Has anyone else been watching the BBC series Britain’s Biggest Dig, about the archaeology ahead of the new HS2 railway line between London and Birmingham? It’s been fascinating, not least in describing how excavations of two huge burial grounds, one in either city, have provided a wealth of detail about working people’s everyday lives.
There’ve been three episodes so far, one about London, one about Birmingham, and one split half-and-half between the two. All three were great, but obviously the Brum ones appealed more to me, because I know the area of the city they were working in quite well: it’s on the edge of the city centre, and my bus trundled past one end of the Park Street burial ground most Saturdays on my way back from shopping trips. It was a quiet green backwater lined with trees and dotted with Victorian headstones, and it’s sad to think it’s now gone and will soon be replaced by a vast railway terminus building. But hey ho, that’s progress I suppose!
The third episode concentrated wholly on Birmingham, and revealed all kinds of detail about the people flooding into the city to find work in the new factories and workshops (often in the jewellery and metal-working trades). One of the most fascinating insights was from the occasional use of ‘grave goods’ (things buried with the bodies), which is unusual in Christian burials but hinted at the places the people had come from. Several were buried with dinner plates, for instance, which suggests a Welsh background, and others had crucifixes and were almost certainly the fore-runners of the strong Irish community that still exists in the city to this day.
Best of all, though, was the segment on the street gangs running rife in these areas, known originally as Sloggers and later on as… wait for it… Peaky Blinders! These were made up of young, working class men who used their brief moments of leisure time to gather on waste ground and fight each other, using fists, boots, belts with heavy metal buckles, and knives.
The programme interviewed the well-known Brummie historian Dr Carl Chinn, who revealed that his own great-grandfather belonged to one of these gangs. And he also cast doubt on the theory that the Peaky Blinders got their name from their habit of stuffing their cap brims with razor blades. Apparently the name has less to do with blinding victims, and more to do with fashion – the angle they wore their hats to show off their quiffs!
All in all this was a brilliant series and I wish there’d been more episodes. The tv guides all say there are four but there’s no mention of the fourth anywhere, even on the BBC’s own website. A shame. I’d like to know more.