Britain’s Godfather and the Peaky Blinders

Tom Hardy and Noah Taylor bring new life to season two of Netflix’s Peaky Blinders, playing real life gang-leaders Darby Sabini and Alfie Solomons. But how close to real life are these fine actors portrayals?

In season two of the BBC’s excellent historical crime drama Peaky Blinders, the Shelby family look south, beyond the borders of their Birmingham heartland, in an effort to expand their criminal empire.

Setting their sites on London, Tommy Shelby (played by Cillian Murphy) and his brothers first establish a working relationship with the Jewish gang-leader Alfie Solomons (menacingly played by Tom Hardy), based out of Camden. This alliance brings them into conflict with the dapper and dangerous Italian gang-leader, Darby Sabini (played by Noah Taylor).

Peaky Blinders has, since the very first episode, enjoyed mixing fact and fiction. The Peaky Blinders were a real gang, active in Birmingham in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, but the Shelby family are entirely fictional. Winston Churchill appears in several episodes (played by Andy Nyman in season one and Richard McCabe in season two) but the sinister Chief Inspector Chester Campbell, played by Sam Neil, who is drafted in by Churchill and charged with suppressing gang activity in Birmingham, is fictional.

As for the two London based gang-leaders who play a pivotal part in the second season, they were quite real, but rather different than their onscreen incarnations.

Charles ‘Darby’ Sabini was born Ottavio Handley in the year 1888 in Safron Hill, London. The son of an Italian immigrant father and an Irish mother, Darby left school at the age of twelve and went on to have a long unbeaten run as a professional fighter (he claimed to have had 47 fights as a welterweight). He worked as a bouncer at Hoxton Baths and a runner on the racecourses.

According to Edward T Hart’s biography of Sabini, Britain’s GodfatherSabini came to prominence after an incident in the Griffin pub, in Clerkenwell—still in existence, and now promoted as ‘arguably the finest table-dance venue in the area’.

Monkey Benneyworth, a strong-arm man for the Elephant Gang known as the Trimmer (as he trimmed the sails of other men) had trouble taking no for an answer. When a young barmaid spurned his advances he reached over the bar and tore open her dress.

It was Darby who stepped in to protect her. As Hart recounts:

“The Trimmer threw a big right-hand and Darby took it on the side of the face quite deliberately as though testing it for size. That was the last punch the Trimmer would throw that night. Darby, moving fast, caught him with a left hook to the body that drove him back against the bar and followed this up with a combination of punches to the head that brought an animal-like scream from the lips of the big man. He pitched forward unconscious…”

In an instant Sabini’s life was changed forever. Men from Little Italy visited him throughout the night to pledge their allegiance and join him in preparation for the Elephant Gang’s inevitable revenge attack.

By 1921, Sabini had turned his attention to the racecourses. When Birmingham gangster Billy Kimber, in alliance with The Hoxton Gang and the Elephant and Castle Mob, began to target Jewish bookmakers at racecourse in the south east, it was Sabini’s gang who were called in to protect them, and violence ensued.

Billy Kimber and the Birmingham Mob
Billy Kimber and the Birmingham Mob

Unlike the depiction of Sabini in Peaky Blinders, Darby was not a snappy dresser—he was said to have worn the same dark coarse suit, check-cap and black muffler most of the time—and whereas the show depicts him as unhinged, likely to fly off the handle at any moment, he was said to be a keen strategist who abhorred the use of razors and turned to violence as a last resort (though turn to it he would, if provoked).

The Eden Club that the Shelby brothers take from Sabini by force in Peaky Blinders also existed, though it wasn’t owned by Darby. Rather the gangland hangout was owned by Edward Emanuel, a fixer of boxing fights and an East End gang boss in his own right. Rather than the sophisticated jazz venue depicted in the show, it was a rather less impressive setup in real life, situated above a garage with one floor dedicated to card games.

The real Eden Club was the scene of gangland violence though. In particular, Alfie Solomons was arrested and charged with murder less than one hour after plunging a knife into the head of a of a rival of Emanuel’s, Buck Emden, in 1924.

Solomons was well-known to the courts. He stood trial for the attempted murder of Billy Kimber in 1921, (though no witnesses could remember the event). For the stabbing of Buck Emden, Solomons was found to have acted in self-defence and was sentenced to just three years in prison.

When sober, Solomons was said to have been a ‘reasonably sensible fellow’, but he was known to be prideful and drink transformed him into a ‘vainglorious adventurer’. A tearaway from Covent Garden, Darby is said to have used Solomons on a freelance basis as part of his regular crew of hard-men. Certainly he does not appear to have been as big a player as Tom Hardy’s incarnation would have us believe.

Sabini’s empire began to crumble in the mid 1930s. The hovels of Little Italy, deemed unfit for habitation, were razed to the ground. He was interred as an enemy alien during world war two, despite the fact that he could speak no Italian and was of mixed heritage.

With the rise of East End gangsters such as Jack Spot, and with no base from which to operate, Sabini decamped to Brighton and took a suite in the Grand Hotel. Later on he moved to Hove and there he died of natural causes in 1950.

Sabini’s legacy lives on: aside from his appearance in Peaky Blinders, he was the inspiration for Colleoni in Graham Greene’s Brighton Rock. Real life Sabini gang member Carl Ramon has a non-speaking part as a barman in the film, and also worked behind the scenes as a ‘technical adviser’—helping Richard Attenborough learn how to fight with a razor.

Season two of Peaky Blinders is available to buy here. Peaky Blinders image copyright BBC. Britain’s Godfather is available to buy from Amazon.

Darby Sabini also features as a character in my WW2 crime novel The Art of Misdirection, crowdfunding now and available for pre-order at Inkshares.

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