Peaky Blinders: Shocking reason why notorious real-life gangs were immune to the law

Peaky Blinders has attracted a near cult-like following since the BBC crime drama first aired in 2013. More than 6.2 million people tuned-in to watch the first episode of its most recent fifth season, last September. But far from Stephen Knight’s fictional adaptation, the true Peaky Blinders gangs were comprised of a number of brutal petty criminals, according to historian Carl Chinn. He told Express.co.uk they “bedevilled the lives of the working class poor” in a crazed fixation on showcasing their “fighting prowess” and conning those around them. They emerged in the late 1800s after the police cracked down on working class gambling games – under the instruction of the religious middle class, Professor Chinn claimed. Soon after they were able to operate above the law and were given a near-free pass during their reign of terror. He explained the dark reason why they were able to operate with “impunity” during these shocking times.

Professor Carl Chinn revealed that the real Peaky Blinders gangs began after police tried to put a halt to gambling games on Sundays – which was considered a sacred, holy day of rest by many religious people. 

He told Express.co.uk: “There was a large young population who had no parks, recreation centres or libraries to go to, so they would gather on a Sunday on wasteland and play gambling games.

“They would play games where you would throw a coin towards a mark and whoever was closest would collect all of the money. 

“There were other rough games that they played too and the middle class didn’t like that on Sunday – God’s day – they were scared of the young people.

“When the police tried to stop this, the gangs emerged to fight back against them and that’s how they started.”

Despite the gangs’ fierce reputation, it was revealed that only one man was branded with the title ‘Peaky Blinder’ – Henry Lightfoot, who conducted a savage knifepoint attack on a police officer.

Professor Chinn explained that a ‘Peaky Blinder’ was not the name of any real life gang, but actually a term for a wrongdoer – similar to hooligan today. 

However – the criminals who would have been considered ‘Peaky Blinders’ were notorious for being “vicious, vile and brutal” thugs. 

The historian added: “The main objective of these gangs was to show-off their fighting prowess and they didn’t fight fair.

“They fought using boots, belts wrapped around their wrists to slash with buckle, knives, brickends, cobblestones, anything they could find.”

He believes the number of these violent gangs spiked after the “shutdown” of street betting, as part of a retaliation against the oppression of working-class life. 

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Professor Chinn believes the ban on street gambling was seen as a “middle class law” forced upon them by “the elite” and that didn’t comply with the “moral code” of the working class.

He said: “There is definitely a lesson to be learned about the difference between laws that are enforceable and the laws that are accepted as legitimate by the population.” 

As their numbers continued to increase to “fight against the infringement of their lives”, the police struggled to apprehend the criminals due to not having enough officers. 

Professor Chinn, who penned ‘Peaky Blinders: The Real Story of Birmingham’s Most Notorious Gangs’ in 2019, explained the police feared these brutal men.

He added: “Back then being a police officer was very dangerous – several were killed in Birmingham, some were viciously assaulted and others had to retire because of their injuries. 

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“If you’re a copper, on your own, and on the street corner you see 30 or 40 tough kids playing, are you going to turn away or confront them? 

“Because of this by the late 1870s, the gangs were operating with near-impunity in the Birmingham backstreets.

“One thing that’s really important to remember though, is that while they were all poor, not all of the poor became Peaky Blinders – the majority were not violent or vicious.”

But shortly before the beginning of World War 2, the Peaky Blinders gangs vanished – this was believed to have been for multiple reasons. 

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One of the main ones was the appointment of Police Chief Constable Charles Haughton Rafter in 1899 – who set about a radical recruitment campaign to swell officer numbers.

He also campaigned for tougher sentences for those involved in gang activity – which in turn led to more people feeling confident about reporting crimes to police. 

Professor Chinn also claims that the church had an instrumental role in the demise of Peaky Blinders gangs too – after they launched boxing and other sporting clubs to keep youngsters off the streets. 

Another theory was that many of the former gang members came back changed men after World War 1, including the only many to be branded a ‘Peaky Blinder’ – Henry Lightfoot. 

The historian added: “There’s no indication that he returned to criminality.

“A few years ago, his descendants told me Henry Lightfoot had come back ‘a changed man’ after the war, as most did.”

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