As the leader of Birmingham gang Peaky Blinders, Thomas Shelby is a master manipulator, deal-maker and entrepreneur, whose unbridled ambition and personality are matched by his instincts for survival. Meanwhile, the show itself takes inspiration from a former real-life Birmingham gang of the same name. That might lead one to wonder: was there a real Tommy Shelby way back when?
In this Man of Character column, Man of Many takes a look at some of popular culture’s most notable male protagonists. We discuss the origin of the character and why they have had such an enduring influence on the popular consciousness.
Background on Thomas Shelby’s Character
“You can change what you do, but you can’t change what you want.” – Thomas Shelby
Played by Cillian Murphy, Thomas ‘Tommy’ Shelby is a man of lowly birth (he has gypsy heritage on both sides of his family), who returns from the war a decorated Sergeant Major. Disillusioned by his experiences and suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, he becomes a proto-Walter White of sorts, but without the self-destructive and megalomaniacal tendencies that proved the latter’s undoing.
Tommy Shelby is also deeply cunning and coldly efficient, someone who understands the value of compromise, but only if it doesn’t come at the expense of his greater ambitions. First as the leader of the Peaky Blinders and later through the Shelby Company and as a Member of Parliament, Tommy Shelby becomes an empire-builder of the highest order. Possessing a near-pathological thirst for success, he puts his streetwise sensibility and wartime experiences to proper use.
As he enacts various schemes, Tommy Shelby finds a nemesis in Sam Neill’s Chester Campbell, a major in the Royal Irish Constabulary who is recruited by Winston Churchill to investigate Peaky Blinders and Thomas Shelby himself. Despite a prolonged battle of wits, Tommy ultimately prevails over Campbell – the first of many such triumphs that come to shape his character and destiny.
Having piqued the interest of Winston Churchill, the Peaky Blinders leader is then saved by the future Prime Minister and recruited to clandestinely serve the Crown, proving Thomas Shelby as a man to be reckoned with. He has style, passion, and a prominent skillset; we often wonder how to be like Thomas Shelby ourselves.
Ultimately, Thomas Shelby personifies Nietzsche’s concept of the ‘will to power’ – a working man driven by an innate imperative to make as much of his life as possible. Despite his humble origins and the circumstances of his life, Tommy Shelby embodies mankind’s ability to overcome and achieve what would normally be considered beyond the realms of the possible. But who was the real Thomas Shelby?
The Real Thomas Shelby
If the show “Peaky Blinders” exudes an air of authenticity, that might very well be because it’s loosely based on an actual gang of the same name. Like the gang in the show, the real Peaky Blinders roamed industrial-era Birmingham and stitched razor blades to the insides of their flat caps. Unlike the gang in the show, many members were as young as 12-years-old, while others were part of the middle-class, even holding regular jobs. One might naturally wonder: was Thomas Shelby real, i.e. is the character based on an actual person of similar stature?
The closest we get to a real Thomas Shelby was gangster Thomas Gilbert (aka Kevin Mooney), a senior member of the actual Peaky Blinders. Unlike the mafia or other blood-bound gangs, Gilbert and his peers were unified by their similar interests, including a taste for fashion and crime alike. As such, they helped popularise both the concept and prevalence of Peaky Blinders, who wielded far less power than the show might suggest. Nevertheless, if you’re looking for a real Thomas Shelby, Thomas Gilbert will have to suffice.
Of course, one could just as easily argue that there was no real Thomas Shelby, meaning there was no real-life individual with that exact name. Along similar lines, the real Peaky Blinders were more inconvenient pests than they were a ruthless street gang. Yes, they engaged in various criminal activities, but unlike Tommy Shelby and company, the real Peaky Blinders fell far short of organised crime or political power. However, don’t take that to mean the show and its characters weren’t inspired by actual people and events.
In search of the real Thomas Shelby, let’s separate fact from fiction.
1. There Was No Real Thomas Shelby
As we said above, there was no Peaky Blinder by the name of Thomas or Tommy Shelby in real life.
2. There was Thomas Gilbert
Widely considered the most powerful member of the real Peaky Blinders, Gilbert operated under the pseudonym of Kevin Mooney. He changed his last name many times throughout his life and oversaw a number of the gang’s land grabs.
3. The Real Peaky Blinders Were Less Ambitious
As the show “Peaky Blinders” develops, Thomas Shelby enacts bigger and more ambitious schemes. By contrast, the real-life gang wasn’t exactly playing the long game. Their crimes started basic and stayed that way, even if they did venture into bookmaking and bribery on occasion. Senior members were arrested for things like bike theft and home invasion.
4. The Real Peaky Blinders Were Constantly at War with Other Gangs
In the slums of cities like Birmingham, control over territory was pretty much everything. For that reason, the real Peaky Blinders engaged in turf wars and “post-code battles” with other gangs from the 1890s to the 1930s. In real life, respective rivals like the Birmingham Boys and ‘Derby’ Sabini drove the Peaky Blinders out of town.
5. The Real Peaky Blinders Were Just Kids
Actor Cillian Murphy—who plays Thomas Shelby on the show—is 43 years old. Shelby himself is reportedly 29 years old during the show’s first season. Meanwhile, the real-life Peaky Blinders were largely tweens and teens. For them, 29 was the age of retirement, not promotion.
6. The Real Peaky Blinders Were Dapper
Just like Thomas Shelby, Thomas Gilbert and his peers took great pride in their sartorial style, which distinguished them from other gangs. The real Peaky Blinders wore tailored suits, bell-bottom trousers, overcoats, silk scarfs, and steel-toed leather boots, among other things. The term “blinder” was reportedly synonymous with “dapper” at the time, indicating someone who was “striking enough to blind.”
Is peaky blinders based on a true story?
Peaky Blinders provides a fictional account of the real-life gang of the same name, which was active in Birmingham, England, from the 1890s to the early 1930s.
Is Thomas Shelby a real person?
Thomas Shelby is a character on Peaky Blinders, who's played by actor Cillian Murphy. While not directly correlated to a real-life person, Shelby might have been inspired by former real-life Peaky Blinder Kevin Mooney, aka Thomas Gilbert.
Who is peaky blinders based on?
The Peaky Blinders gang is based on a previous gang of the same name, which sprung to life in the slums of Birmingham, England. Unlike the gang in the TV show, the real-life Peaky Blinders were as young as 12 years old.