How much truth in the fiction?






The BBC series about a criminal gang in Birmingham certainly makes gripping TV, and for the second they are looking at issues of what happened to the city's children in care.


The second episode of series 3 which was shown on the BBC last night (12th May 2016), introduced the 'charitable institution' for boys and girls which was being set up by Thomas and Grace Shelby in Birmingham in 1924.



Here we have a look at this story so far and see how well it stands up against the facts we know:


The storyFactOur verdict

Thomas and Grace Shelby

are setting up a 

'charitable institution' 

for boys and girls


The last quarter of the nineteenth century and the

start of the twentieth such a proliferaton of children's

homes and orphanages in the city set up by all sort of

people and institutions including industrialists.

A list of these insitutions for children in Birmingham in

the 1920s can be found here on this website


The institution is described as a cover for Thomas's dealings with the Russians

With 100s of children's and orphanages set up in

England by all sorts of people and organisations, it is

likely that not all were set up for the entirely

philamthropic reasons. Many, we can assume, were

established largely to improve the founder's standing

in society (and perhaps earn them a knighthood).


Father Hughes decribes the insitution as Thomas'

"ambition for respectability" and "a place of false charity".I wonder if Grace understood that her charity for children was already so tainted?


We are introduced to Father John Hughes of St Mary's Boys' Reformatory

The Catholic church was indeed very active in providingcare for the city's abandoned, destitute and orphanedchildren. Birmingham had several cathollic children'shomes in the 1920s.


Reformatory schools were established for children who

had committed a crime as an alternative to sending

them to jail. They were strict, harsh places. In Birmingham,we had Saltley Refomatory which was known as NortonTraining School for Boys by 1924.

Read more about reformatories here.


We also had a St Mary's home although this was only

for girls.


It seems pretty clear that Father Hughes intends to abuse the children in Shelby's institution.

Tragically, abuse may have been common in our 1920s

children's homes. Residential childcare was not a

professional job with training, qualifications and supervision

as we know it now and because children's homes were

run by such a variety of organisations and people, keeping

a close eye on each was not always possible.


Father Hughes says, in ominous fashion, that he will

"stop by from time to time to hear confession from the little creatures" and that  for Patrick Jarvis MP it is "just

his thing to drop by in the evenings after a few drinks" and

will want this arrangement formalised with him as a trustee. A priest and an MP would have both been very respected and very powerful people and so it is likely that people with such standing could have got away with abuse if that is what they did.



As unsavoury as Thomas's plans are for a children's home as a cover for his shady dealings, and as horrifying as Father Hughes' plans are, it seems that they may not be beyond the realms of possibility if we look back as 1920s Birmingham.


We look forward to seeing how this storyline develops and will fact-proof further developments on this page.







One episode of the TV series about a criminal gang in Birmingham mentioned the death of a child after being migrated to Australia in the early twentieth century.


It's a great watch, but how true is the story that Peaky Blinders is telling? Some doubt has been cast on some fundamental issues - the Peaky Blinders are thought not to have really had razor blades in their caps, for example.


We decided to pick apart this one story of Polly's adopted children to see if we could find the truth in the drama.


The episode aired on BB2 on 9th October 2014




The story




Our verdict

Polly's two children were

forcibly taken from her because

of her alcoholism and mode

of life.


Children could indeed have been

removed from a family, particularly,

a woman on her own and particularly if she

found herself arrested for her behaviour. Babies

and young children would generally

have been taken to Summerhill in

central Birmingham which was a

receiving home before they were found

a more permanent placement.


Polly said that her two children 

were adopted to local families.


At this time, such an adoption would have

been known as 'boarding out'. A family could

apply to take a child, and would be invited to

come along to the children's home to make

their selection. Splitting up siblings was not





While the boy stayed with his

adoptive family until he was at

least 17, the girl's adoption  

did not work out and she left

the new family.


Checks and getting to know each other

was rare in boarding out and so many

arrangements simply fell apart. The child

would run away or be removed.

The child was then migrated to



This was not unusual then. There was a

large agency in Birmingham at the time that

specialised in child migrations -

The Midddlemore Emigration Home.

Hundreds of children were

emigrated from Birmingham to the New World

in this way - girls would usually have gone

into domestic service.


Sadly the girl died of Spring 

Fever shortly after she arrived.

The fever was perhaps an infectious disease

caught on the long boat journey (often two or

three weeks) to Australia. This sort of tragedy

was not an unusual occurence.



Tommy Shelby presented his

Aunt Polly with two case files -

one for each of her children -

detailing all that had happened

to them.


If only such neat, comprehensive case files

existed for children in care in those days!


 5/6 isn't bad!

For more information about children's homes in Birmingham at the start of the twentieth century please visit these pages:


Birmingham 1929

Erdington Cottage Homes

Shenley Fields Cottage Homes

Marston Green Cottage Homes

Middlemore Emigration Homes