the show, does hold some historical accuracy. Gambling and the control of betting operations were significant activities for many gangs during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Though not exclusive to the Peaky Blinders, these criminal enterprises were crucial to the economic structure of gang operations in the region.

Legacy and Cultural Impact

The fascination with Peaky Blinders goes beyond its historical setting, delving into themes of power, loyalty, and the consequences of war. The show’s portrayal of post-World War I Britain, its economic hardships, and the social struggles of its characters resonate with contemporary audiences. It has also sparked a renewed interest in Birmingham’s history and the real stories of its working-class communities during this period.

Beyond its narrative and thematic depth, Peaky Blinders has had a noticeable influence on fashion, with a resurgence in the popularity of 1920s-inspired clothing and hairstyles. This cultural renaissance highlights the show’s ability to blend the past with modern sensibilities, creating a lasting legacy both on and off-screen.


What influenced the creation of Peaky Blinders?

Creator Steven Knight was inspired to create Peaky Blinders by stories he heard from his family, who lived in Birmingham during the time the series is set. These tales, passed down through generations, painted a vivid picture of the people and the landscape of early 20th century Birmingham, marked by its industrial background and the presence of gangs like the Peaky Blinders. Knight’s intention was not just to tell a story of crime but to explore the broader socio-political landscape of post-war Britain and the impact it had on families and communities during that era.

Were the Shelby family based on real people?

While the Shelby family and their empire are fictional creations, Steven Knight has mentioned that they are composites of real-life individuals and families that were involved in the criminal underworld of Birmingham and other parts of Britain during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The character Arthur Shelby, for example, shares traits with real-life gang leaders known for their brutal tactics and complex relationships with their communities.

How accurate are the political and social themes in Peaky Blinders?

The political and social themes depicted in Peaky Blinders, including the aftermath of the First World War, the rise of communism, and the struggle for women’s rights, are grounded in historical research. The series accurately captures the tumultuous atmosphere of the era, wherein the scars of war, economic hardship, and social inequality were prevalent. Though specific plot points and interactions between historical figures and the show’s characters are fictionalized, they are often based on actual historical tensions and events, providing a textured understanding of the period.

Has the show contributed to any misconceptions about the real Peaky Blinders?

The dramatic portrayal of the Peaky Blinders in the television series has undoubtedly led to some romanticization and myths about the real gang’s nature and activities. The infusion of elements like razor blades in caps, or the gang’s significant influence in horse racing and political events, while making for compelling storytelling, deviates from historical accuracy. This dramatization has possibly contributed to a mystified and glorified perception of the gang, overshadowing the more mundane reality of their criminal endeavors and the societal context in which they operated.

What role does Birmingham play in the storyline?

Birmingham is not just a setting but a character in its own right in Peaky Blinders. The city’s industrial landscape, with its factories, smoke-filled skies, and crowded slums, sets the tone for the series and reflects the economic and social challenges of the time. The show’s creators went to great lengths to accurately depict Birmingham’s physical and cultural environment, showcasing its significance as a center of industry and its role in shaping the lives of its inhabitants, including the fictional Shelby family and their criminal empire. Birmingham’s portrayal in the series has brought significant attention to the city’s history and its pivotal role in Britain’s industrial and social development during the early 20th century.

How did Peaky Blinders influence modern fashion?

The impact of Peaky Blinders on modern fashion is evident in the resurgence of 1920s and 1930s style elements, such as three-piece suits, overcoats, and the iconic flat caps. The show’s costume design, praised for its authenticity and attention to detail, has inspired fashion designers and fans alike to embrace vintage styles with a contemporary twist. The Peaky look has been adopted by celebrities on red carpets and by everyday people seeking to emulate the distinctive, sharp aesthetics of the series’ characters. This fusion of historical fashion with modern sensibilities demonstrates the show’s broad cultural influence, extending its reach beyond entertainment into the realm of style and personal expression.

Is there a historical basis for the Shelby family’s involvement in politics?

While the Shelby family’s deep involvement in politics is a key plot element in Peaky Blinders, it is more a narrative device than a reflection of historical fact. The series uses the family’s political ambitions to explore broader themes such as power, identity, and social mobility. In reality, while criminal gangs in the early 20th century might have influenced local politics through intimidation or voter manipulation, their direct involvement at the level depicted in the series is fictional. However, the depiction helps underscore the interconnectedness of criminal enterprises with political and social structures during the period, even if the specific storylines involving the Shelbys and their political maneuvers are creations of the show.

What are the main historical inaccuracies in Peaky Blinders?

Peaky Blinders takes creative liberties in its portrayal of the eponymous gang and the era it depicts. Key inaccuracies include the timeline of the gang’s prominence, the extent of their criminal activities, and the fictionalized interactions with historical figures. The use of razor blades sewn into the peaks of their caps, a hallmark of the gang in the series, lacks historical evidence and is likely a myth that has been popularized by the show. Additionally, while the series incorporates real historical events and personalities, their representation is often dramatized to fit the narrative, leading to a blend of fact and fiction that, while compelling, deviates from historical accuracy.

How did Peaky Blinders impact the city of Birmingham?

The success of Peaky Blinders has brought significant attention and tourism to Birmingham, with fans eager to explore the historical and cultural backdrop of the series. Local tours, museums, and cultural institutions have embraced the show’s popularity, offering Peaky Blinders-themed experiences that delve into the city’s industrial past and its connection to the real gang. This influx of interest has fostered a renewed appreciation for Birmingham’s heritage, highlighting its rich history beyond its industrial reputation. The show’s impact extends to a sense of pride among residents, as it underscores Birmingham’s significance in British history and its role as a breeding ground for stories that resonate with audiences worldwide.

What real historical events are depicted in Peaky Blinders?

Peaky Blinders weaves several real historical events into its narrative fabric, blending fact with fiction to enrich the story. Key events include the aftermath of the First World War, the 1919 general strike, and the rise of political movements like communism and fascism in Britain. The series also explores the tensions between different social and ethnic groups, the Irish War of Independence, and the changing role of women in society during the 1920s and 1930s. By situating its characters and plots within these historical contexts, Peaky Blinders provides a vivid glimpse into the turbulent period of British history, even as it takes liberties with specific events and timelines for dramatic effect.

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