During the 19th century the population of Birmingham rocketed from 74,000 to over 630,000. And with this urban explosion - as with most other Victorian cities - there followed an epidemic in inner-city gang crime. One of the first reports of gang activity is the Slogging Gang riots of spring 1872. The motive of some of the rioters seemed to be no more than to smash and grab from shops from which they couldn’t normally afford to buy.But unlike cities like Glasgow, redevelopment came earlier to Birmingham. This cleared many of the gang breeding ground slums in the city centre as people moved to new estates in the suburbs. Birmingham was different from other cities for another reason as well.
During the Industrial Revolution it was known as a ‘City of a Thousand Trades’. Whereas Liverpool’s wealth came from its docks, or Manchester from its mills, Birmingham was incredibly diverse. The industrial revolution gave rise to a huge number of highly specialised creative small firms each profiting by exploiting niche areas of the market. Birmingham would and could make anything, from buttons and buckles to jewellery, steam engines and guns.It was perhaps inevitable that its gangs would be equally innovative in their approach. Unlike the unemployed Cornermen of Liverpool, or the thrill seeking teenage scuttlers of Manchester, the Birmingham gangs were professional criminals.
They may have started as a rag bag of thugs and thieves, but they soon turned themselves into organised crime outfits. They made money from, amongst other things, gambling on anything from bare knuckle fist-fights to dog races. But the niche they ruthlessly exploited was horse racing.
A DAY AT THE RACES
After the First World War, racecourses became the playgrounds of choice for a liberated generation. And as they were the only place where legalised gambling took place the annual turnover they generated approached £500 million pounds. Racecourse attendance reached record levels. The inevitable pickpockets and card sharps were attracted to these huge crowds. But it was the bookmakers bulging satchels that attracted criminal gangs. Anyone could set up as a bookmaker. It was a largely unregulated business, and the lack of professional associations and protection meant the gangs could muscle in.
Early in the 20th century, one of the Birmingham gang’s known as the ‘Brummagem Boys’- Brummagem being slang for Birmingham - began to spread their criminal network from the streets of Birmingham to around the country. Helped by greatly improved transport, for the first time, regional gangs were able to expand beyond the streets that bred them. The new connecting railway between Birmingham and London meant they could target the racecourse riches of the country’s capital.
And if and when they met resistance, they would turn racetracks into battlegrounds.
We got the wrong gang.
Amazingly, considering the ambush and the weapons used, no one ended up in the morgue that day. But many went to hospital.After their disastrous ambush, the Brummagem Boys made off in a bright blue charabanc, not the most inconspicuous of vehicles, with the police in pursuit. They parked it up in plain view by a pub near Richmond Park. It was soon spotted by Police Sergeant Joseph Dawson. So they couldn’t make a fast getaway, the spark plugs of their vehicle were removed. Dawson entered.Why the gang of 28, after committing such a terrible crime and knowing that the police were after them, decided to stop and have a drink was never explained.The attack at Ewell had been so violent and bloody that the police had first thought it had been a Sinn Fein operation and issued firearms to their officers.Sergeant Dawson only had to listen to the Brummagem’s accent, take one look at their blood splattered clothes, to know he had the gang responsible. He entered the George and Dragon pub and politely but firmly asked the members of the Birmingham boys to consider themselves under arrest.They rose as if to resist, but Sergeant Dawson drew out his revolver and calmly said;“I should shoot the first man that tries to escape”He held the entire group at gunpoint until the Flying Squad arrived.
THE FLYING SQUADThe legendary police unit was formed in 1919 to combat the increasingly violent post-world war one crime outbreak. Criminals that hadn’t managed to avoid conscription had returned to their old ways, but now they were military trained. The Flying Squad hoped to combat the more determined criminal. And this ‘Mobile Police Experiment’ – its original title – was also hoped to be less susceptible to bribes and turning a blind eye to the gangs.Their first vehicles were horse drawn carriages with spy holes cut in the sides. These were replaced with cast offs from the Royal Flying Corps. With no brakes and aerials that looked like ‘bedsteads’, their vehicles became so named.But the Flying Squad still found it extremely difficult to secure convictions in the gang wars. Even rival gangs wouldn’t testify to the police and if any gang activities were witnessed by the public, they would be ‘persuaded’ not to testify. Darby Sabini escaped one beating by the Brummagem boys in Greenford on 23 March 1921 by using his unlicensed five chamber revolver to shoot ‘his way out of trouble’. One of the few occasions he was arrested, he pleaded self defence, and was only fined.
