The Real London of Peaky Blinders
Rob Smith looks at the true story behind some of the characters and locations in the TV series Peaky Blinders. Find out more on his walk The Real London of Peaky Blinders which he runs on various days throughout the year, or you can book to it with a few friends at a time that suits you.
One of the big hits on TV this autumn has been Steven Knight’s historical crime drama Peaky Blinders. The story is about a group of Birmingham gangsters led by Tommy Shelby, a veteran of World War One, who seeks his fortune by aiming to control racecourse gambling in the immediate aftermath of the war. The first series focused on events in Birmingham, the second series sees the Peaky Blinders attempt to muscle in on the London crime scene.
While Tommy Shelby (excellently played by a super cool Cillian Murphy) is a fictional character, the series references many real people places and events. The real life versions however have often been somewhat different to their on screen depiction. Take for instance the character Sabini (played by Noah Taylor), the vicious but elegantly dressed head of the Italian gang. Darby Sabini was certainly one of the most well known criminal bosses in 1920s London. His early history is a little confused as he seems to have been registered under a variety of different names in censuses but most likely he was christened Ollovia Sabini, born in 1888 to an Irish mother and Italian father. Sabini grew up on the mean streets of Il Quartiere – Clerkenwell’s Italian Quarter, and after a brief spell as a boxer, became a runner to local bookmakers, who were reliant on protection from robbery by gangs and arrest from the police. Sabini seems to have come to prominence in 1920 when members of the Elephant Gang (so called because they came from Elephant and Castle) came to the Griffin pub in Clerkenwell Road intent on causing trouble. Sabini broke the Elephant Gang leader’s jaw with a knockout punch. This act propels Sabini to the top of the tree in Il Quartiere but he is still not yet the most powerful criminal in London at this point as the series depicts. Nor was he a particularly snappy dresser, it is said he only ever wore one jacket in his life and habitually wore a checked flat cap and black muffler.
Sabini ran his operation out of The Griffin pub, which still stands today, now a striptease pub. In the TV series Sabini owns a club called the Eden Club, which the Peaky Blinders brutally claim for themselves. The TV version of the Eden Club is an opulent but very decadent affair, but the real Eden Social Club seems to have been a less upmarket place. It was located in Eden Street, which was near Euston Station and the Times describes the club as a two storey premises above a motor garage, one floor of which was dedicated to playing cards. Nevertheless the club did see violent gang related violence as the cutting below shows.
Alfred Solomons is depicted in Peaky Blinders, menacingly played by Tom Hardy. The real Alfie Solomons seems to have been an equally violent man but probably not as powerful as the Jewish gang leader he plays in Peaky Blinders. As well as the Eden Club fracas Solomons stood trial for attempting to shoot dead Birmingham gangster Billy Kimber outside Sabini’s flat in 1921. Solomons was acquitted when all the witnesses lost their memory.
The end of the second series sees the action move to Derby Day at Epsom Racecourse. This again is based on a real event – at the 1921 Epsom Derby the Birmingham Gang decide to get rid of Sabini once and for all. They plan to ambush the Sabini gang at Ewell on the way home from the Derby. The Birmingham gang blocked the road in front of an oncoming charabanc then set about the vehicle’s occupants with clubs, axes and iron bars, causing terrifying injuries. However too late the Birmingham boys realise they have attacked the wrong charabanc – instead of the Sabini men they attacked their allies from the Leeds mob. Sabini lived to fight another day, in fact this was only the start of a long series of battles that last into the 1930s, which will no doubt inspire the next series of Peaky Blinders. Sabini leaves London for Brighton – inspiring the character Colleoni in Graham Greene’s Brighton Rock. He, like most Italian British, was interned as an enemy national in World War Two and on his release a new generation of criminals had moved onto his patch.
Obviously there is a sense of trepidation when TV alters the details of historical events – for instance the recent series The Tudors was great drama, but an awful history lesson. So its important not to see drama as historical document. However it is exciting that these previously untold stories are making their way to mainstream TV. American culture has long embraced the gangster genre but the British gangster film has largely focused on post world war two gangsters. There are so many stories still to be told from the streets of London and it is fantastic to see Peaky Blinders turning them into great drama.