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Sly grog, razor gangs and prostitution in Sydney

Even after Australian Federation (1901) in some Sydney suburbs, gamb­ling, prostitution, narcotics and guns were not just tolerated, but often legal. But in 1905, the country’s government began to change. A combination of laws were passed, including Vagrancy Act of 1902, Gambling and Betting Act of 1906, Police Offences Act of 1908, and Liquor Act of 1916 that banned alcohol sales after 6pm.

So in the 1920s and 30s, we need to ask why a particular part of Sydney was one of the most dang­erous in Australia. Kings Cross, Paddington, Darlinghurst, Surry Hills and Woolloomooloo were slums of dirty Victorian terraces and shacks teem­ing with criminals and drunks.

Australian tabloid newpapers, examining the Al Capone Era (1920-31) that was plag­uing the USA, declared East Sydney was The Chicago of the South. Although Australia didn’t have an American Prohibition Era (1920-33), the strict laws here did limit alcoholic sales and dis­tribution.

Razor: A True Story of Slashers, Gangsters, Prostitutes and Sly Grog 
Written by Larry Writer (2001).

So who were the two infamous vice-queens? Kate Leigh was from rural NSW. One of 13 sib­lings, she was a wilful spirit who stole, beat children and truanted. After four years in a delinquent girls’ home, she worked in factories. Soon the young woman’s poor pay prompted her to seek a criminal career instead. At 21 she married Jack Leigh, a 30-year-old carpenter and petty crook. By 1913 she was again convict­ed for running a brothel. In 1914 Mrs Leigh, lover of a gang­land criminal, was sent­en­ced for perjury after the great Eveleigh Workshops payroll robbery. With the late drinking ban, which enforced a 6pm closing time, Leigh began selling sly grog to “help the cust­om­ers”. At her peak, Leigh operated 24 sly grogeries, brothels and a cocaine business. 

Tilly Devine was born in late Victorian London, into pitiful pov­er­ty. Leaving school at 12, she found that life in the sweat­shops was miserable, so she sold herself on the Strand as a prost­it­ute. At 16 she met and married Australian soldier Jim Devine, a former sheep shearer. When the war was over, Devine’s husband sailed back to Aust­ral­ia. She followed him a year later, leaving their son behind with her own parents and she began work as a prostitute in Padding­ton. Her husband lived off illegal gambling.

In 1925 she and her husband found themselves serving time in gaol together — she for slashing a man with a razor in a barber’s shop, he for living off her wages. While laws prohibited men from run­ning brothels, it mentioned nowhere that a woman was unable to do so. At 25 Devine had a new plan - she amassed her fortune through hiring girls to “work” while she collected a percentage of their earnings. Devine was generous only to those who were loyal to her.

Sydney’s criminals had always kept handguns and knives on them, many weapons illegally retained after soldiers returned home from WWI. But when the Pistol Licensing Act of 1927 ordered gaol for anyone with an unlicensed firearm, out­laws began carrying another weapon - a sharply honed cut-throat razor. This shaving blade could be bought cheaply at any grocer’s or chemist.

Thousands of Sydneysiders found themselves brutalised victims of slash­ings. The trademark gangster slash, an L-shaped scar extending down the left cheek and across the mouth, became a common gang mark. In 1927-30 alone, there were 500+ recorded razor attacks in inner Syd­ney (probably underestimated).

Sydney Living Museum
Underworld Exhibition

Although Devine and Leigh’s empires each had their own stamping ground, each madam wanted to be the more feared. Leigh told her men to dis­fig­ure Tilly’s prostitutes with a flick of their razor blad­es. In retaliation, Tilly had her heavies slash the faces of Leigh’s criminal decoys and smash up her sly grog shops.

A time line of major Razor Gang War events including the Blood Alley Battle in mid 1927, showed dozens of armoured gangsters injured or killed as the madams struggled for con­trol of East Sydney's vice rackets. The death rate in the inner east was 20% higher than elsewhere in Sydney, because of rampant disease, huge rats and razor-wielding gangsters!

Contemporary newspapers, The Sydney Morning Herald and espec­ially the worst rag The Truth, reported that Sydney was almost ov­er­taken by violent crime. Note the purple prose: “Today Darlinghurst is a plague spot where the spawn of the gutter grow and fatten on off­icial apathy. By day its alleys shelter the underworld people. At night they prey on prosp­er­ity, decency and virtue, and to fight one another for the division of the spoils. This news­pap­er demands that Razorhurst be swept off the map! We demand new laws and new streng­th for their enforcement. We point, for convincing and horrifying evidence, to the crimes already to Raz­or­hurst’s discredit. Recall the human beasts that, lurking cheek by jowl with decent people, live with no purpose or occupation but crime; bottle men, dope pedlars, razor slashers, sneak thieves, con­­fidence men, women of ill repute, pick pockets, burg­lars, spiel­ers, gunmen and race course parasites. Razorhurst attracts to its cesspool every form of life that is vile". (Truth, Sept 1928).

By late 1929, the state government was desperate about the razor gangs’ destruction of Sydney. So it passed the Consorting Clause, punishing those who consorted with thieves or prost­itutes. In Jan 1930 a newly formed Consorting Squad focused on ending the criminal factions - 100 resid­ents were charged under the new clause and half went to prison. Dev­ine avoid­ed prison by going home to Britain for two years, leaving her husb­and behind. But Big Jim went on trial for murder within a year. By the time Devine returned, her gang was falling apart.

The worst charge came after a raid on Leigh’s East Sydney home in 1930; the Drugs Bureau found cocaine there! Her deputy, Frederick Dangar, was also ar­r­ested and gaoled for cocaine charges. Later Leigh was exiled from Sydney for 5 years.

The Drug Bureau and Consorting Squad eliminated cocaine trafficking as a major organised crime activity by the mid-1930s. Although the madams continued their lives in Sydney, their reputations as crime gang leaders collapsed.

Kate Leigh (above) and Tilly Devine (below)
 Police photos

See the dark side of Sydney’s past at the Sydney Living Museums. With its holding cells, charge room and courts, the museum opens a world of crime, pun­ish­ment and policing, including sly grog and razor gangs. See the exhib­it­ion Underworld: Mugshots from the Roaring Twenties from  in the NSW Police Forensic Photography Archive. 


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