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More than just Peaky Blinders – West Midlands Police Museum mugshot archive

An astonishing archive of mugshots offers a unique insight into the crimes and fashions of Birmingham from the 1850s to the 1930s.

Mugshots from the West Midlands Police Museum archive
Courtesy of West Midlands Police Museum

A fascinating collection of mugshots offers a unique perspective on changing crimes and fashions over more than 70 years. The West Midlands Police Museum archive dates back to collodion positives from the 1850s and spans through to the 1930s.

We talk to Corinne Brazier, heritage manager for West Midlands Police, about the beautiful and haunting collection.

Taking the first prisoner mugshots

Mugshots offer an unusual historic perspective. They are not documentary photography. You do not have the clues of daily life that street photography offers. They are snapshots of a moment in time.

Yet they can still reflect societal changes and prompt us to ask who the subjects are and how they found themselves in front of a camera.

The West Midlands Police Museum, which recently reopened in a former Victorian lock-up in Birmingham, has what is believed to be the biggest collection of mugshots in the UK.

Birmingham is a fitting home for the archive. Its police force was the first in the country to start taking prisoner mugshots.

The earliest mugshots in this collection are collodion positives from the 1850s and 1860s.

“They’re beautiful little pictures, wonderfully clear on lovely little ornate frames,” says Corinne.

“We’ve got maybe 30 of those in total from the 1850s and 60s. Some of them we’ve got the names and offences of the individuals and a year.

“Some of them we’ve got nothing. We’ve got no name, or details of offence or anything, which is quite sad thinking that we’re never going to find that.”

Heading to Moor Street

Corrine believes the ‘incredible’ images were taken by a Moor Street photographer.

“Moor Street was where the old public office used to be in Birmingham, which really was the biggest Birmingham cellblock before the lockup opened in 1891.

“I imagine the police officers marching the prisoners from the Moor Street public office into the newly opened photographers, pushing the paying members of the public out the way, who were probably spending their life savings on the only family portrait they’re ever going to have, and thrusting the prisoners in front of the camera.”

Perhaps surprisingly, the prisoners in these early mugshots are ‘spectacularly well dressed’.

Most of the men have top hats on. The women have bonnets and scarves.

“Generally, they’re really nicely dressed, although some of them do look a little bit worse for wear,” says Corinne.

“Which makes me wonder did they pick and choose which ones had their photographs taken? Was there some kind of criteria?

“Was there even a dressing-up box at the photographers where they would put clothing on?

“And why? Why do most of them look like they’re wearing their Sunday best? Or were they just well dressed criminals?

“I don’t know. But those images are absolutely wonderful.”

A mugshot of Isaac Ellery
Isaac Ellery, courtesy of West Midlands Police Museum

Matching waistcoats

Moving on from the early collodion images, the museum’s first ledger dates back to the 1870s.

There are seven ledgers in total. Each is around 300 pages, double-sided with four or five pictures on each page.

Six of those are solely of male prisoners and one is of female prisoners.

“The 1870s one is really interesting,” says Corinne. “Again, it’s probably based at Moor Street.

“Almost all of the male prisoners seem to be wearing the same outfit. They all seem to be wearing this black waistcoat and a black jacket.

“It just makes me wonder if the photographer had some clothing for consistency, for context to show the different sizes of people.

“Or was it that their clothing was that bad, they were given some clothing as part of a charitable effort whilst in custody?

“I don’t know if we’ll ever know but it just really strikes me every time I see a page from that ledger. Almost every single one is wearing the exact same outfit.”

Changing times, changing crimes

As the ledgers move from the end of the 19th century into the 20th century the crimes committed reflect the changes in society.

The early 1900s is when the gangs now made famous by the Peaky Blinders first make an appearance. A ledger from the 1920s is full of racecourse villains.

“They give you have a wonderful insight into changing fashions and hairstyles, particularly the women’s one, seeing how they’ve all got their hair differently and the hats and all sorts of things like that.

“That’s a wonderful little insight into social history and also the differences in offending and how things have changed.

“You can take a snapshot of that collection and look at what the most prolific offences were for that particular time period.”

The ledgers available for public view finish in the 1930s.

The museum also has hardcover booklets, each containing around 20 to 30 images, from the 1940s and 1950s.

However, these are yet to be scanned and indexed and are too recent to be included in genealogy searches.

