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.
The names ‘Peaky Blinder’ and ‘Slogger’ became well known thanks to the newspapers quoting the gangs as such and giving them this mob-style label. As a ‘celebrity’ group the press spared nothing of the details of their brutal attacks, the weapons used and the injuries inflicted. Sensationalised by the press, Peaky Blinders took their public profile to another, fancier level too. ‘Peakies’ and the women who fraternised with them had a very elaborate and distinctive style of dress. They favoured fancy pocket watches, silk scarves and brass buttoned overcoats thus showing off their riches gained through illegal activity and their powerful presence on the streets. They also involved children in their crimes, using them as ‘bookies runners’ to place the illegal bets. The origin of their name causes debate as it could be from the long fringe and peaked cap they wore to obscure their faces from the police, in the days before commercially available razor blades were sewn into their caps.
The Daily News in London reported in April 1890 that there was to be no more leniencies when dealing with gangs in Birmingham.
‘At last the reign of magisterial leniency in Birmingham is at an end….the magistrates have also been doing their duty…[the convicted] received…three months imprisonment and hard labour.’
Daily News, London, April 17th 1890.
This report tells of unprovoked attacks on the police, and violent beatings of rivals with ‘an iron chain and a buckled belt’. This particular report mentions two gangs from the Digbeth area – the Milk Street Roughs and the Barr Street Mowhawks.
On April 16th 1890 published in the Birmingham Daily Post, Aston Police Court charged Harry Blews with assaulting a police officer. This incident happened as the officer attempted to break up a feud between sloggers that had been going on all weekend. This was a common, typical crime for the Sloggers and a regular occurrence for the Aston Police Court. Harry had been attacked on the Saturday evening by a ‘gang of roughs’ and went back on the Sunday to meet with the gang leader. A further fight broke out and at that point the police turned up. The intervening officer was then ‘Kicked by Blews several times’.
On Wednesday 24th July 1889 the Birmingham Daily Post reported on both Aston and Birmingham gangs. The report described how the ‘terrors of the neighbourhood’ had attacked their rivals with weaponry and brute force. ‘One savage fellow named Russell had struck and kicked and threatened to ‘do for’ a man…’ Birmingham Daily Post, July 24th 1889.
Word of the gangs had spread as far as Aberdeen and Belfast. One particular news article from Aberdeen mentioned both the Sloggers of Aston and the Peaky Blinders of Birmingham. It is about their brutality in beating a woman, amongst others, during a fight. It also mentions a witness who confirms the existence of the gangs. In Belfast they made the news, with reports calling for tougher sentences on these groups that terrify society.
Local newspapers are available from Archives, Heritage and Photography as well as written and visual materials about the gangs. These are just a small selection of the articles available so take a look for yourself and see the dark offerings the city’s past holds. Using maps to trace the areas controlled by the Sloggers and Peakies, one can take a step back in time and follow in their footsteps. Just beware of sinister characters wearing peaked caps and wielding buckled belts!