Each medal won in conflict tells a story, both of the moment it was won and of the recipient. The Military Medal won by Private Frank Cherry of the 1st Battalion of the Dorsetshire Regiment has recently revealed a story with a violent and criminal history, connecting this private to one of the most notorious gangs of the 20th century.
Born in Balsall Health, Birmingham in 1882, Frank Cherry was born in to an area struck by intense economic hardship. By the time he was 19, Frank and his brother David were mixed up in a world of violent and organised crime.
On the 11th of March, 1902, the Cherry brothers were sentenced to life in prison for attempted murder of a policeman. The Birmingham Daily Gazette reported on the case on the 15th of March, remarking that it was Frank’s brother David who had dealt the near fatal blows, but that Frank was guilty of aiding and abetting. Reports from the Birmingham Mail also detail that a William Owen had attended court in February to identify the accused men, and that Frank Cherry had struck him with a “slinging blow” in the eye. It took the Jury less than five minutes to find the brothers guilty.
However, the article begins by referring to the brothers as “men of the peaky type”. The St James’s Gazette also reported that Justice Bigham had sentenced “two Birmingham “peakies””.
Several street gangs had bloomed out of the economic hardship in the area in the late 1800s. Police had tried to crack down on the growing rate of crime, and in reaction youth groups fought back, grouping together in to “slogging gangs” to fight the police and assault members of the public.
These groups then began to organise in to hierarchies, and the most violent of these groups rebranded themselves as the Peaky Blinders.
After establishing themselves in the late 1890s and marking a controlled territory, the Peaky Blinders expanded their criminal activity in to protection rackets, smuggling and illegal bookmaking. The street violence continued alongside the new organised crime enterprise, and they remained notorious until rival gang the “Birmingham Boys” took control of their territory in the 1910s. The group were made only more famous by the hit BBC show starring Cillian Murphy, based on the real life gang. The newspapers reporting on his case allege that Frank Cherry was one of these “peakies”, and though hard to confirm, his crime and circumstance places him in the midst of one of the most notorious gangs in England.
Frank Cherry was sent to serve his sentence on Portland, Dorset. However, Cherry ended up serving with the Dorsetshire Regiment in the First World War after being released from prison, most likely in 1917. Cherry went on to win a Military Medal before dying of wounds on the 14th of June, 1918 at No. 3 Stationary Hospital in Rouen.
Many gang members fought in the First World War, such as Henry Lightfoot, the first named member of the Peaky Blinders. Lightfoot fought in the Battle of the Somme, and his fellow gang member Henry Fowler was buried alive in a trench, and could not speak or see for several years after the war.
Cherry is buried at Gezaincourt Communal Cemetery in northern France. His crimes, connections to the gang, and subsequent military career show that the World Wars touched every community in the country.