1929 Italian giant heavyweight boxer Primo Carnera (1906-1967) carrying flyweight boxers Bert Kirby and George Appleton
Thank you to Professor Carl Chinn for sharing this excerpt from his book The Real Peaky Blinders (Brewin Books) which outlines the reputation of the Kirby family in the Newtown area and their association with other ’hard men’ of Birmingham, including his own Great Uncle, George Wood. Carl also dispels a few myths about the Peaky Blinders:
Of course, just as with any big city, there were plenty of hard men in poorer working-class neighbourhoods. Notable amongst them in Summer Lane were the Kirbys. Their notoriety spread far and on March 21, 1927 the ‘Evening Telegraph’ in Angus, Scotland included a short notice explaining that “Birmingham police are making a determined effort to cleanse the city of the gangs of hooligans, who, during the last five weeks, have been emulating the ‘Brummagem Tykes’ of thirty years ago”. In particular James Kirby aged 26 and Frederick Kirby 24, both of Tower Street, were each imprisoned for two months for a brutal assault on a policeman.
My Great Uncle George Wood was another hard man who would go on to become a sergeant in the 2nd battalion SAS in the Second World War. Born in 1915, he was my mom’s uncle and grew up in Whitehouse Street, Aston. He told me that:
“we used to fight as kids with other streets. Avenue Road, Chester Street, Holland Road, Rocky Lane. Oh, we was cock o’ the f…… north, Whitehouse Street. There was me, Dougie Ayres, Jackie Hunt, Herbert Mortiboy, Bobby Steel and another lot. People used to watch us fight. Fists. Knew you worn’t hurting each other. Once you was on your arse you was out the fight. Never seen any kicking. If you was fighting then, you fought with a ring round you, copper’d only muck in if there was somebody getting hurt.”
“When he was older Our Georgie fought several tough nuts and won. One of them was Tiny M “and he was supposed to be the worst bloke in Aston. I fought him and stopped all the trams on the top of Whitehouse Street on the main road. Oh, I did belt him and chase him, couldn’t catch him”.
Uncle George also knew the Kirbys well from the sixpenny hop dance at the Memorial Hall in Whitehouse Street:
“ They was good kids, the Kirbys was. There was a crowd on ’em. Bert, he was the flyweight champion of Great Britain. Jack’d fight Bert Taylor at Woodcock Street Baths and they’d be at another baths next week. That was the Bert Kirby down Whitehouse Street dance. They used to get a bottle and whiz it right up the middle of the dance floor while they was dancing. They’d get open the doors. The Kirbys used to be up the top. They used to come from different areas. Our fight night was Friday night in Whitehouse Street. All the chairs in the dance used to be all around the side and when it first opened they used to start fighting with the chairs. Real cowboy do, over your f…… head and everything, and then they used to nail ’em all together to stop ’em. So they used to sit down and wait till the dance started and put their legs lying out and bump it used to go orf. We used to have a go then, I mean if you had a bird and you went up in the air over the feet.
Uncle George also recalled that “it’s funny, different areas used to have different hats. Checked hat gang, brown hat gang” – but he never mentioned razor blades sewn into their peaks. By contrast in his fictional account of Summer Lane in that period, John Douglas wrote that some men wore a peaky blinder. He stated that the peak of the cap “was usually slit open and pennies or razor-blades or pieces of slate inserted and stitched up again”.
In a fight, these caps were “whipped off the head and swiped across the opponent’s eyes, momentarily blinding them, or slashing the cheeks”. There is no evidence of caps being used in this way as weapons. Indeed any fighting man would have dismissed it as most unlikely. A flat cap is soft behind the peak. It would be difficult to gain any force or direction by “whipping it off the head” to deliver an effective swipe.
