Birmingham Letter: the Peaky Blinder

On February 5th, 1898, the Leamington Spa Courier carried an item on notorious Birmingham gang the ‘peaky blinders’. The article is written by a ‘correspondent’ and anyone familiar with the television series of the same name will recognise the article was written with tongue very much in cheek. The gang were a great nuisance in Birmingham for decades, from the last decade of the nineteenth century through to the mid-war period of the twentieth. They were divided into rival gangs, fighting amongst themselves as well as with another notorious local gang known as ‘the sloggers’. The ‘peakies’ were particularly notorious for their assaults on local police: in 1897 one officer was killed. In the same year, the Sheffield Evening Telegraph reported that during the second quarter of 1897, there had been no less than 169 assaults on Birmingham police officers, many of these by gang members. Given the apparent intensity of street violence at this time, the sentence for Blackwell’s assault may have appeared pretty lenient.

The Leamington Spa Courier and Sheffield Evening Telegraph are available by subscription to British Newspaper Archives.

Birmingham Letter
[By our own correspondent]

I had always imagined Birmingham to be a very musical town, but if the authorities intend to continue the persecutions of inoffensive musicians, I am afraid people will find it necessary to alter their good opinion. A great deal has been said about the Birmingham rough known commonly known here as “peaky blinder”, and people had come to hold quite a bad opinion of him. It would seem, however, that he is not such a hopeless character after all, since no one possessing a soul for music can be utterly bad. Tired, no doubt, with the desire to elevate themselves above the sordid cares of life, the “peakies” formed themselves into classes, somewhat unkindly described by the policeman as gangs, and paraded Cheapside, discoursing sweet music on their mouth-organs. On being rudely requested by the policeman to stop, the leader of the orchestra, named Blackwell, remonstrated with him in the Birmingham dialect, but finding that words were of no avail, in an outburst of noble indignation, hurled his instrument at the head of the policeman and fled. Upon the policeman pursuing the musician, he encountered various obstacles, in the shape of brushes and bricks, but finally succeeded in capturing his quarry. On being brought before the court, Blackwell denied the soft impeachment of being the leader of the Cheapside orchestra and, as a proof of his words, desired that his eyes might drop out if such were the case. Unfortunately, however, the days of trial by ordeal are over, so that the Bench was unable to put him to the test, and failing further evidence to the contrary, sent him to prison for six weeks with hard labour. 

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