Thomas Shelby

“Peaky Blinders”, created by Steven Knight gifts us a host of characters but none more complex or resilient than Tommy Shelby. Tommy is played by Cillian Murphy, the versatile and incredible actor that embodies this role. But who is Tommy? What is his story?

Tommy Shelby, a central figure in the Shelby crime family, is ultimately its leader. A war veteran, Tommy’s character is marked by intricate complexities that set him apart from others. While his associates display their traits openly, Tommy’s depth is more subtle, revealing itself through his actions and decisions. His character shows his personal struggles and quest for power, all emblematic of post World War I Britain.

Early Life

Born into a Romani family in Birmingham, the Shelby’s faced poverty, discrimination and more, all of which shape the formative years of a man. Tommy and his siblings grew up in Small Heath, an area noted for the rough conditions and working-class standards. While his siblings Arthur, John, Ada and Finn handle life differently, a resilience builds in Tommy. A survivalist mentality that is central to the man he is now and the one he becomes.

World War I

During World War I, Tommy served as a Sergeant Major. We learn very quickly in “Peaky,” that the war affected him profoundly. The horrors of trench warfare left him with what is now commonly recognised as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). How do we know this? We see Tommy suffer nightmares and flashbacks frequently. But we also see a cold detached demeanour in Tommy, a man unable to get close to anything or anyone for fear of loss. The experiences from the war served to hone his mind and skills, making him a very strategic thinker and a great leader. These qualities he would later use in his criminal empire.

The war left psychological scarring with Tommy but also served to shape his worldview. He was disillusioned by the senseless violence and the betrayal of those who sent men like him to die. After the war, Tommy returned to Birmingham with a hardened outlook on life. He was a leader in the war. This same leadership transitioned smoothly into his family leadership as Tommy became the head of the Peaky Blinders, a gang named for their practice of sewing razor blades into the peaks of their flat caps.

Rising to power

Upon his return from war, Tommy quickly asserted his position within the Peaky Blinders, transforming the gang from a small-time operation into a significant force in the British underworld. His ambitions extend beyond petty crime to legitimate business and political influence. His planning and execution, as well as his ability to stay several steps ahead of his enemies’ become hallmarks of his leadership.

Tommy’s rise to power is marked by strategic alliances and calculated risks. The usual operations of ‘Peaky Blinders’ are expanded to include smuggling which runs concurrently with the betting and bookmaking. There are legitimate ventures introduced too as Tommy Shelby demonstrates his vision for The Peaky Blinders to not simply be a feared gang but also a respected business empire, intertwining legality and illegality seamlessly. This duality reflects in Tommy’s complex character, constantly navigating the fine line between right and wrong, legality and criminality.

Family and Loyalty

Family is shown to be Tommy’s greatest strength and his Achilles’ heel. The family operates on a strict code of loyalty and unity, often blurring the lines between personal and business matters. Tommy’s relationship with his siblings is intricate; he is both protective and controlling, often making decisions that prioritise the family’s welfare over individual desires.

Arthur Shelby, Tommy’s older brother, serves as his right-hand man but also as a constant reminder of the emotional and psychological toll their lifestyle takes. Arthur’s volatility contrasts with Tommy’s calculated demeanour, highlighting the different ways they cope with their shared past. Ada, the only sister, challenges Tommy’s authority and provides a moral compass, often questioning the family’s criminal activities.

Tommy’s interactions with his family reveal a softer side, showing glimpses of vulnerability and a desire for a better future for his kin. This complexity makes him a compelling character, as viewers see the constant battle between his ruthless exterior and his underlying need for familial love and acceptance.

Romantic Relationships

Tommy’s romantic relationships are fraught with complications and subsequent tragedy. Grace Burgess, initially an undercover agent sent to infiltrate the Peaky Blinders, becomes his great love. Their relationship is intense and transformative, with Grace becoming a symbol of hope and redemption for Tommy. Her death, however, plunges him into deeper darkness and fuels his relentless pursuit of power as a means of coping with his grief.

Following Grace’s death, Tommy engages in various relationships, each reflecting different aspects of his character and his ongoing struggle with intimacy and trust. These relationships often serve as subplots that explore his vulnerabilities and the emotional scars left by his past.

Political Ambitions

As Tommy’s power grows, so do his ambitions. He enters the political arena, initially as a means to protect his business interests but gradually developing a genuine desire to effect change. His involvement in politics is yet another facet of his complex character, showcasing his intelligence, strategic thinking, and ability to navigate different spheres of influence.

Tommy’s political career is marked by his election as a Member of Parliament. He uses this position to further the Peaky Blinders’ influence while also attempting to push through social reforms. This duality of using power for both self-serving and altruistic purposes adds depth to his character, illustrating the blurred lines between criminality and respectability.

Legacy and Influence

Tommy Shelby’s legacy is a multifaceted one. He is a product of his time, embodying the struggles and aspirations of the post-war generation. His character reflects the societal shifts of the early 20th century, including the decline of traditional class structures, the rise of organized crime, and the complex interplay between legality and illegality.

Cillian Murphy’s portrayal of Tommy Shelby has become iconic, capturing the character’s depth, charisma, and inner turmoil. Murphy’s performance brings to life the intricate layers of Tommy’s personality, making him one of television’s most compelling anti-heroes. Cillian Murphy has that something special, a watchable quality that not all actors have. He has the ability to say so much without the need for words.


Thomas Shelby is a character of extraordinary complexity, embodying the contradictions and challenges of his era. From his traumatic experiences in World War I to his rise as a powerful gang leader and politician, Tommy’s journey is a complex tapestry of ambition, loyalty, love, and loss. His story is not just that of a gangster but of a man grappling with his demons while striving for a better future for his family and himself. In “Peaky Blinders,” Tommy Shelby stands as a testament to the human capacity for resilience, transformation, and the relentless pursuit of power.