The don of EC1

The character of Darby Sabini in Peaky Blinders has revitalised interest in Clerkenwell’s infamous interwar gangster


a crowded 1920s racecourse, with men in hats and overcoats standing in front of the cloth banners of tote bookmakers
A racecourse of the era
Credit: whatsthatpicture from Hanwell, London, Creative Commons

Peaky Blinders has become one of the great showbiz franchises of our time. Since it began in 2013 it has snowballed, moving from television to the stage, and is currently working its way around the country as a dance production. As most of us know by now, Steven Knight’s creation is a pot-boiling mix of sharply-dressed retro toughs and romantic molls, and centres around WWI veteran Tommy Shelby (Cillian Murphy) and his band of Birmingham gangsters. It’s fair to say that the period detail is improved upon – and that most of the characters are fictional.

But there are a few characters who are based in reality, the most notable being Darby Sabini, played on TV by Noah Taylor. Indeed, if anything Sabini’s importance in the demimonde of 20th century British mobsters has been underplayed. For the Anglo-Italian from ‘Little Italy’ – the stew of streets based around Saffron Hill and Clerkenwell Road – was one of the most successful gangsters in the UK and was even described in the title of his 1984 biography by crime writer Edward T Hart as Britain’s Godfather.

Charles (or in some testimonies) Ollovia or Ottavio Sabini was born to Italian immigrant Ottavio Sabini and Eliza Handley in either Saffron Hill or Warner Street in 1888 (Sabini history is a bit of a moveable feast). Even in childhood Darby seems to have created alibis, calling himself variously Charles or Fred. He left school in 1902 at 13, establishing himself as a boxer, bookmakers’ runner and tough door operator with promoter Dan Sullivan in Hoxton.

From there it was a shortish hop to run nightclubs and protection rackets, but Sabini’s real meal ticket came in the 1920s where the protection of book makers and a supporting cast of bad debtors, bent clerks and ticktack men at racecourses made for a lucrative living, bringing back about £4,000-5,000 per meeting, about £200,000 today. If you’ve seen John Boulting’s 1948 film Brighton Rock based on Graham Greene’s 1938 book of the same name Greene is said to have based the character Colleone on Sabini – then you’ve got the flavour. To enforce their authority, the growing Sabini clan used cutthroat razors with tape wrapped around them to expose the last, shiny inch.

Wherever the gang went, be it Brighton or Epsom, the Sabini base was in Clerkenwell. The gang convened at the Griffin, now a strip pub, and the Yorkshire Grey on Gray’s Inn Road as well as the Bull: all well-placed to be lookouts for invading gangs from other areas, including south London’s Elephant gang, Hoxton’s Titanics and the Camden Town mob.

Indeed, it was at the Griffin that one of Darby’s major tests came in 1920, when an Elephant gang “frightener” called Monkey Benneyworth came in to assert he and his gang’s dominance – and left in a bit of a beaten-up mess. Of course a feud ensued, but with about 300 enforcers Sabini was in a good position to hold his ground. His large coterie included other Sabini family members and names like Alfred Solomon – a Jewish gangster from Covent Garden depicted in Peaky Blinders by actor Tom Hardy.

As in the US, the 1920s was a roaring time for gangsterism in the UK. The end of WWI in 1918 initiated a heady, demob-happy atmosphere in which leisure activities such as dog and horseracing flourished, along with the betting that fuelled it. This meant that racecourses were awash with cash; catnip to the mobs. Protection rackets, blackmail, extortion and robbery became rife, and with racecourses spread across the country, London’s travelling gangs faced crews from Leeds and Birmingham – the latter the source of the actual Peaky Blinders – as well as London rivals such as south London’s Elephant Gang and Hoxton’s Titanics. The Sabinis would return down Clerkenwell Road in a triumphant phalanx of black sedans.

With superior numbers and ruthlessness combined with cunning, Sabini and his gang rode high in the 1920s when they had stakes in all the southern racecourses and protection rights over half of London’s nightclubs. Sabini himself wasn’t just a tough guy. With diplomatic skills, he mostly managed to keep the police and judiciary at bay and his Clerkenwell firm is said to have including imported Sicilians, who worked in a sometimes uneasy mix with local gangsters.

In his own way Sabini clearly had managerial skills, inspiring loyalty and fear. He was both rich and judiciously generous, splashing fivers around when circumstances demanded, and tough enough in character to get out of scrapes without violence. During the 1930s Sabini was said to be a permanent inhabitant of Brighton’s Grand Hotel – the epitome of luxury. He married Annie Emma Potter, and they are said to have had three daughters and one son. The family approached what might be called an ordinary life, with Sabini going to church and tending his garden.

There were hiccups in his otherwise successful career. In 1926 he was declared bankrupt after a libel action against a newspaper failed, and some gangland escapades ended badly. Challenges came from other quarters such as north London’s White family and East End gangster Jack ‘Spot’ Comer, who challenged the Sabinis’ dominance; not to mention the Birmingham Boys, who were an ever-present threat, once kid napping a woman from the Sabini coterie and subjecting her to rape and violence.

If there was ever a desire to glamorise the world of the Sabini’s and their counterparts – abetted by colourful names like Jimmy Sabatini, the “Cobblestone Fighter” and the “Trimmer” – then events like these put paid to such romantic notions.

The Second World War then came, when the internment of Italians began due to Italy being on Germany’s side. Sabini was arrested in 1940 at Hove’s Greyhound Stadium and interned as an enemy alien, then in 1943 doing a further three years in prison for receiving stolen goods. This left the field wide open and after the war, Sabini found his empire had been taken over by various others including the Whites. Sabini then seems to have drifted into a kind of semi-retirement, becoming a bookmaker. In 1951 he died in Hove.

With the TV series, as you’d expect, a few liberties were taken. In Peaky Blind ers Sabini is impeccably dressed, as you’d expect from an Italian, and brings all the arrogance of the role to bear. But as Hart says in Britain’s Godfather, Sabini preferred to dress in the clothes of an Italian peasant, with a trademark checked flat cap, and he acted humbly – the better for his formidable diplomatic skills. Knowing the importance of a low profile served Darby Sabini well – if not the historians, who have to piece together fragments from the life of the don of Clerkenwell.

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