TELEVISION viewers have, for nine years, been enthralled by Peaky Blinders which follows the dramatic rise through organised crime of Birmingham’s Shelby family. 

In Cardiff, during the inter-war period portrayed in the drama, organised criminality was controlled by the Forty Thieves, a gang headed by two brothers from Birmingham, who would ultimately be convicted of a gangland killing in 1927. 

While Peaky Blinders’ sixth, and final, season has returned to the BBC it has come a long way from the Shelby family’s (almost) humble beginnings in the back-to-backs of Small Heath running local scams. 

Gang leader Tommy, who long ago had moved into a palatial mansion, is now conducting business, legal and otherwise, across three continents and has been elected an MP. 

It’s a far cry from the real-life Peaky Blinders and the gangs and illegal street bookies that inspired the series, who in reality never really escaped the poverty of working class life in the period following the Great War. 

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The fictional Shelby family’s rackets were originally built on operating as illegal bookies and controlling racecourses with the climax of season one, loosely based, on the rivalry between real life gangsters Billy Kimber and Charles ‘Darby’ Sabini. In the drama the Peaky Blinders must overturn Londoner Kimber’s dominance of the racecourses.  

And it was on the racecourses of south Wales that the Forty Thieves ruled with fear and violence. But a fight, alleged to stem from a confrontation at the Monmouth race meeting in September 1927, would see one brother, and another man, hang and the other committed to Broadmoor. 

The event that would be their undoing was a fight on St Mary Street in Cardiff city centre following the races in which former welterweight boxer David Lewis had his throat slit, a wound that would ultimately prove fatal. 

John Rowlands, who was 30 and ten years younger than brother Edward, had accepted responsibility for Lewis’ death but claimed it was the victim’s own knife he had inadvertently struck him with in a struggle. 

The South Wales Echo at the time reported the brothers were “natives of Birmingham but have been resident of Cardiff for many years”. 

Peaky Blinders creator Steven Knight with a mural by Akse P19, of actor Cillian Murphy, as Peaky Blinders crime boss Tommy Shelby, in the historic Deritend area of Birmingham. Picture: Jacob King/PA WireA contemporary view of the lower end of St Mary Street near where David Lewis' throat was slashed in September 1927. Picture: Huw Evans Agency

John ‘Jack Tich’ and his older brother Edward known simply as ‘Tich’, stood trial with two others, their friends Danny Driscoll, 34, and father-of-eight Joseph ‘Hong Kong’ Price who was 42. 

All denied murder with John Rowlands’ defence asking the jury spare his life and find him guilty of manslaughter. But following a three day trial, and just under an hour’s deliberation, on December 1 1927, all but Price were convicted. 

During the trial the jury were told how the four defendants and the victim were “constantly” attending race meetings. 

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The older brother’s stated trade was bookmaker and the court heard how at Easter that year, he had taken over a job “calling the numbers of horses” for on course bookies, from Lewis. 

Lewis was a regular at the races and had “a business” of letting out stools to bookmakers. 

At the time there would be bookies across racecourse grounds, the only place they could legally operate for in person and cash betting, and a stool was an essential piece of equipment to stand above the crowd and be heard. 

They would also write their odds on chalkboards, again in Glamorgan and Monmouthshire provided by Lewis, and wipe them clean with cloth and water in buckets provided by Lewis. 

The Forty Thieves also provided these services, as well as allegedly intimidating the bookmakers to lengthen the prices on horses they had backed. 

Peaky Blinders creator Steven Knight with a mural by Akse P19, of actor Cillian Murphy, as Peaky Blinders crime boss Tommy Shelby, in the historic Deritend area of Birmingham. Picture: Jacob King/PA WireCillian Murphy, as Peaky Blinders crime boss Tommy Shelby. Picture: BBC

Should any bookmaker decide they wouldn’t need these items, or they could simply bring their own, they would find this wasn’t simply against the etiquette but their tables would be overturned or, quite often, they would receive a physical reminder of how the process operated. 

Racecourses across the UK could be lawless places with plenty of cash floating around which had attracted gangs such as the Birmingham, or Brummagem Boys, who could easily pick pockets amid the large crowds.

During the Victorian period the railway network had opened the country up to those wanting to travel including for a day at races, whatever the purpose of the vist was. 

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In such places men like the Rowlands brothers and their Forty Thieves were an integral part of operating, procuring their “accessories” also ensured their protection. Some more uncouth, or perhaps simply more honest or straightforward, gangs didn’t bother with such pretence and simply ran extortion rackets. 

Lewis, a well-known sportsman, was a popular figure at the races, though he offered exactly the same service of letting “accessories” and his own presence. His reputation as a boxer and rugby player meant his physical prowess was respected but as he was a sole operator, rather than part of a gang, was more favourably viewed by the hard-pressed bookies. 

The sport had been severely curtailed during the war and boomed when hostilities ended however the turf wars between the rival gangs, especially in England’s south east, were causing concern in the press. 

It was nothing new. In 1898, The Daily Telegraph stated the largest number of racecourse “roughs and thieves come from Birmingham and some of them are of the lowest type possible.” 

