The hit British Netflix series Peaky Blinders introduces us to a fictionalised version of 1900s Birmingham England where we follow the adventures of the Shelby family as they climb their way up the social ladder through dastardly deeds and both legal and illegal bookmaking.
Based on the awe that the real-life Peaky Blinders inspired in his father, Steven Knight, Writer and Creator of the Peaky Blinder series said:
“In a way I want Peaky Blinders to be a sort of the view of this world through the eyes of a 10-year-old because the men are smarter and stronger and handsomer and the horses are bigger and everything is big and intimidating as a kid.”
His series so expertly interweaves the lives of the fictional leaders of the Peaky Blinders, the Shelby family, with real-world villains and heroes that most viewers struggle to separate fact from fiction.
✓ The Razor Blade Fallacy
To clarify, the Peaky Blinders were a real-life gang of working-class Brits who were described as incredibly well dressed. These young men would often wear nice jackets, keep their hair closely cropped and wear peaked caps.
Legend has it that they would stitch razor blades into these caps and use them as weapons in a pinch, blind enemies with a slash across the face.
As dramatic as it sounds, and despite fitting their recorded penchant for violence this is simply not the case. Rather the reference to “blinder” in their name is an old English affectation which refers to how good they looked.
An attractive young woman in her best dress or a young man in a stylish suit would both be considered “blindingly good looking” or simply “a blinder”. With the gang's affectation for bowler hats and peaked caps the name Peaky Blinder was an obvious choice in the day.
✓ The Shelby Bookmaking Empire
A super fan of the Peaky Blinders series translated the money made by the main character, Thomas “Tommy” Shelby, into its modern-day equivalent. According to their estimations, Tommy would be making approximately £13 million per year from his bookmaking operation.
In the series, the Shelby family run both legal and illegal bets on the horses in Birmingham and begin to come into conflict with other gangs as they look to expand their operation around the country.
While the series shows operators like Tommy outwitting the law at every turn the reality was less in their favour. With the telephone in its infancy, special excursion trains that brought punter to the racetracks and the constabulary having a “the end justifies the means” approach to law-keeping, illegal bookmaking was not as common or as profitable as seen on TV.
✓ The State of Gambling in the UK
The United Kingdom has always had an interesting relationship with gambling. While it was legal under English law the Unlawful Games Act of 1541 would make nearly all forms of gambling illegal as it was feared gambling would distract young men from military training.
In particular, these new casino games were blamed for the “decay of archery”. This was addressed in the law as follows:
“All Men under the Age of Sixty Years "shall have Bows and Arrows for shooting". Men-Children between Seven "Years and Seventeen shall have a Bow and 2 Shafts". Men about Seventeen "Years of Age shall keep a Bow and 4 Arrows". The penalty for non-observance was set at 6s.8d.”
Since the British archers had been key to Henry V's victory at the Battle of Agincourt in 1415 the practice was deemed one of national security, if not national pride.
However, by 1845 the law was repealed as archery lost its importance as an art of war and, as a law revision would later note, archery was no competition for “the nefarious pursuits of cricket, dicing, and carding”.
One gambling practice which was not deemed nefarious was that of betting on the horses. Bookmaking came into its own in the UK in 1790 and even under the Gaming Act 1845 was not made illegal but rather merely limited to racetracks.
By 1961 the UK would have legal high street betting shops thanks to Harold Macmillan. These bookmakers made it possible for even more punter to place bets and without the concerns of dealing with gangs and underworld figures.
At its peak, the UK was estimated to have more than 15,000 legally recognised betting shops practically putting illegal betting out of business.
✓ Online and Mobile Betting Generation
The advent of online gambling in the late 90s changed the game for all parties concerned as the casino games industry blossomed. By 2001 the Big Three bookmakers – William Hill, Ladbrokes and Coral – were able to not only offer patrons the chance to bet at their local betting shops and offered bets online.
With reputation being everything in the online arena these operators were easily able to spin their land-based punters into online punters with the promise of being able to gamble from the comfort for your home.
By 2003 the first mobile gambling product was launched in the UK, The Mobile Lottery. It was not long after that the betting shops launched their own mobile-friendly sites and apps to allow punters to place their bets wherever they had the time and an internet connection.
The government did step in to limit the scope of betting on offer through regulated betting shops – be they online or in retail outlets – with the Gambling Act 2005. This Act limited licensed betting to events that took place in the UK and European Economic Areas (EEA). Offering bets on no-EEA regulated events was deemed illegal.
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