Fact Meets Fiction: Jessie Eden & Peaky Blinders

A version of what is about to follow exists as two posts I had previously made on the So It Goes blogger site in 2016 and 2017 respectively. Back then information regarding Jessie Eden was scantly available online (note that the 2016 post received praise from Andrea McCulloch, Jessie’s daughter-in-law. The decision to make Eden a regular character in Peaky Blinders soon changed all that, and now the life and exploits of the Birmingham trade unionist, Communist Party member and all-round socialist heroine have been recovered from the overlooked pages of history, with articles appearing in The Guardian and the TUC website, as well as the city of Birmingham finally and properly recognising one of their finest daughters. I like to think I did my bit in bringing her to wider attention.

The first recorded act of militant unionism that Jessie Shrimpton (which was Eden’s maiden name) undertook was during the General Strike of 1926, when she, as shop steward at Lucas’ Motor Components, downed tools and led the women of her section out to join some 25,000 on a May Day march. The General Stike lasted 9 days from 4th May to 13th May, and was an attempt to force the government to halt the wage cuts and worsening conditions for the 1.2 million locked out coal miners. Despite over a million people standing in solidarity and transport and heavy industry being particularly effected, the action proved unsuccessful thanks to a prepared government reaction and the enlisting of middle class volunteers to run essential services that had been affected by the industrial action. 

For the fiftieth anniversary of the strike, The Birmingham Post interviewed a then 74-year-old Eden – then using her final married name of McCulloch – for her memories of May, 1926.

When policemen laid hands on trade union tomboy Jessie McCulloch at a workers’ meeting in the old Bull Ring during the 1926 General Strike they pretty soon realised they had made a mistake; ‘One policeman put his hands on my arm. They were telling me to go home but the crowd howled ‘Hey leave her alone’ and some men came and pushed the policemen away. They didn’t do anything after that. I think they could see that there would have been a riot. I was never frightened of the police or the troops because I had the people with me you see; I don’t know what I’d have felt like on my own'”

In 1931, Jessie went down in history when she led 10,000 Birmingham women out on a week long strike – virtually unheard of at such time. It all started when Lucas’ management instigated a time and motion study from America called the Bedaux System, after its creator Charles Eugene Bedaux, which had so impressed factory owner Charles Lucas on a visit to the US. It was universally accepted among the management at Lucas’ that Jessie’s work filing shock absorbers at the plant was both the quickest and most efficient and the plan was to set the time by her and expect her colleagues to keep up with her. The two Americans brought to Birmingham had even begun to time the women’s visits to the toilet and this offensive act spurred Jessie and 140 of the girls into action; refusing to participate in the project, the Americans were chased from the screw machine shop, with one of them taking to the roof! 

Jessie initially went to the AEU (Amalgamated Engineering and Electrical Union) to ask them to represent her fellow women in this dispute but, whilst the AEU were the most populated and largely Communist union at Lucas’ at the time, they did not accept women as members. So instead she turned to the TGWU (Transport and General Workers Union) who promptly signed up the female workforce at her behest. A rank and file committee was duly formed, holding lunchtime meetings at the gates. Numbers increased rapidly and eventually, Jessie led thousands of women out of the gates in an all-out strike. 

With support from other factories and the Birmingham branch of the Communist Party (which Jessie had now joined) Lucas’ seemed set for a complete stoppage and an anxious management dropped the Bedaux system as a result.Tasting victory, the jubilant workforce hoisted Jessie up onto their shoulders in celebration. But triumph proved to be short-lived; a 5,000 strong victory march the following day was broken up by Birmingham’s Chief Constable who was booed by the procession and arrests of known communists were made in attempts to stage a May Day rally. After a while, cutbacks at the Lucas plant and a vengeful management saw Jessie lose her job. She subsequently received victimisation pay from the union and a gold medal from Ernest Bevin and had so impressed the party that they would sent her to Soviet Russia to help rally the female workers at the Moscow Metro.

Returning to England, Jessie raised her family, remarried and remained politically active, playing a prominent part in the 1939 mass rent strike across the city and would spend much of the war involved in pro-Soviet activity building bridges with the USSR’s ambassador and many visiting delegations in an attempt to improve our relationship with Russia. She unsuccessfully stood for council representing the Communist Party in the 1945 election for the Handsworth district, but drew a respectable 3.4% of the vote. She protested against the Vietnam war in the 1960s, remaining an active and much respected member of the party until senility struck in the late ’70s. She died in 1986 after spending her last years in hospital from heart failure and dementia. She was 84 years old.

