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 BOYS
According 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.
The 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.
Kimber 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.
“It was to them quite natural and reasonable to use a knife...when their passions were aroused.”
Stipendiary magistrate commenting on a Sabini gang member
About 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’ SABINI
The 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.