By Professor Heather Shore, Leeds Beckett University
The BBC series Peaky Blinders will shortly be returning to our screens, taking the story of the Birmingham gangsters up to the 1930s. In 2013, when the first series was aired, I wrote a short blog for my University website exploring the problematic claims to ‘authenticity’ by the series creator and writer, Stephen Knight. Since then, the series has strayed far from the original premise which merged the late nineteenth century accounts of Birmingham’s peaky blinders with the activities of real-life interwar gangs and individuals such as the Sabini family, Billy Kimber and Alfie Solomons.
In the first season Billy Kimber was shot by the protagonist Thomas Shelby, and in the third season, Alfie Solomons also met his fate this way. In reality, Billy Kimber died aged 63 in a nursing home in Torquay; and Alfie Solomon disappeared from history in the early 1930s. So the series blends history and myth in its evocation of gang warfare in the early twentieth century. The reality was probably more mundane and less sinister than suggested by the series. Gang activity in the interwar period did coalesce around betting and gambling, and particularly around racecourses. At the centre of what were dubbed the ‘racecourse wars’ was the Sabini family, who featured as the Shelby family’s adversaries in season 2.
The Sabini gang included members of an Anglo-Italian family from Little Italy, in Clerkenwell, London, which included Charles Sabini, better known as ‘Darby’, his brothers’ Harry, Joseph, George and Fred (although, as we’ll see below, working out which brother was which is far from straight-forward). Charles ‘Darby’ Sabini was a central figure in the police records and press reporting about the racecourse wars, with dramatic references to the ‘Italian Gang’ or ‘Sabini Gang’ commonly dropped into reports. Their Italian origins drew inevitable comparisons to the hot-blooded feuds of Italian history.
At the Old Bailey trial of the Sabinis’ adversaries (another group of brothers from Little Italy, the Cortesis) the presiding judge, Justice Darling, summed up by saying, ‘“the case reminded him of the old Italian feuds of the Montagues and Capulets and the ‘Whites’ and ‘Blacks’ (The Times, 18 January 1923). Whilst my research was focused on contemporary representations of the gangs and the ‘racecourse wars’, and the policing of gang-related activity in the 1920s, for my monograph London’s Criminal Underworlds, c. 1720 – c. 1930: A Social and Cultural History (2015), I decided to dig a little further into the gang members family histories, in order to further my understanding of the residential and community contexts from which they came.
Resident in the Clerkenwell area since at least the 1890s, the Sabini family were far from the outsiders or ‘aliens’ portrayed by the press at time. In the 1891 census there were three Sabini families living in the area known as ‘Little Italy’; in Warner Street, Back Hill and Summer Street. In Warner Street, Italian born Joseph Sabini, his London born wife, Eliza, their three sons, Frederick, Charles and Thomas, aged respectively ten, eight and three, and their five-month-old daughter, Mary, lived with four other families. In Back Hill, there were a family of four Sabinis; in Summer Street, a family of five. With only initials for these family members it is difficult to say with any certainty which household the child who would grow up to be Charles ‘Darby’ Sabini belonged to.
The adult Sabini was known to use a variety of first names, including those of his brothers, and in the Home Office document reviewing his internment as an enemy alien in 1940, he is named Octavius Sabini, alias Darby Sabini, alias Frederick Handley. Eliza, nee Handley, is usually described as his mother. However, the order of family relationships remains ambiguous. Warner Street, Back Hill and Summer Street literally led off each other. It is possible that the households were related, and that siblings and cousins may have lived shared lives across the three residences.
In the 1920s the references to the Sabini family and brothers may have included individuals from these three families. In 1901, there were two Sabini families living in Clerkenwell, in Mount Pleasant and Gough Street. At Mount Pleasant, 45-year-old Octavia Sabini is listed as the head of the household, with his wife Eliza and children Mary (ten), Joseph (eight), George (six) and Harry (four months). Octavia is described as a carman, working on his ‘own account’. It is not clear whether this is the Octavio Sabini who appeared as a witness in a murder case at the Old Bailey in September 1890. Described as living in Little Bath Street, he had helped to carry the murdered man, Ugo Milandi, to the Royal Free Hospital.
It is only from the 1911 census that Charles ‘Darby’ Sabini can be identified with any certainty. This Sabini family lived in Bowling Green Lane, Clerkenwell, and included the widow and head of family, Mary Sabini (possibly a mistake, since her age fits with Eliza), described as a coal dealer; a daughter Mary, aged 20 by this time; and four sons: Octavio aged 22, Joseph aged 18, George aged 16 and Harry aged ten. Octavio, Joseph and Mary are all described as assisting in business at home, presumably in coal dealing.
From what we know of the Sabinis’ later career, Octavio was ‘Darby’, and the ages of Joseph and Harry fit with other evidence. It is likely that this is the same family who are in Warner Street in 1891 and Mount Pleasant in 1901, but ‘Darby’ and his aliases remain elusive. In December 1922, when he was being interviewed after the incident in the Fratellanza nightclub, his statement noted that he had told the police, ‘I have used the name Frank Handly, also Ottavio Sabini. My name is not Charles Sabini’. Again in 1940, at the committee to consider his appeal against interment, he stated, ‘My real name is Ottavio Sabini’.
Using the census to look at the Sabinis was a helpful exercise in positioning the family, and ‘Darby’ in particular, in their local communities. On first glance we might assume that the use of multiple names/aliases is a ploy to evade arrest. It isn’t unusual to come across offenders in the Old Bailey Online, for example, who have used an alias. However, clearly some of the changes in names relate to the varying use of Italian names and Anglicised or English names. It isn’t clear where ‘Darby’ came from and as we can see from his own words, ‘Darby’/Ottavio/Franks, wasn’t always clear about his nomenclature. Moreover, despite his denials that he has ever been called Charles, this is his given name in many historical sources that refer to him.
The lesson learnt here is that finding criminals in the archive, beyond their appearances in the court and penal system, isn’t always straightforward. The extent to which Charles ‘Darby’ Sabini employed aliases is probably not typical of offenders with only a limited contact with the criminal justice system (in other words, your great-great-aunt who was prosecuted for shop-lifting is unlikely to have used an alias). However, if your ancestors, or other historical criminals you are interested in, are habitual offenders then be prepared to do a bit of lateral thinking when it comes to tracing their ancestry.
Parts of this material were originally presented in chapter form in H. Shore, London’s Criminal Underworlds, c. 1720 – c. 1930: A Social and Cultural History (Palgrave Macmillan, 2015).
 1891 Census, TNA: RG/12, piece 223, folio 61, p. 14; TNA: HO45/25720: ‘Defence Regulation 18B, Harry Sabini’, here Harry Sabini notes that Handley is his mother’s maiden name.
 1891 Census, TNA: RG12, piece 220, folio 69, p. 26 and folio 72, p. 31.
 TNA: 1891 Census, TNA: RG12, piece 223, folio 61, p. 14; 1901 Census, RG13, piece 141, folio 141, p. 23; piece 247, folio 33, p. 5; piece 253, folio 170, p. 1.
 1911 Census, TNA: RG14, piece 1241.