A street gang with style: the Peaky Blinders | Image: West Midlands Police Museum
If you've ever seen Scorsese's historical epic Gangs of New York, about the lawless, cutthroat ways of life in mid-nineteenth-century New York's Five Points neighborhood, you've had a glimpse into the world of street gangs in that era. The section of lower Manhattan was marred by poverty, unemployment, overcrowding, disease due to wastewater and poor sanitation, violent crime and a lack of organized fire protection and law enforcement. The slum was crammed with people who had no other options: primarily Irish and other immigrants. At the time, the murder rate in the Five Points was higher than that of any other slum in the world.
While the Five Points was an ideal breeding ground for street gangs, it wasn't the only area of the world that was plagued by such a criminal element. The linked article details street gangs that were prevalent in city sections of Victorian-era England, Scotland and Australia.
One such English gang was Birmingham's Peaky Blinders (also the basis for an ongoing BBC television series). Possibly named for their wearable weapon — caps with razor blades embedded in the brims — poverty and a lack of organized protections and assistance bore this gang of youths that ravaged the areas inhabited by those with few other choices.
The Blinders were commonly involved in the kind of vicious, bloody street fights exemplified in Gangs of New York, some of which continued for hours. Typical of street gangs, the Peaky Blinders controlled protection rackets and preyed on vulnerable citizens.
One way the gang distinguished themselves was the manner in which they dressed. The only street gang in the vicinity that could be considered dapper, the boys were famous for their quality clothing materials, well-fitted pants and silk scarves. Their reputation for style made it easier to recruit children into the gang. Twelve and thirteen-year-old members were commonplace.
Read about nine other Victorian-era street gangs here.