Racecourses weren’t always as civilised as we know them today. Much of the violence and chaos depicted in BBC’s hit TV show ‘Peaky Blinders’ was inspired by real gangs who travelled the UK, illegally operating at lawless race meetings.
In those days Bookmakers used the gangs as protection — from angry customers and other bookies. The Brummagem Boys gang, led by the clever and charismatic Billy Kimber, had fingers in this protection racket all over the country.
Rise Of Gang Activity At Racecourses
Following the Gaming Act 1845, the only legal place to gamble in England was at race tracks. The introduction of new special excursion trains enabled all classes of society to attend new racecourses opening across the country.
As depicted in Peaky Blinders, there was a boom in racing around this period. With huge sums of money changing hands it presented an opportunity for gangs, not dissimilar to a modern day Mafia, to use bribery and violence to bully their way into illegal Bookmaking and protection rackets.
Racecourses became well-known for gang activity and brawls, and this was especially true for Epsom and Ascot. Unlicensed Bookmakers — who could be practically anyone– regularly fleeced punters. Gangs of pickpockets, thieves and scammers preyed upon spectators, beating up anyone who retaliated. Bookmakers employed bodyguards in the protection business to back them up when they chose not to pay out — or simply couldn’t afford to.
Essentially: hardly any regulation or control was exercised at race meetings.
Three Key Players
William “Billy” Kimber (born 1882) was head of the Birmingham Boys gang and is the main inspiration for BBC’s’ fictional main character, Tommy Shelby and his gang ‘The Peaky Blinders’.
Kimber controlled racecourses in the Midlands and the North and for several years and was probably the biggest organised crime boss in the UK. He later set up a secondary base in Islington, North London to concentrate on the racetracks in the South of England, teaming up with London gang boss Charles ‘Wag’ McDonald.
McDonald was from South London — a tough place to grow up in the pre-war era. Gangs fought frequent battles for prominence and small-scale gang warfare was an everyday part of life. McDonald was the leader of a poverty-stricken family and gang known as the Elephant Boys, named after Elephant & Castle, the area where most of its members lived.
Alongside Kimber, who was quick to see the opportunities opened up by the pre-war explosion in nightclubs and dog/horse racing, McDonald’s empire rose to prominence in the years leading up to the First World War. McDonald successfully exploited his network of connections by transforming these skirmishing factions into a single, tightly organised gang.
At racecourses in the South East, Kimber’s Brummies began to prey on the Jewish bookies from London’s East End, which in turn resulted in the recruitment of the Italian Sabini Gang as protection. Charles Sabini, head of the Italian Mob, lived in Little Italy, the area around Clerkenwell Green, just a mile or so south of Kimber’s London Headquarters.
Sabini was a ruthless Italian immigrant who had boxed professionally as a middleweight, and won many favours from the police with heavy bribes. Both Clarles Sabini and the Jews inspired the Peaky Blinders characters of Darby Sabini and Alfie Solomans, respectively.
McDonald was forced to cede control of the Elephant Boys when he joined up to fight in the war. But when he returned, he lost no time seizing back power. McDonald cemented his position by leading a series of bloody raids on his rivals, the Titanic gang of Hoxton. By 1921, he was the undisputed master of south, east and north London.
In the early Twenties, a series of gang fights saw Kimber’s position overturned by Charles Sabini. The Brummagems ambushed Sabini at Greenford Trotting Park, in March 1921. A few days later, Kimber was found shot and beaten in Kings Cross, London, having gone to visit Sabini. The violence escalated, but Sabini gained the upper hand when 23 Birmingham boys were locked up following the “Epsom Road Battle”.
Pitched battles between McDonald’s and Sabini’s gangs broke out across the city, reaching a climax in 1927 when at least eight people were killed in the ‘Battle of Waterloo’, a riot outside the Duke of Wellington pub in the Waterloo Road. Concern was so great that the Home Secretary introduced a raft of new police powers.
McDonald and Kimber left England together and crossed the Atlantic, determined to make their mark in Hollywood. Both successfully established themselves in the LA underworld, but McDonald returned to England in 1932 following the news of bloody brawls occurring back home.
Vicious brawls spread throughout London as the Elephant Boys fought the Sabinis. The struggles continued until 1936, when a second battle at the Wellington pub, followed by an equally vicious fight at Lewes Racecourse, devastated the Sabinis and left the Elephant Boys the undisputed kings of London.
McDonald died of a stroke on Borough High Street in 1943 at the age of 58, after a lifetime of heavy drinking. Kimber died in 1945 at the Mount Stuart Nursing Home in Torquay. He was 63 and had suffered a prolonged illness. A local newspaper asserted that Kimber’s ‘great interest in life, both personal and professional, was racing and he was well known and respected on every racecourse in England’. Kimber left his widow the huge sum of £3,665, a rich man in those days, and died a respected and legitimate businessman — his criminal past unbeknownst by his descendants.
Ironically Peaky Blinders depicts Kimber being killed at the hands of Thomas Shelby. But its evident that the character of Thomas inherited several character traits from the real Billy Kimber, and that his encounters in the series closely resemble several of Kimber’s interactions (and confrontations) with other gangs.
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