Peaky Blinders’ killing sparked backlash from public to ‘bring back physical punishments’

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The cruel exploits of the real-life gangsters that plagued the backstreets of Birmingham have been brought to life in the BBC show Peaky Blinders. But the crime drama, which is based on true events told to creator Steven Knight, was said to barely scratch the surface of their escapades, historian Professor Carl Chinn argued. He told Express.co.uk about the “vicious, violent and brutal” thugs who used “knives, belt-buckles, brick-ends and more” to attack foes and “the working-class poor they lived among”.

While the TV show Peaky Blinders shows a “glamorous” depiction of what happened during their reign in Birmingham, Professor Chinn paints a different story. 

He explained that there was “nothing to be admired” about the thugs, who sought only to prove their “fighting prowess” and hurt those around them. 

Characters like Thomas Shelby, played by Cillian Murphy, are shown to help the public – something that was far from the truth according to the historian. 

The real Peaky Blinders were a group of gangs that “caused chaos” during the late 19th century until the beginnings of World War 2, when they had largely disappeared. 

Their reign, which lasted for more than four decades, eventually came to an end after the public grew frustrated with their nefarious activities. 

This was coupled with Sir Charles Rafter being appointed Chief Constable of Birmingham City Police, who went on a rapid recruitment drive. 

His efforts nearly-doubled the number of officers on the street, which led to more arrests and convictions. 

The increased police force led to greater trust from the public, who felt more able to help officers to track down perpetrators without fear of retribution.

Churches set-up community groups that turned young people away from the gangs.

With fewer new recruits and public opinion against them, their presence receded to a point where they disappeared.

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But turning locals against the Peaky Blinders was no easy task and it took one particularly outrageous killing to reveal the public’s unrest.

In 2019, historian Andrew Davies told the BBC History Extra podcast about the death of police constable George Snipe.

The officer was patrolling around the Hockley Hill area when he encountered a group of young men who were “larking about outside a pub”.

Mr Davies found one account where one of them said that they had “been out on a drinking spree for the afternoon”.

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He continued: “They probably had quite a bit to drink and he later admits that they’ve been involved in quite a lot of boisterous behaviour.

“Drinking, swearing, fighting and really making a bit of a nuisance of themselves [when] the police officers try to move the group on.”

During the interception, a 23-year-old from the group was arrested but the gang became “determined to rescue him from the police”.

Mr Davies continued: “Quite a large crowd gathers at the scene and one of the members of the crowd hurls a brick at one of the two officers.

“He hits him with such force on the head that his skull is fractured in two places and the police officer dies in the hospital several hours later.”

This caused “absolute consternation” in Birmingham and after arresting the wrong 19-year-old for the crime, they got the name of the killer.

George Williams, who was known to his friends and associates as “Cloggy Williams”, was identified by an eyewitness.

But by this point, Williams had been on the run for several months and despite police “distributing 5,000 flyers” in England and Wales, they were unable to apprehend him.

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Williams was working as a cattle drover between the Midlands and South West of England and had “tried to create a new life for himself”.

However, he was arrested during a “late night trip to see his mother” by an off-duty policeman.

The jury found him guilty of manslaughter but not of murder, which carried the death penalty, and he was sentenced to life imprisonment.

Mr Davies claimed the judge was “pretty furious” and made it “very, very plain” that he thought the jury should have “sentenced him for murder”.

The attack “made the Peaky Blinders quite notorious nationally” and “provoked a furious backlash within Birmingham”, the historian found.

It led to “a clamour for the reintroduction of physical punishments” such as “flogging” – which was still in practice but not for murder charges.

Mr Davies said: “It is still permissible as a punishment but it’s largely restricted to people who have been convicted of robbery.

“I think it’s a real insight into the values of Victorian society and I think the Victorian age is one in which… property was valued above the person.

“So I think it’s absolutely no coincidence that punishments for property offences were generally harsher than for crimes of interpersonal violence.

“I think that simply reflects the value system of the age.”

Incidents like this led to the appointment of Sir Charles, who helped to bring about the end of the Peaky Blinders by turning the public against the thugs.

Mr Davies said: “The view of the local press is absolutely to condemn.

“Not just the people who carried out this particular assault but the entire class of young people that they represented.

“So the newspapers are full of editorials, condemning Peaky Blinders as a class.”

Peaky Blinders seasons one to five are available to watch on Netflix.

The Peaky Blinders special on the BBC History Extra podcast was released in 2019 and is available here.

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