THE news is full nowadays of the predominance of criminal gangs in our cities.
By: Neil Clark Published: Mon, September 9, 2013
Menace: New BBC series Peaky Blinders depicts historic mob warfare [BBC]
A study published in July found that one per cent of men between 18-34 in Britain are gang members. Though we may be shocked by such statistics, the presence of gangsters in the UK is nothing new and existed long before the infamous days of the Krays in the Sixties.
Major new BBC drama series Peaky Blinders tells the story of one such gang that operated in Birmingham, England's second city, a hundred or so years ago. The Peaky Blinders made money from illegal bookmaking, protection rackets, the black market and robbery.
They were ruthless if anyone stood in their way and got their name from the razor blades they kept in the brims of their caps. "The Peaky Blinders are like the Borgias in nail boots. These are highly intelligent people surviving the only way they know how," says the series' writer Steven Knight, whose great uncles were members of the gang.
The Peaky Blinders were formed in the late 19th century but the series is set immediately following the First World War, obviously a time of great chaos and turmoil. Soldiers returning from the battle-fields found that instead of the "land fit for heroes" promised by politicians there were no jobs. Guns smuggled home from the front were in circulation. Revolution was in the air.
Cillian Murphy plays Tommy Shelby, the violent young head of the gang, traumatised by his wartime experiences. Helen McCrory is aunt Polly, the matriarch of the Shelby family. Sadistic chief inspector Campbell, played by Sam Neill, is sent over from Northern Ireland to break up the gang.
That post-war world provided plenty of opportunities for gangs to make money in gambling and extortion rackets. Betting was only allowed at racecourses, leading to a large illegal betting industry.
Bookmakers, shopkeepers and publicans were expected to pay protection money or receive a visit from the heavy mob.
Other cities had their own equivalents of the Peaky Blinders. Sheffield has a long gangland history. "During the First World War there were the Gas Tank Gang and the Red Silk and White Silk gangs who wore coloured scarves to denote their allegiances," says James Morton, author of The Mammoth Book Of Gangs.
After the First World War the Mooney Gang, run by army deserter George Mooney, took prominence. Its specialisation was extorting money from local businesses.
A cut in miners' wages meant less profits for the Sheffield gangs and there was a battle between Mooney and the Park Gang.
In 1923 the Park Gang stormed Mooney's house at Christmas but he hid in a cupboard. Gangland wars continued in Sheffield for several years and it wasn't until 1928 that the police managed to break the organisations up.
In Glasgow the Redskin gang was more than 1,000 members strong but there were others too. "In the early Twenties there were the Cheeky Forty and the Black Diamonds, who could each muster 100 a side," writes Morton. Battles were common. "In one fight two hard men slashed at each other with razors, stopped and went to hospital together to be patched up. The loser, however, continued his quarrel but this time hired a man from the Gorbals to do battle for him."
The Billy Boys were a Protestant gang and fought Catholic gangs. One year the Billy Boys fought the Catholic Norman Conk razor gang on nearly every bank holiday or Catholic Saints Day. Some gangs "graduated" from fighting to becoming general criminal enterprises.
Morton records how Glasgow's Beehive Corner Boys went from being a fighting gang "to a team of housebreakers, safe breakers and armed robbers".
London was the world's first gangland capital, with gangs establishing themselves there before moving on to American cities such as New York and Chicago.
In 1931, Frederick Wensley, a former commander of Scotland Yard, wrote: "Any reader of the papers these days might come to the conclusion that Chicago is the only place in which organised bands of criminals ever existed. The public have a short memory. It is not so very long ago that we, in the East End and some other districts of London, were engaged in stamping out groups of criminals, many of whom waged a sort of warfare among themselves and against the public."
At the turn of the 20th century the leading gang in the East End was the Whitechapel-based Bessabarabian Tigers, a 40-strong group of Russian-Jewish immigrants who levied protection tolls on shopkeepers and engaged in blackmail. The Italian Sabini Brothers dominated the London crime scene in the Twenties. Bottle parties, clubs, public houses, even ordinary shops had to pay protection money to the Sabini extortionists.
"No one dared to refuse," recorded Fifties crime journalist Duncan Webb. "If they did the Sabinis gave information to the police which compelled the law to act for some broken petty regulation.
Individuals connected with the premises were attacked in the streets. Proprietors of businesses finished up in hospital."
The Sabinis also made vast sums extorting money from racecourse bookmakers, taking as much as £20,000 on Epsom Derby day.
Charles "Darby" Sabini, like other gangland bosses, had his dos and don'ts. Women were to be treated with respect. He didn't like Italian youths to drink before they were 20. He also didn't like to witness too much violence himself. "Darby Sabini had a dislike of razor-slashing and even though he was to send razor teams in pursuit of his many enemies he always walked away when the cutting began," one of his sidekicks was to recall. In the Second World War and its aftermath food shortages and rationing meant rich pickings for black market gangs. With the internment of the Sabinis as enemy aliens, the Whites, a gang run by five brothers, took over. It was said no one could open a drinking club or illegal gambling den in the West End without their permission.
Brutal: The consequences of violence are common in the new series [BBC]
London was the world's first gangland capital
Shortly after the Second World War, the Whites' control was challenged by Jack Spot, the son of Polish Jewish immigrants who teamed up with fellow black marketeer Billy Hill. Spot and senior gang members tracked one rival leader to a bar off Piccadilly and hit him over the head with a bottle, while his minder was slashed with razors and stabbed. "I was the first man to realise that criminals could be organised, each crook becoming a small part of a master plan," Spot later boasted. He wasn't, because as we have seen, criminal gangs have a long history.
The gangs operating in Britain today may not wear flat caps with razor blades sewn into the seams but, clothes apart, they are merely the successors of the likes of the Peaky Blinders, the Sabinis and so many other nefarious associations which for so long have plagued our major cities.