Extortion at Epsom
Before the Brummagems and the Sabinis, bookmakers were subject to any passing bully who fancied a cut of their earnings. Some bookies employed bodyguards. Often these were then used to dissuade winning punters from pressing their claims for payment.The racecourse gangs brought in an organised protection racket. Their cut could be as much as half of their profits, but at least it was predictable. And many of the paying public were pleased about the presence of the Brummagems. Pickpockets caught operating on their patch could expect a punishment beating. The Sabinis took a different approach. A gang member used to chalk his hand and on recognising a pickpocket, they would greet the man like an old friend, slapping them on the back. The chalk marked back would be noted by the police happy for an easy arrest. On top of this reciprocal relationship, the Sabinis also made sure a percentage of their profits went in backhanders and bribes to the local police. In return, the gang were left alone at their racecourses.
THE RACECOURSE RACKETEvery opportunity was taken to extract money. Just to operate, the bookies had to pay to stand at their ‘pitches’. Non payment meant instant intimidation. In addition, gang members surrounded the non compliant bookie so that no punters could place bets. Sometimes they would start fights to scare the paying public away.Tribute would soon be paid.Once established, everything they needed also cost. The chalk, the boards, the sponge, their stools to sit on, the list of runners, even the water to wash the board with, all had a charge attached. And after all that, the bookie would then be expected to pay a percentage of their profits to the gangs. The gangs didn’t, however, share any losses. On a course like Brighton, they could clear as much as £5,000 in a day.When the Brummagems targeted Ascot and Epsom, the most lucrative racecourses, and on the Sabini patch, gang war was declared.THE RACECOURSE WARSAuthor Brian McDonald’s ‘Gangs of London’ details the fights that followed, such as ‘The Battle of Bath’. Fights could be a hundred strong and involve hammers, spanners, mallets, bottles, knives, cut throat razors and sometimes guns. One, ‘The Battle of Lewes’ was said to have partially inspired Graham Greene’s gangster classic ‘Brighton Rock’. These tit for tat encounters were costly. On top of the casualties and occasional fatalities, the police were forced to arrest gang members fighting in public. And a gang member in prison was no longer earning.Accounts differ as to why on 27 March 1921 Billy Kimber went to Sabini’s King Cross flat. Some say he had decided to put peace and profits first and call a truce. Others believe he was there just to ‘pour oil on the troubled waters’. What is certain is that the meeting ended suddenly when a fight broke out. Then one of Sabini’s men, a particularly violent man called Alfie Solomon, shot Kimber.
Kimber was found outside Sabini’s with a bullet in his side. Alfie Solomon later stood trial for attempted murder. He was acquitted after everybody lost their memory. Even Kimber refused to give evidence. A jury accepted the shooting was accidental.That April the police were tipped off that there would be a reprisal. But by the time they turned up, they just found two badly beaten Brummy bookmakers. Later, two Jewish chauffeurs for Sabini were ambushed. One had been shot twice. Predictably, neither could identify the shooter.The night before that year’s Epsom Derby, one of the Brummagems was attacked in Covent Garden. He needed 70 stitches. Desperate for revenge, and hoping to put an end to the bloody gang war, the Brummagems planned a final showdown.They planned to sort the Sabinis on the first day of the Epsom Derby. They knew their rivals would be out in numbers. But so were the Metropolitan Police. So as to avoid a confrontation with the law, the Brummagems left the race meeting early. They drove a very conspicuous vehicle, a bright blue charabanc. They hid it behind some bushes and laid in wait for the Sabinis at Ewell – a few miles from Epsom. The spot they chose on the London Road was a perfect ambush point because anyone coming from Epsom would have to go past them.When the Brummagems thought they saw two of their enemy’s car coming, they pulled out their own car to block the way. With a car in front and Birmingham boys behind them, there was no escape for their targets. Armed with an array of weapons, the Brummagems went to work first on the cars and then on the stunned occupants. The Brummagems pulled them out and in a frenzy, broke arms and slashed heads.The attack was incredibly vicious. The Brummagems used guns, hatchets, house bricks, iron bars, knives and razors. Fingers were cut off. It was described as ‘a scene of carnage.’ The people in the surrounding houses screamed in terror. The road was soon littered with bodies. Only when it was too late, did the Brummagems realise the bloodied bodies that lay around them weren’t from the Sabini gang.In their blood frenzy, they had beaten up their allies, the Leeds Mob.
