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Turf guys: the real Peaky Blinders

Dan Carrier discovers a book that lifts the lid on the criminal crews who spread fear in the Roaring Twenties

11 February, 2021 — By Dan Carrier

WHEN police officers peered inside the charabanc, parked a few miles away from the Epsom racecourse, they found a loaded pistol, choppers, large stones and hammers, one of which with a split handle, due to the force it had been swung.

The floor was covered in blood and broken glass – and was the result of a gangland ambush on a group of Leeds-based bookies.

It was 1921, and the height of the racecourse wars, involving vicious gangs from London and Birmingham.

Now the story of the criminal crews who spread fear throughout the Roaring Twenties is the subject of a new book, Peaky Blinders: The Legacy by social historian Professor Carl Chinn.

Birmingham-based Professor Chinn specialises in working-class history and has also written about the gangs known as the Peaky Blinders – made famous today by the TV series of the same name.

In his latest book, he considers how Britain’s racecourses became the scene for cut-throat showdowns between Brummies and criminal fraternities from Camden Town and Clerkenwell after the Great War.

In his introduction, Professor Chinn explodes the popular idea of the 1920s focuses on Bright Young Things, of Gatsby-like characters, a booming economy providing material goods, cars, radios, semi-detached homes on ribbon developments away from industry blighted inner cities.

This may have been true for the growing middle classes and the monied strata above them, but was undoubtedly not the experience of working-class people, he states.

Tom Hardy as Alfie Solomons, a fictionalised Alfred Solomon in the BBC’s version of Peaky Blinders

“Millions faced a harsh reality,” he writes. “Britain was riven by gender and class inequalities.

“The older industries that had propelled Britain into industrial supremacy were in rapid decline, and the closure of cotton mills, iron works, coal mines and ship yards devastated communities across Britain. In a land of plenty, unhappily the only abundant thing in the lives of the poor was poverty.”

It drove many to pursue shady practises.

“The real Peaky Blinders wore flat caps, but unlike their fictional counterparts, they were neither well-dressed nor alluring,” he said.

“Vicious thugs, they made Birmingham one of the most violent cities in Britain.”

The Blinders’ reign died out before the Great War – police work and prison, coupled with better social and employment conditions, all played a part.

But they passed on a deadly legacy and created the conditions for a post-1918 gangland war stretching the length of the country.

War decimated the racing industry, explains Professor Chinn. Trains were used for troops not day trippers, and it was considered unpatriotic to enjoy such pastimes.

When the guns fell silent and courses reopened, there was real thirst for sport. Added to this were the thousands of demobbed soldiers out for a good time and carrying lump sums from their army pay. It meant a boom time for the bookies – and had the added effect of rejuvenating a culture of racecourse gangsterism.

Hoodlums ran pickpocket crews, indulged in robbery with violence, managed protection rackets and blackmail squads at races. The riches on offer meant their monopoly on horse events was soon challenged by others – and it is the story of how London’s leading gangs came into conflict with their Birmingham counterparts, as well as each other, that is at the centre of Professor Chin’s excellent work.

The Sabini gang, from Little Italy in Clerkenwell, was led by Darby Sabini.

“Darby has been depicted as if he were a 1920s-type American mobster, a Mafia-style Don from whom later London gang leaders took inspiration,” he writes.

“He was no such thing. Nor were the other audacious and exciting anti-heroes. They were dangerous, nasty mob-handed racketeers who blackmailed, intimidated and maimed.”

We hear of Alfred Solomon, a member of the Sabini gang and then the Camden Town gang: “Unusual amongst his peers, records suggest he had a comfortable upbringing,” writes Professor Chinn.

“Born in 1892, his father was a fruit merchant, employing several people and the family lived with a servant in Covent Garden.”

Solomon received three medals for his war record.

However, he also had a taste for gambling – and when he was demobbed in 1919, he became a bookmaker.

The targeting of bookmakers took on an anti-semitic hue, and when Solomon was given a severe beating, it prompted others to act: they turned to the Sabinis and asked for protection. It led to a turf war that saw murderous fights at racecourses. Meetings at Alexandra Palace turned into running battles, with gangs using razors, clubs, bicycle chains and other improvised weaponry.

Eventually, a truce was called between Sabini and the Birmingham boys, leading to other gangs being frozen out. This prompted a further reaction, as those not in the Sabini or Birmingham gangs wanted a slice of the pie: in 1922, supported by the Titanics from Hoxton, the Camden Town mob began to flex its muscle.

Solomon had set up an unlicensed bar, using the Aerated Bread Company in Camden Road, as a front. He offered provide protection to Jewish bookmakers, while extorting cash from others.

Professor Chinn describes how feuds raged as loyalties were betrayed. One such incident saw Solomon, Peaky leader Billy Kimber and Sabini gather at Sabini’s home in Collier Street, King’s Cross, for a drink and to clear the air. A party got going – Sabini’s wife provided two dozen Guinnesses – but things did not end peacefully. Kimber was shot in the back as he left. Solomon admitted to detectives he had been responsible, but said the gun had been Kimber’s and gone off accidentally as they struggled.

Kimber refused to testify in court – but plotted his revenge.

Professor Chinn reports that Kimber dressed up as a tramp and loitered near Solomon’s Clerkenwell haunts. He delivered a thorough beating, having told friends he did not want to kill Solomon, but aimed to make him feel like a “cabbage”.

The criminal world will always fascinate – and Professor Chinn’s work on the gangs of London and Birmingham brings together detailed research with the eye for a story that would make the front page of any decent newspaper.

Peaky Blinders: The Legacy. By Carl Chinn, John Blake, £8.99


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