Peaky Blinders: who were the infamous Glaswegian gang the Billy Boys - and how faithful is the TV show to history?

Tommy Shelby is in trouble once again - but this time, it’s not the Italian mafia, or Billy Kimber.

Brian Gleeson plays Jimmy McCavern in Peaky Blinders, a fictional member of the Billy Boys gang.
Brian Gleeson plays Jimmy McCavern in Peaky Blinders, a fictional member of the Billy Boys gang.

Season five of the hit BBC drama Peaky Blinders has seen a new gang burst onto our screens: the ‘Billy Boys’, a violent clan based on Glasgow’s once-infamous razor gangs.

But who were the real Billy Boys? How closely has Peaky Blinders stuck to history - and what might lie in store for the gang this season?

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Who were the Billy Boys?

Peaky Blinders has returned for season 5.

The Billy Boys were a Protestant gang from the working-class area of Bridgeton in the east of Glasgow, also known as ‘The Bridgeton Billy Boys’.

They were one of the most powerful “razor gangs” - named after their weapon of choice - active in Glasgow in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

The Billy Boys were fiercely Protestant, and their central aim was to terrify Glasgow’s Catholic population through intimidation and violence.

Many - though not all - of these Catholics had migrated from Ireland during the 19th and 20th century in search of work.

Peaky Blinders fans will be pleased to know that there's plenty more of Tommy Shelby to come.

With Glasgow’s unemployment rate particularly high in the early 20th century, many in the city blamed Catholic migrants for a lack of work - and jobless men had more time on their hands for gang activities.

The Billy Boys were set up to fight against Irish immigrants, and they clashed frequently with rival Catholic gang the ‘Norman Conks’ (or Norman Conquerors) as well as constantly getting into violent skirmishes with police.

Who was Jimmy McCavern?

In reality, the Billy Boys were led by a man named Billy Fullerton, whose aim was not just to intimidate the Catholic population, but also to operate illegal scams and protection rackets.

In Peaky Blinders, he’s been fictionalised as Jimmy McCavern, played by Irish actor Billy Gleeson.

Billy Fullerton was a former member of the British Fascists before forming the gang, and claimed that he had been attacked by a gang of Irish Catholic immigrants after a football game.

He frequently made impassioned speeches against Irish Catholic immigration, and led the Billy Boys through primarily Catholic areas chanting the Billy Boys song on Catholic holy days.

How closely has the TV show followed history - and what’s in store for the Billy Boys?

Peaky Blinders shows politician Oswald Mosley as having a close relationship with the Billy Boys, and this was true.

At the recommendation of leader Billy Fullerton, the gang was hired by Oswald Mosley as personal security. Fullerton would later go on to found the Glasgow wing of Oswald’s British Union of Fascists.

This means we can probably expect to see Mosley and the Billy Boys become more intertwined as the series continues - with Thomas Shelby and the Peaky Blinders sandwiched in the middle.

We do know, however, that the original Peaky Blinders gang on which the series’ main characters are based had largely disappeared by the 1930s, when the current series is set.

This means the Billy Boys and Peaky Blinders were unlikely to have followed the warpath they seem set on in series five.

Most Scottish viewers would also contest that the series has gone astray when it comes to Billy Gleeson’s Glaswegian accent - but whatever happens next, we’ll almost certainly see the heartache, drama and violence we’ve come to expect from the thrilling series.