With Peaky Blinders being set in the Birmingham of the 1920s, where the private enterprise ofcutthroat racketeering meets the revolutionary fervour of a working class blighted by the experiences of the Great War, it was perhaps only natural that the show would feature Jessie Eden. The show’s creator Steven Knight clearly has a penchant and a passion for working class history, but he’s not above bending reality a little to achieve his own aims. His decision to depict Billy Kimber (Charlie Creed-Miles), the most famous of the ‘peaky blinders’ as the villain of series, with no affiliation whatsoever to this Shelby-led fictionalised take on the Birmingham gang. In the second season, he depicts a world in which both his hero Tommy Shelby (Cillian Murphy) and Winston Churchill had served in the British forces at Verdun. But, as any historian will tell you, Verdun was a First World War battle that occurred between the French and German armies only. His depiction of Jessie Eden is also something that twists recorded fact.

It is in episode four of season three that we first hear mention of Jessie Eden. Note that this episode is set over the course of a Good Friday strike in the city in 1924, and yet Jessie Eden is not referred to as Jessie Shrimpton as she would have been at this stage in her life.  In the episode, the Shelby women decided to show solidarity by joining the strike with the rest of Birmingham’s working women. “Let’s go to the Bull Ring” Helen McCrory’s Aunt Polly declares, striding out of the Shelby’s illegal gambling den in Small Heath to see Jessie Eden, shop steward at Lucas’ Motor Components factory, demand equal sanitation rights for her female members. Unfortunately, the episode didn’t actually show us Jessie Eden, or her rally at the Bull Ring, though it is revealed that a drunken Aunt Polly, burdened with guilt at the Shelby’s increasing murderous exploits, got very pally with the twenty-two year old firebrand though found her too diplomatic for her tastes!

It’s clear that Knight is conflating two instances in Eden’s life here; the General Strike and the week-long strike of 1931. He’s also using some poetic licence to introduce her to the show (albeit without being seen) a full two years before her actions of 1926.

It is the subsequent season (season four) that audiences properly meet Jessie Eden, played by Irish actress Charlie Murphy. Her arrival in the show generated a lot of interest in the real Jessie – as evinced by articles in Den of Geek and The Guardian, (the latter of which features an interview with her daughter-in-law Andrea McCulloch, who had previously posted a message on my earlier blog post at So It Goes) – but again, Knight plays fast and loose with the truth. Season four commences on Christmas, 1925 and at this point in her life, Jessie Shrimpton (as she was then known, Shrimpton being her maiden name) was still only a shop steward of a small number of unionised members. She was not then the union leader that the series depicts her as. That would not occur until 1931 remember.

The fourth season details how Jessie Eden becomes crucial to Tommy Shelby in his battle with Adrien Brody’s Italian-American mafiosi Luca Changretta; he consults with her to gather intelligence on Changretta’s men who have inveigled their way into Birmingham to assassinate the Shelbys, whilst she calls on his help to improve pay and conditions for the workers in Tommy’s automobile factory. Initially antagonistic towards one another, a romance develops between the pair and Tommy – ever keen to seize an opportunity for progression – enters the world of politics, winning an election to become a Labour MP at the close of the season.

Jessie Eden has a much smaller, though nonetheless significant role to play in season five, which sees Tommy get close to Oswald Mosley. Horrified to see him seemingly take such a wrong path, Jessie meets him to remind him of his responsibilities, oblivious to the fact that he is getting close to Mosley on behalf of the security services, with his true intention being to assassinate him in the final episode. In many ways, Jessie Eden acts as as Tommy Shelby’s conscience (taking over a role previously fulfilled by Tommy’s lifelong friend and brother-in-law, the Communist agitator Freddie Thorne, played by Iddo Goldberg, who sadly appeared in the first series only; having been killed off between that finishing and the second commencing) and this role is something that Knight sees as being integral to the arc of Tommy’s storyline and development:

“I’ve always had in mind that Tommy would eventually be genuinely redeemed. All the things he sets up, like charities and foundations, he does it for a superficial purpose but eventually they will become legitimate. By the end of the Peaky Blinders story, Tommy will genuinely become a good man and Jessie Eden is part of that change. Tommy uses her in series four and he’s not genuine, but as we go into series five and he confronts fascism, he thinks, ‘Well maybe there is a virtue’. Jessie Eden represents that virtue”

Whatever Knight intends, and however he depicts it, I believe that it is good to see both an aspect of social and cultural history and a significant figure in trade union history be given a spotlight which they had been unfairly kept away from for so long.

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