“The 1940s and 50s ones are interesting because you start to look at different war crimes like theft of sandbags and rations and all sorts of things like that. So that’s quite interesting.

“And we’ve chosen a couple of those wartime criminals to be featured in one of the dressed cells as part of the interpretation of the lockup.

“We’ve got some Victorian prisoners in a Victorian cell and a couple of the wartime prisoners in the 1940s cell.

“And then we’ve got a modern cell, which has some quotes from a modern day prisoner. So we’ve tried to share the lockup at different points in time.”

Mugshot of Catherine Corcoran
Catherine Corcoran, courtesy of West Midlands Police Museum

The real Peaky Blinders

Inevitably, one of the things which has attracted attention since the museum reopened earlier this year is its connection with the Peaky Blinders.

The now infamous gang would have spent time in the lock-ups cells.

Displays include a dedicated Peaky Blinders cell and mugshots of those thought to be members of the original gang.

Corinne says, while it is only a small part of the museum’s extensive collection, the Peaky Blinders is a great way to ‘bring people in’.

However, it is not always easy separating fact from fiction.

“There’s no files on the Peaky Blinders,” she says. “Even in the mugshot collections, they’re not labelled up as Peaky Blinders.

“So it takes a bit of research to understand who is classed as a Peaky Blinder, who is referred to as a Blinder by searching the papers and who is just a Peaky Blinder as part of family folklore.

“There’s so many stories that get passed down through generations that we unfortunately have to dispel the various myths and tell people it’s not quite as as they believe.”

The Peaky Blinders cell also features those tasked with policing the Peaky Blinders.

“They don’t get a very good press in the drama series. They’re either faceless or they’re corrupt. There’s no good police officers. So we wanted to try and tell the stories of those people a little bit.”

The Peaky Blinders cap

The museum collection also features a curious object dubbed the Peaky Blinder cap.

“It came from our smaller site out in Coventry and it was referenced in a newspaper article in about 1961 as part of the collection there, but there’s no paperwork or anything to indicate where it came from,” says Corinne.

“So we don’t know if it is a genuine Peaky Blinder cap with the razor blades sewn into the brim.

“But we do know it’s much too old to be a modern forgery.

“So it’s just one of those interesting objects that, looking at the contemporary evidence, there’s not really any evidence that Peaky Blinders did have razor blades in their caps.

“But here we are with a cap with a razor blade in it out on display.”

Visitors look at a display of police mugshots at the West Midlands Police Museum
Courtesy of West Midlands Police Museum

A legendary collection which needed a new home

While the West Midlands Police Museum opened in its new location in Steelhouse Lane, Birmingham, earlier this year, its own history dates back the 1960s.

“A detective sergeant at the Birmingham City Police Training School started to collect a lot of historic items to teach his detective officers about different aspects of legislation and how things have changed,” says Corinne.

“He was a very keen historian and he started to grow this collection and gather more and more stuff. And so he started the museum at the training school and it was very internally focused.

“All the new recruits and cadets would go and have a look round, external visitors to the force would get to come and have a look around and it became quite legendary.”

In the early 1990s, the museum was moved to a police station in a Birmingham suburb so it could be used for community engagement.

However, it gradually fell out of regular use.

Only the dedication of a small group of volunteers and passionate staff ensured its survival.

When it was announced in 2015 that its police station home was to be sold off, supporters decided to seize the opportunity to breathe new life into the museum.

They applied for Lottery funding, raised awareness of their ‘amazing engagement asset’ and seven years later the museum was finally able to open in its new home.

Steelhouse Lane lock-up

The lock-up in Steelhouse Lane is a fitting home for what is now the largest police museum in the UK.

Built in 1891, it housed more than 1 million prisoners before its cell doors closed for the final time in 2016.

A two-year renovation project has seen it transformed into an accessible museum which still retains many of its original features.

Since opening its doors in April, it has proved popular with a wide range of visitors.

Staff and volunteers deal with genealogy inquiries and even have visits from prisoners who spent time in the lock-up.

“They’re looking at it in a different light,” says Corinne.

“Some of them want to bring their their families here and try and get their kids onto the straight and narrow. So that’s quite nice, actually, that they get the chance to do that.”

As well as general opening, the museum offers guided tours, school visits and group visits.

It even recently hosted its first murder-mystery event.

West Midlands Police Museum opening hours

The museum is open 10am to 4pm Tuesday to Sunday and seven days a week during school holidays.

More information on opening times and ticket prices is available here.