As Peaky Blinders heads towards its sixth season, Birmingham continues to see an influx of tourists keen to learn about the real-life criminal gang that inspired the hit series. Writer Amy Poulton went to Birmingham to see what’s on offer for fans of Cillian Murphy and company.
My grandad recalls Christmas parties lasting long into the night, then the dark and cold walks home with his parents, “Well, my dad did most of the walking and carried me on his shoulders.” On those black December nights, my great-grandfather would point down to the shadows of Summer Lane. “That’s where the policemen would only walk in twos. That’s where you’d find the razor-capped Peaky Blinders!”
It’s likely these same stories that Peaky Blinders show creator Steven Knight was brought up on in southeast Birmingham; a planted seed that later became the premise for his vastly successful and award-winning BBC series. Available globally via Netflix, fans all over the world have gone crazy for the feared and revered Shelby family with their keeps-you-guessing blend of violence and cunning, as well as their underdog ambitions to ascend from backstreet gangsters to “legitimate” businessmen and women.
The show has also shone a spotlight on Birmingham, a much lesser-visited city in the United Kingdom in comparison to tourism powerhouses such as London, Edinburgh and York. But now, the slow-motion walks of Cillian Murphy and company through smoking streets and along inky canals have drawn visitors to the heart of England, to discover the real Peaky Blinders behind the series and stories.
Peaky Blinders Walking Tours
“The Peaky Tours have always been popular,” says social historian and tour leader Carl Chinn, “But for the past few years people have been coming from further afield. Now, we get people from all over the UK and Ireland – often specifically for the tour – as well as from France, Germany, Spain, Canada, the US, Uruguay, Mexico… it’s great for Birmingham as well.”
The tour starts in the back room of The Old Crown, just down the road from Small Heath, where Carl passes around vintage photos, recounting tales of the real Peaky Blinders in what feels more like a Friday night drinking with friends down the local pub. Then, we take a walk around Digbeth, taking shelter from the rain under the viaducts, where Carl’s Brummy accent booms through the tunnel. This was where a real-life Peaky Blinder victim was attacked. The reason? He was drinking ginger beer instead of alcohol at his local pub.
Sifting through the truths and myths of the famed gangsters, Carl reveals that “Peaky Blinder” was actually a generic term to describe the sloggers who caused havoc in the slums of Birmingham in the late 19th and early 20th century – notably before the First World War, not after, as depicted in the series.
There was a real Darby Sabini, Changretta family, Billy Kimber, Alfie Solomon (rather than Solomons) and a Northern Irish police officer who came to Birmingham to rid the city the Peaky Blinders, which he managed just after the turn of the century. There was also a bloody gang war that took place over the racecourses in the 1920s, which involved a family by the name of Sheldon – the most obvious inspiration for the fictional Shelby family.
The Black Country Living Museum
The Black Country – named for the black smoke of burning coal – does not strictly overlap with Birmingham proper. However, visitors will clock the historic streets and buildings of the Black Country Living Museum for filming locations, and Steven Knight has even dubbed the museum as the “home” of the Peaky Blinders series. The Boat Dock and Anchor Forge are instantly recognizable as Charlie’s Yard, where canal barges arrive carrying illegal cargo. The Rolling Mill, the Chainmaker’s and the Blacksmith’s all make regular appearances, while Canal Street Bridge was Ada and Freddie’s secret meeting place.
Far from your traditional museum exhibits in glass cases, the BCLM is made up of original buildings to explore and artefacts to handle, as well as interactions with actors dressed for different time periods who recall how life has changed over the years. Tuck into authentic fish and chips made the traditional way with beef dripping, order an old-fashioned draft ale or heritage whiskey at the Bottle & Glass, then pick up some Peaky merchandise at the gift shop. If you time your visit right, you can even attend one of the museum’s Peaky Blinders Nights.
The Peaky Blinder Pub
Small Heath’s real Garrison pub, which dates back to the Victorian era and was likely a watering hole frequented by the original Peaky Blinders, has sadly stood derelict for the past few years. However, the alternative is The Peaky Blinder Pub in the city center, best visited on their monthly themed nights, where punters dress up for a true Peaky Blinders shindig.
If you’re looking for the authenticity of an historic English pub, you might prefer to stick with The Old Crown. However, The Peaky Blinder Pub delivers a raucous weekend night out, complete with friendly flat-capped bartenders, photos and memorabilia including a framed picture with cast member Benjamin Zephaniah (Peaky Blinders’ preacher and real-life poet) and – bizarrely – karaoke!
Other Peaky Blinders Attractions
It’s fair to say that Birmingham was slow to jump on the Peaky Blinders bandwagon, but the city is finally catching up with the cultural phenomenon, which has seen a 26% increase in visitor numbers to the city since 2013, when the show first aired.
The inaugural (and as Tommy Shelby would say) Legitimate Peaky Blinders Festival was held in Birmingham in September 2019. The BBC Birmingham & Black Country premises located in the Mailbox invites passersby to come in and have their photo taken as a Peaky Blinder, while creator Steven Knight announced in March his plan to open a 40-acre film and TV studio in the Midlands, which could bring the Peaky Blinders home. There is currently no scheduled return of the festival.
The Peaky Blinders series has not only captured the imaginations of viewers, but also the essence of Birmingham; the gritty pride, the bullish values of strength and hard work, and – as I think of my grandad perched on his father’s shoulders as they tell ghostly stories of the Peaky Blinders well into the night – the enduring bonds of family.
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