Another fiction is that the peaky blinders head-butted opponents with the razor-blade filled peak of the cap. Yet again there is no evidence at all for this and it is another highly unrealistic scenario – given the difficulty of getting enough power ‘to drop the nut’ with a narrow peak rather than a forehead. "
Baptism of Bertram Kirby at St Stephen, Birmingham on December 16th 1908
My fellow researcher Ian Payne (grandson of Patrick Payne) confirmed the family connection with the Kirbys. Ian told me:
“ This would be true Pete, the Kirbys were Granddad Patrick’s cousins. They always drank in the Clements pub on Newtown Row. James Kirby and Mary Ann Kirby( nee. Payne), lived at 91 Pritchett Street during the 1911 census, with 10 children, but not all the children were Mary Ann's children as James was married previous to his marriage to Mary Ann, only 5 of the children would have been Mary Ann’s. The children listed are: George 18, William 17, Rose 15, Sarah 13, James 11, Frederick 8, Henry 6, Leonard 5, John Thomas 4, and Bertie aged 2.
In respect to their 1902 wedding, Ian raises a question:
“ Strange one this is though Pete, because according to the 1901 census, James and Mary are already married. They are living at 10 Court 6 House Pritchett Street with 5 of the 10 children. So my question is, did they live together previous to getting married and had the children before they were married? And only register it on the census records to save grace?”
Ian told me that his grandfather Patrick was close friends with Bert and Jack Kirby, the boxers, and may have provided transport for their supporters to get to boxing matches.
The Kirby family have also been the topic of conversation on the message boards of the Birmingham History Forum. One correspondent suggests that Bert’s Lonsdale belt used to be on display “hung over the back of a chair in a window somewhere in Newtown Row”. Ian Payne believes this was probably in the Clement Arms pub in Newtown where the Kirby brothers generally went to drink. Another person on the History Forum recalled Bert Kirby training younger boxers after retirement and adds more names from the local boxing fraternity:
“One of the Kirby lads from the old Summer Lane, Farm Street, Bert was still as fit as in his prime as I recall him and the lads and also Big Jackie Burns along with his mates the McGrotie bothers, John and Leo, all three boxed together and trained the kids at the GKN social club, up stairs down Heath Street, Winson Green and of course Watty Green followed by his son whom took up boxing. He never was good as good as his dad though. Watty and John Prescott went into the bookie business in the early years”.
The Humphreys family of Aston: Bert Humphreys, wife Lily Adams, children Lily (who married Bert Kirby), Fred, Arnold, Bertie & Irene on mother's lap
Another correspondent added:
“A friend of the family, Jack Kirby was a Birmingham boxer before the war (as were one or more of his brothers). Jack had a junk yard in Frankfort street, Hockley in the 1960's.”
Ian Payne told me that Jack Kirby was the person named John Thomas in the 1911 census, two years older than Bert. He began his boxing career in November 1922 and fought 220 bouts before hanging up his gloves 22 years later in December 1944. Jack was also a featherweight and he won 106 of his fights, lost 79 and drew 35. He won the BBBofC Midlands Area featherweight title by decisively beating Billy Beason at Woodcock Street Baths, Birmingham on 6 December 1927. He won it again in February 1928 and a third time August 1929. Another brother George also took to the boxing ring as a bantam weight in March 1931, he fought 89 matches but died in 1941.
At Lil's hairdressers salon on Chester Road, Castle Bromwich, Birmingham. Lily Kirby nee. Humphries is 3rd from the left. Irene Lawler (her sister) 2nd from the right. Lily's daughter Rene is 2nd from the left.
“Yeh I know him, he’s my grandfather’s brother. I think that fight took place on a Sunday, odd I know, but I think it was one of the first fights to take place on a Sunday. I've got a photo here somewhere, ill dig it out. Two of his other brothers where good boxers Henry and Jack they both had scrap yards One off Russell Street & the other on Frankfort street. But I think Henry spent more time in the nick than he did in the ring lol, which left Henry's three boys to run the yard, Henry Kïrby, Billy Kirby and Roy Kirby. I hear young Henry was a good boxer, but more street fighter I think, but if any one has more info please let me know. All the best Kirb…”
In reply to a lady who has a family connection to Bert Kirby and was searching for a picture of him with his Lonsdale belt, another correspondent suggest:
“I wonder if any of the Lawley family may have one, after all he done a lot of good and trained them down at the old GKN gym in Heath Street along with Roy and Big Jackie Burns and the Mcgoatie brothers including others, they have all died now, last of them died about four or five years now”.