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‘By order of the Peaky Blinders’: GRT History Matters

Image source: https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/who-were-real-peaky-blinders-180973328/ .

Once Gypsy Roma and Traveller (GRT) history month commences Gypsy and Traveller histories are largely ignored. This is on par with the the erasure of GRT history and contemporary culture within mainstream Britain. Given this, I was surprised that the very popular Peaky Blinders starred Birmingham based main characters and their families who appear to be Brummies, of Romany, Gypsy and Irish Traveller heritage. 

In many ways representation within Peaky Blinders is problematic, it is typical that once GRT people appear as main characters their lifestyles are associated with gangs, sex and violence. But there are a lot of positives, the episodes are filled with fabulous costumes, interesting characters, plots, settings and music. There is certainly a lot of pride that comes with the representation of Birmingham based lives of mixed heritage Gypsy and Traveller families on screen. 

Peaky Blinders is set in a time era which is just after WWI and appears to end in the 1930s. Whilst the series is fictional, there are many parallels that can be drawn between the lives of the fictional main character Tommy Shelby and his family and the real-life lived histories of Gypsy and Traveller people.

Peaky Blinders does well to de-mythisise the assumption that Gypsy and Traveller people do not mix with gorgers and do not participate within mainstream society. To illustrate, Tommy and his brother’s fought in WWI and experienced the damaging aftereffects of war participation. In reality, despite previously being subjected to British colonial practices and being treated with distain by the State many British Gypsy and Traveller people would have had no choice but to fight in this war due to conscription. Many would have lost their lives because of this.   

Note that Tommy’s family mostly lived within housing and were working within mainstream industrial society. In reality, in industrial cities like Birmimgham many nomadic Gypsy and Traveller lifestyles would have been under threat due to land purchases made by gorgers for the purpose of building factories and housing (Green, 2009). Upon purchase of this land nomadic groups would be evicted from it, this would have left many homeless, with the increased the pressure to assimilate. This would result in work life changes, hence, Gypsy and Traveller people worked alongside gorgers in factories, where the pay and conditions would have been poor (Green, 2009).    

Just like prejudice in reality, even when living within housing Tommy and his family experience prejudice from within and outside of their own community. Tommy is referred to as a ‘dirty didicoi’ seemingly due to the perception of his mixed heritage and not being of ‘full-blooded’ Gypsy stock. In response to an anti-gypsy slur Tommy mocks stereotypes by stating that as well as his day job he ‘also sells pegs and tells fortunes’.

Towards the end of Peaky Blinders the promotion of fascism by elite figures is central to the storyline. Just as in reality, there was the development of the British Union of Fascists political party. Prejudice and fascist ideas contributed to categorising Gypsys as an inferior race. Whilst Peaky Blinders ends before WWII it is harrowing to know that these ideas influenced the extermination of Roma and Gypsies during the Nazi regime. Many British Gypsy and Traveller soldiers lives would have also been lost in fighting the Nazi’s in WWII due to this. 

It is unfortunate that the women have less screen time in Peaky Blinders, but their personalities did shine. Ada’s character and response to prejudice is ace, whether this is responding to street hecklers, an elite eugenicist women’s ethnic cleansing ideas, or her son’s prejudice towards his sister. When her son refers to his sister as a ‘thing’ and states that she would ‘get them killed’ as she was a Black-mixed race child she responds by stating, ‘where will they send you Karl?’ whilst making him aware that he could also be subjected to persecution due to having a Jewish father and a Gypsy mother.  

 

This year marks the end of Peaky Blinder’s episodes, the last episode is great. Tommy returns to his roots – choosing to end his days with his horse, wagon and photographs of his family. But he then wins against all the odds! Unfortunately, whilst Peaky Blinders has been celebrated there is less celebration of Gypsy and Traveller ethnicities, these were completely ignored within the documentary The Real Peaky Blinders

Through whitewashing Gypsy and Traveller peoples histories are frequently denied. To adapt David Olusoga’s words, ‘[Gypsy and Traveller] history is British history’. An awareness of Roma Gypsy and Traveller history should not only reside with Gypsies and Travellers alone, or exist at the margins, as these are connected to all of us. As Taylor and Hinks (2021) indicate, if there is increased awareness that past and present themes of percecution this might enable increased support for Gypsy, Roma and Traveller rights – this is vital.  

References:

Olusoga, D. (2016) Black and British: A forgotten History, BBC [online].

Taylor, B. and Hinks, J., (2021). What field? Where? Bringing Gypsy, Roma and Traveller History into View. Cultural and social history, 18(5), pp.629–650.

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