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How historically accurate is the portrayal of women in Peaky Blinders?

Updated: Jul 20, 2023

One of the many reasons behind the wide popular appeal of the BBC series, Peaky Blinders, is the show's well-written female characters. Speaking to Radio Times, the series' creator Steven Knight talked about how he wanted Peaky Blinders to reflect the interesting changes that were taking place during the era depicted in the show:

"In the period after the First World War, women were incredibly powerful in working-class communities. While the men were away at war, the workplace — including illegal gambling rackets — had been run perfectly well, if not better, by women ... I wanted to reflect that — and do justice to those women."

This interest in gender roles can be seen manifested in the show's many strong female characters, such as Helen McCrory's "Aunt Pol"; and in this — the third of our Discovering the Real Peaky Blinders series — historian Carl Chinn takes a closer look at the roles that women played in British working class life.

Missed the other videos in our series? Check them out below:

Historical photograph showing women in Birmingham

Transcript – Discovering the Real Peaky Blinders: Women

There are many strengths to the drama Peaky Blinders, one of which is the way it emphasises the role of strong working class women like Aunt Polly, the character played so well by Helen McCrory — intelligent, determined, forceful. She was deeply involved with the business of the Shelbys and their Peaky Blinder gang. But in reality, were women as active in the affairs of the real and notorious Birmingham gang of 1920s? In 1910, as it was moving onto the national stage as a gang leader, Billy Kimber abandoned his Birmingham wife to live and die in poverty.

Yet there were many strong women in the backstreets of urban Britain. They were not involved in the gangs, but they were involved in their communities. Unlike middle class women, who are mostly restricted to their home, poorer women were out about in the street. And they took on many roles in the community, like laying out the dead, bringing babies into the world, sorting youngsters out and bringing them to order. They were vital and they were essential to working class life. There were other working class women who strove to improve the conditions of women in the backstreet and also of the working class in general. One of them was the real Jessie Eden, who was portrayed in series 4 as a popular and influential trade union leader.

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