The Key Figures
Like most cities in Britain, Birmingham’s gangs were territorial. And their names often mirrored the areas from which they came. So there was the ‘Gun Quarter’ Gang, ‘The Garrison’s Lane’ gang, the ‘Ten Arches’ and the ‘Bishop Ryders’. But one gang wasn’t so named. They were the ‘Peaky Blinders’. Imitating a technique used by the Glasgow Razor Gangs, they got their name from their practice of hiding razor blades in the peaks of their caps. The most successful gang took their name from the whole city.THE BRUMMAGEM BOYSAccording to a 1922 police report the Brummagems were ‘mostly made up of convicted thieves of the worst type’. Their convictions ranged from ‘assaulting the police to housebreaking and from wounding to manslaughter.’ Their most profitable criminal activity was the racecourse racket. The gang charged bookmakers as much as 50% of their profits.BILLY KIMBERThe boss of the Brummagems was the clever and charismatic Billy Kimber. He was born in 1892 in the tough neighbourhood of Bordersley, Aston. His father worked so the family had money but this didn’t stop Billy from running with the Peaky Blinders.By 1905, through a combination of brain and brawn, he progressed to leading the Brummagems. With his slicked back hair and his handsome, well built, sharp suited appearance, he was a natural leader. But despite his charm, he was very much a street fighting man. He said he wouldn’t fight with knives. He’d only fight with his fists. One source claims he killed rats with his teeth.When he was 18 he had a conviction for assault and served time in Birmingham’s Winson Green Prison. It was here that Kimber met fellow his future lieutenant, George Brummy Sage. It was Sage who introduced Kimber to the idea of racetrack extortion.The expanding railway network enabled Kimber’s Brummagems to travel to race meetings around the country, from Doncaster and York, down to Uttoxeter and Newmarket. And rather than fight existing gangs there, they formed alliances in Leeds and Uttoxeter. It’s said that Kimber deserted during the First World War. He was certainly alive after it. and it was then that he decided to expand down South.
LONDON CALLINGKimber set up a second base in Islington, North London. Again, rather than fight for complete control, he formed an ‘uneasy alliance’ with the Charles ‘Wag’ MacDonald of the MacDonald Brothers, and their Elephant Gang - named after the Elephant and Castle.This match of Midlanders and Londoners had a common enemy. An Italian mob who controlled the lucrative southern racecourses such as Newbury, Epsom, Earls Park, and Kempton.THE SABINIS“It was to them quite natural and reasonable to use a knife...when their passions were aroused.”Stipendiary magistrate commenting on a Sabini gang memberAbout a mile from Billy’s London base, there was the Sabini gang. Before them, there had been numerous different gangs such as the Broad Mob and the Jewish Aldgate Mob controlling the racetracks. But they spread themselves thinly. So the Sabinis ‘moved in in force’.
CHARLES ‘DARBY’ SABINIThe Italian boss was Charles Sabini. It was a family firm run by him and his four brothers; George, Joe, Fred and Harry boy. Born in Italy in the 1850s, Darby Sabini had boxed as a middleweight. But unlike Kimber who still preferred to use his fists, Darby always had a fully loaded automatic in his back pocket.And this was just one of many differences. This was no stylish sharp suited Italian mobster. He often wore a cloth cap, sometimes a shirt with no collar and was always said, not to his face, to dress terribly. He was also said, again, not to his face, to be simple minded and uneducated. He proudly sported a mouthful of golden teeth. This was paid for by the protection rackets he ran targeting other more vulnerable immigrants. When Darby had come to London, he took over the London Little Italy area of Clerkenwell. One of his first principle income streams came from his protection racket of Jewish bookmakers. So when the Brummagems tried to muscle in on them, confrontation was inevitable.