Peaky Blinders creator Steven Knight with a mural by Akse P19, of actor Cillian Murphy, as Peaky Blinders crime boss Tommy Shelby, in the historic Deritend area of Birmingham. Picture: Jacob King/PA WireA Google Street View image of Turner Road, Canton where the Rowlands brothers of the Forty Thieves gang lived.

At the trial of the Rowlands brothers and their two friends the prosecution made clear a dispute between them and Lewis had originated on the racecourses. 

The case had attracted a large crowd to the Glamorgan Assizes and the public gallery was full as Lord Halsbury outlined to the jurors: “The prisoners had not got on very well with the murdered man. 

“They (the jury) would probably never know what the quarrel was, but there was a quarrel.” 

It’s claimed that Lewis had been tipped off that the Rowlands brothers intended teaching him a lesson for having rented out stalls on their patch on the last day of the Monmouth meeting.  

Rather than return to his home in Ethel Street in the Canton district of Cardiff, and which is still just one street away from Turner Road where the Rowlands brothers lived, Lewis “evidently feeling he might not be safe stopped at the Blue Anchor Hotel on St Mary Street instead of going home”. 

Peaky Blinders creator Steven Knight with a mural by Akse P19, of actor Cillian Murphy, as Peaky Blinders crime boss Tommy Shelby, in the historic Deritend area of Birmingham. Picture: Jacob King/PA WireA Google Street view image of Ethel Street, Canton where David Lewis lived.

In the bar of the hotel, also having returned from Monmouth, were Danny Driscoll and the older Rowlands brother, Edward Tich. 

This said Lord Halsbury was “part of a coldblooded and concerted plan. 

“’Jack Tich’ and ‘Hong Kong’ were waiting in a café across the road.” 

The prosecution’s case was sometime after 11pm Lewis had been ambushed, on a busy city centre street, near a taxi rank and with many witnesses present. 

It was alleged Driscoll had held Lewis while ‘Jack Tich’ had delivered the fatal slash with a blade but as a group effort all should be found guilty. 

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The only witnesses who saw Jack Tich carry out the attack were two police officers, who gave contradictory accounts. 

But, “speaking for himself”, judge Mr Justice Wright assured the jury “he had seldom heard fairer or more intelligent evidence” than that given by the two constables.  

Some suspect the police had seen a convenient chance with Lewis' death to remove even more gangland figures from the streets.

The jury were also advised Lewis’ deathbed statement, where the suspects had been brought before him in the Cardiff Royal Infirmary, was “of no beneficial value” as he was unaware he was dying. 

The trial was earlier told Lewis had “went out of his way to exculpate” the defendants referring to them as “old friends” and said they “knew nothing of his trouble” and asking if their arrest was “a sick joke?”. 

But the jury were asked to consider if Lewis may have been in fear of the men while it has also been suggested he had been observing the time honoured criminal code of silence. 

Peaky Blinders creator Steven Knight with a mural by Akse P19, of actor Cillian Murphy, as Peaky Blinders crime boss Tommy Shelby, in the historic Deritend area of Birmingham. Picture: Jacob King/PA WireThe Cardiff Royal Infirmary where Lewis, from his deathbed, said the suspects had "nothing to do with my trouble". Pictured is Professor Jonathan Shepherd, who in the 1990s became the driving force behind the Cardiff Violence Prevention Group. Picture: Huw Evans Agency

When the trial concluded the jury returned guilty verdicts on all but Price to the distress of the defendants. 

‘Jack Tich’, who had accepted his responsibility, was convicted of murder and condemned to death with his older brother and Driscoll but would be spared the rope and a “highly unusual triple execution”. 

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The mental anguish of the trial and the convictions proved too much and he was eventually declared insane and held at Broadmoor. 

An appeal was launched and friends of Driscoll raised £500, which is £34,000 at today’s value, towards legal fees in a matter of hours. 

Both Driscoll and Tich Rowlands were taken, by train, to a fruitless appeal hearing in London. When that failed they were returned to Cardiff prison to face the gallows. Thousands, across Britain, had signed petitions in their support and eight members of the original jury also pleaded for mercy, all to no avail. 

Peaky Blinders creator Steven Knight with a mural by Akse P19, of actor Cillian Murphy, as Peaky Blinders crime boss Tommy Shelby, in the historic Deritend area of Birmingham. Picture: Jacob King/PA WireCardiff prison where Driscoll and Tich Rowlands hanged. Picture: Huw Evans Agency

While television’s Peaky Blinders still glamourises the notion of organised crime in the 1920s, and newspaper of the day stoked fears of racecourse gangs, Danny Driscoll, and to some extent, Tich Rowlands, were victims of association with and perceptions of a lawless part of society. 

In 1999 solicitor Bernard De Maid, who a year earlier had helped overturn the conviction of Mahmood Mattan who was hanged at Cardiff Prison in 1952, tried to clear the names of the condemned men. 

But the Criminal Cases Review Commission eventually ruled it couldn’t consider the case without an original transcript of the trial. 

The lives of the Rowlands brothers, Driscoll and Lewis and myths around them, have become part of Cardiff folklore but it is far from certain they rest in peace as doubts persist as to whether they received justice. 

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