The Real Peaky Blinders – BBC 2



Nearly thirty years ago, the presenter of this programme – lovely, lovely man – gave a lecture to a group of first year undergraduates, including my good self, in which the word “Ruthenians” came up.  He confessed that he didn’t actually know what the word meant.  I did.  I have to admit that I was rather chuffed that I knew something which a university lecturer didn’t, but then I was a very strange teenager and most British undergraduates, and even lecturers, aren’t that interested in East Slavic history.  At the moment, I’m getting a lot of opportunities to lecture people on the history of Ukraine and Russia – and, whilst it’s nice to be able to talk about a pet subject, it’s very, very sad that it’s under such horrific circumstances.   It’s devastating to see what’s being done to Ukraine.  And I love Russia.  I always have done.  I used to get some very funny looks for saying that in the days of the Cold War.  After everything that Gorbachev worked for, I never thought I’d see Russia – the Russian Federation, I should say – become the pariah state of the world.  These are sad times.  And that’s got absolutely nothing to do with the history of gang warfare in Edwardian Birmingham, but I wanted to say it anyway.

I think I probably drove the modern history department at the University of Birmingham up the wall by wanting to put a Mancunian interpretation on everything.  My brain does it automatically, OK!   I was doing that all through this programme, so I was rather chuffed that gangs in Manchester and Salford were mentioned too.  Hey, it even mentioned the fact that City grew out of gang warfare!  Whilst United, Newton Heath LYR as was, was set up as a works team by a group of hard-working railwaymen, the Gorton team which became City was set up as an attempt to get young lads interested in something healthy like football, rather than joining gangs and getting into bother.  This always rather amuses me.

OK, back to the point!   This was actually a very interesting programme.

A lot of it was very relevant to today, as well.  We heard about how most of the gang members lived in grinding poverty, and felt alienated from civil society.   We also heard about the ethnic and religious tensions, and how many of the gang members were first or second generation Irish Catholic immigrants, often facing prejudice.  The TV programme also brings in Italian Catholic and Ashkenazi Jewish gangs from London …. I know that a bit of that went on in Manchester too, although I’m not sure about Birmingham.

And, of course, they were youth cults.  You belonged.  Members adopted particular styles of dress, and particular haircuts – which is where the term “Peaky Blinders” comes from.  Members were usually young lads, but girls got involved too.   Just to get off the point again, it’s interesting that EastEnders, which has had gang storylines ever since it started in the mid-1980s, now has its first female gang leader – take a bow, Suki Panesar!

Gambling – which I know is a pet subject of Carl Chinn, the presenter, because his family were illegal bookmakers back in the day (and, as he explained, his great-grandfather was a real life Peaky Blinder) was also mentioned, and the next episode’s going to cover the Racecourse Wars of the 1920s.  Not my thing – all London and Birmingham, no Northerners!! – but I’ll certainly be interested to hear about it.

And, as Carl said, it was the Boer War which made the Establishment realise just how severe was the poverty in which many people were living, and helped to bring about the reforms of the Lloyd George/Asquith area.  OK, we’d had the Booth and Rowntree reports, and a lot of work had been done by individual philanthropists, but what panicked the powers that were was the effect that malnutrition was having on would-be army recruits.  I know there’s been some talk that Covid might have a similar effect, with the higher infection and death rates in some parts of the country being so much higher than in others, but we’ll see.

Anyway, I really enjoyed this programme, even if I have used it as an excuse for writing about a lot of things which have got nothing to do with it!


7 thoughts on “The Real Peaky Blinders – BBC 2

  1. Chris Deeley

    Evderything you write is interesting. Talking of malnutrition – food was rationed when I was a lad and some of my school mates did look a bit under-nourished. The NHS provided free concentrated orange juice, which may have helped. The big thing when I was ultra-young was Churchill losing the 1945 general election by a huge majority, followed by Clement Attlee introducing cradle-to-grave welfare. As for Manchester – how about cotton goods being referred to as ‘Manchester’, which may at one stage have processed more cotton than most of the rest of the world. I suspect Mancunians may have supported the Confederate States during the American Civil War, but that’s another topic. In the meantime we should all celebrate Mancunians for having supported universal suffrage and free trade. Some people even consider the University of Manchester to be way ahead of Birmingham. Another topic!

    Liked by 1 person

      • Chris Deeley

        Australian slang can be a bit wierd; e.g. ‘Don’t come the raw prawn with me sport!’, the meaning of which eludes me. I was born in Liverpool and emigrated to Australia (for one pound) in 1967. The Manchester-to-Liverpool railway was the world’s first passenger train service. I think the line may still follow the original route. Also the scene of rail’s first fatality when Huskinson was killed by Stephenson’s ‘Rocket’. We know how it happened – another bit of history awaiting a re-telling.


  2. Christopher Michael Deeley

    Oops! Further to my last post – I was referring to William Huskisson, who was killed on 15 September 1830, the opening day of the Machester-Liverpool railway. Progress is often accompanied by risk.

    Liked by 1 person

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