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The True History That Inspired ‘Peaky Blinders’ on Netflix

Tommy Shelby in front of a war zone in Peaky blinders

Set during the early 20th century in the streets of Birmingham, Peaky Blinders chronicles the life of the Shelby crime family and their rise to power. It opens in 1919, with Cillian Murphy’s ruthless Tommy Shelby coming back from World War I and leading his family from ruling the streets of Small Heath and the races to expanding the family business into legitimacy. Its final season was recently released on Netflix, and if you’re a new fan who’s really into period pieces like myself, you’re probably wondering if its six-season run is actually based on true events.

Is ‘Peaky Blinders’ a true story?

Now, the short answer is both yes and no.

Showrunner and creator Steven Knight has, on multiple occasions, detailed how he had based the show on stories his parents—particularly his father—had told him of Birmingham street gangsters they’d seen growing up. In a 2016 interview with HistoryExtra, he recalled a story of his father’s that had ultimately inspired him to write the show:

“One of the stories that really made me want to write Peaky Blinders is one my dad told me: he said that when he was eight or nine his dad gave him a message on a piece of paper and said, “go and deliver this to your uncles”. His uncles were the Sheldons, who eventually became the Shelbys [in Peaky Blinders]. Even though the history books say the peaky blinders were only around until the 1890s, they weren’t – people in Small Heath knew these people as peaky blinders. 

My dad was told to go and deliver this message, so he ran through the streets barefoot, knocked on the door, the door opened and there was a table with about eight men sitting around it, immaculately dressed, wearing caps and with guns in their pockets. The table was covered with money – at a time when no one had a penny – and they were all drinking beer out of jam jars because these men wouldn’t spend money on glasses or cups.”

The Real “Blinders”

As Knight mentions in the interview, records show that the real Peaky Blinders had been around during the 1890s, which is decades off the show’s timeline. Like in real life, however, the show made use of the gang’s signature flat caps but historians have long disputed the myth that these gangsters had sown razors in them, given that such items were considered a luxury at the time for the working class. The working theory right now is that they were called Peaky “Blinders” for the flat caps they often wore and their charming looks (Considering that Cillian Murphy plays Tommy in the show, then that makes perfect sense). 

Another difference is in the identities of the Blinders themselves. In the show, they’re primarily composed of the Shelby family but in real life, they were made up of several gangs. Arguably the most famous of them all was Thomas Gilbert, who was also known as Kevin Mooney and is often credited to be the gang’s leader. 

The Show and History

Part of what makes Peaky Blinders so interesting is its incorporation of real people and actual events. Some historical figures that make an appearance throughout the show’s decade run include Billy Kimber and his Birmingham Boys (who in real life ruled after the Blinders and not the other way around like in the show), Darby Sabini, Charlie Chaplin (as it turns out, he did, in fact, have Romani roots), trade union leader Jessie Eden, former Prime Minister Winston Churchill, the Mosleys, opium dealer Brilliant Chang, and fan-favorite Alfie Solomons. There is also Gina Gray’s (Anya Taylor Joy) uncle Jack Nelson, who makes an appearance in the final season and is said to be based on JFK’s father, Joseph Kennedy, Sr. If the fan service gods had their way, Stephen Graham reprising his portrayal as infamous mobster Al Capone would also be listed on here, but Knight had squashed the rumor early on back in 2019. 

Like with most of the show’s other plot lines, though, these characters do not appear in an entirely accurate timeframe. For example, Oswald Mosley did not form the British Union of Fascists until 1932 unlike in the show where he does so in 1929 to fit the timeline. There was also no showing of any attempts made against his life and he’d in fact lived until 1980, long after the conclusion of World War II.

In short, Peaky Blinders takes various historical elements and figures and seamlessly interweaves them into its narrative. The result has been phenomenal.

All six seasons of Peaky Blinders are now streaming on Netflix.

(featured image: Netflix)

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Danielle is a twenty-something writer and postgrad student based in the Philippines. She loves books, movies, her cat, and traveling. In her spare time, she enjoys shooting 35mm film and going to concerts.