Birmingham as a city has a colourful and exciting heritage. One aspect of this is its criminal underworld and activities. Ever since I first heard about the gangs of Birmingham past, especially the notorious ‘Peaky Blinders’, I have had an interest in this side of the city. Some books have been written about the gangs, many tales told about them and the newspapers had a field day in the late Victorian era documenting this savagery. The streets of Birmingham in the late Victorian period were a ruthless and intimidating place to be. With the increase in population, plenty of work due to the industrial boom and the availability of ‘disposable’ income, communities were finding a new way of defining themselves. From about the 1870s young men were forming groups, fraternities, or as the newspapers would sensationalise ‘gangs’.
The role of the media in this instance was to showcase the brutality and in true Victorian style, the drama and horrors of the streets. They used the reports of the gangs to bring to life the monsters of Birmingham’s streets. They also used it as an opportunity to showcase the police and magisterial services in the city. References were given of the sentences passed, quotes of magistrates putting their foot down and the example set by the police to the rest of the country. All this despite the honest police getting attacked themselves for breaking up the fights, and of course nothing to clarify the speculation that some police were in the pockets of these gangs!
The origins of the most notorious gangs in the Birmingham area stemmed from the ‘Sloggers’ of Aston. These were gangs of men, locally known by the streets or districts they came from, but were grouped under the term ‘Sloggers’. Sloggers got their name from the boxing and bare knuckle fighting they did as either a social past time or to settle old scores. As communities spread, the needs to define their areas lead to turf wars. The height of such gangs reached its peak in the 1890s. The Sloggers were known to police and the press for their brutal attacks, murders, vandalism and disturbances at the local fairs. They often exercised control over the local fairs – intimidating stall holders, taking a cut of the finances, running their protection rackets and seeing off rivals.From about the 1890s the Aston Sloggers encountered a high profile, stylish rival in the neighbouring area of Birmingham – the Peaky Blinders. These gangs started life fighting as sloggers and also extended their criminal arm to illegal gambling, protection rackets and trading in unlicensed goods. Between the two gangs the city of Birmingham was covered from the neighbouring district of Aston, the Jewellery Quarter and Gun Quarter in the centre, to Small Heath just outside of town.