filling the power vaccum
With the Brummagems away in jail, the Sabini’s stepped up their control with a clever power play. In August 1921, Walter Beresford became the first President of the Racecourse Bookmakers and Backers Protection Association. One of the alleged motivations for setting up the association was that a bookmaker had been forced at gunpoint to pay protection. Until then, the gangs had threatened the bookies livelihoods. Now, they were threatening their lives. With the racing authorities and police unable to guarantee safety and only occasionally able to ensure convictions, the Association turned to the Sabini gang to provide protection. The association’s vice president was a noted criminal, ‘the Jewish Al Capone’. And one of the salaried stewards employed was none other than Darby Sabini.When many of the Brummagems were released from jail, the racetracks again descended into violence. During 1922, there was a series of razor attacks and slashings. Then the shootings started.
It’s said that Sabini imported some Sicilian mafia to finish the gang war. Eventually, bloodied and beaten, the Brummagems largely withdrew from the South.Darby Sabini wasn’t able to enjoy his victory for long. His own gang members started turning on each other, desperate for a bigger share of the takings. Even Darby’s gold teeth were broken at one point.In 1925 the Home Secretary declared that something had to be done to break the gangs hold on the racetracks. Under Chief Inspector Frederick ‘Nutty’ Sharpe the Flying Squad began to target more and more race meetings. But the original Squad had just 12 detectives. Each had to be almost recklessly brave to do their job. On one occasion, about forty of some of the worse thugs from the Sabini gang surged onto a racetrack. Detective Fred Sharp walked on to the course and simply said ‘Clear off’. When one gang member resisted, Sharp hit him. The rest fled. But the Flying Squad couldn’t be everywhere.THE BATTLE OF WATERLOOWhen in 1927, a racecourse related riot broke out outside Duke of Wellington, eight people were killed. The government focused even more on the gangs. With so much attention on the racecourses, the gangs started to diversify into night clubs and casinos.The next year, Kimber shot into a Sabini club and then left. Sources are unclear but it seems he fled, along with his old London ally, ‘Wag’ McDonald to America.Once in the US, Wag McDonald is said to have found work as a bodyguard to a fellow Londoner, the silent film star and comedian, Charlie Chaplin.In 1932 The National Bookmaker’s Protection Association was set up to make pitch allocation fairer and to eradicate the intimidation of bookmakers. Only a bookmaker approved by the BPA locally and the Jockey Club could now have a pitch. That pitch could not be sold or passed on. A key profit stream of the racecourse gangs had been stopped.The now ageing Brummagems were now without their leader and their usual funding. They weren’t even involved in the last great racecourse war at Lewes racecourse on 8 June 1936. It was this bloody battle that inspired Graham Greene to write ‘Brighton Rock’.In the end, the so called racecourse wars were finally finished off by the global conflict of the Second World War. Darby Sarbini, despite being unable to speak Italian, was placed into an internment camp.As to the fate of Billy Kimber, no one is certain.
Twenty six of those arrested in the George and Dragon pub stood trial at the Guildford Assizes. They were so boisterous they had to be shackled, wrist and ankle and to each other as well. This didn’t stop them issuing threats to everybody in the court.Their threats didn’t stop 23 of the gang being convicted of grievous bodily harm.The trial Judge, Mr Justice Rowlatt, specially commended the plucky Sergeant Dawson as did his police commissioner. Sergeant Dawson was rewarded with an extra week’s wages.The Brummagems all received sentences of between nine months hard labour and three years imprisonment.
Prison wasn’t necessarily the end of the story for some of the racetrack gangs. Some thought themselves so above and beyond the law that they simply tried to bribe a prison warder to release them early. In one recorded case, however, the prisoner concerned ended up losing remission on his remaining sentence.And once their sentence had been served, they would soon be back to their old tricks. Race track violence would reach such a pitch that the authorities had no choice but to drive the gangs out of horse racing for good.