The years of 1927 to 1930 saw the worst mob wars in Australian history. Nothing before or since has approached them for ferocity. Gang leaders Kate Leigh, Tilly Devine, Norman Bruhn and Phil ‘The Jew’ Jeffs battled it out in East Sydney, with a wide range of fascinating side characters who called this part of Sydney home.
The “Truth” newspaper described the area best:
“Razorhurst, Gunhurst, Bottlehurst, Dopehurst – it used to be Darlinghurst, one of the finest quarters of a rich and beautiful city; today it is a plague spot where the spawn of the gutter grow and fatten on official apathy. By day it shelters – in its alleys, in its dens – the underworld people. At night it looses them to prey on prosperity, decency and virtue, and to fight one another for the division of the spoils.Excerpt from Truth newspaper, September 1928
This newspaper demands that Razorhurst be swept off the map, and the Darlinghurst we knew in better days be restored. It demands new laws, and new strength for their enforcement. And it points, 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 aim, purpose or occupation but crime – bottle men, dope pedlars, razor slashers, sneak thieves, confidence men, women of ill repute, pickpockets, burglars, spielers, gunmen and every brand of race course parasite. Razorhurst grows more and more undesirable as a place of residence for the peaceful and industrious. Unceasingly it attracts to its cesspool every form of life that is vile.”
- Born: 1881 in Dubbo, eighth child in an impoverished Catholic family, “Kathleen Mary Josephine Beahan”.
- Aged 12: sent to Parramatta Industrial School for Girls after being charged as a neglected child.
- Aged 16: made her way to Sydney where she found work in factories and shops around Glebe and Surry Hills.
- 1901: Arrested for vagrancy and received 14 days’ hard labour in prison.
- 1902: Marries James Ernest ‘Jack’ Lee, an illegal bookmaker and petty criminal who was part-Chinese. Kate anglicises the Chinese “Lee” to “Leigh” and has a daughter, Eileen.
- 1905: Lee charged with the assault and robbery of their Glebe landlord, Kate acquitted of perjury.
- 1913: Becomes the lover of Riley Street Gang leader Samuel ‘Jewey’ Freeman, and lives with him in Frog Hollow.
- 1914: Freeman and his accomplice Ernest ‘Shiner’ Ryan charged with the Eveleigh Railway Workshops robbery (Australia’s first robbery involved a getaway vehicle). Kate was sentenced to five years at Long Bay Gaol for perjury.
- 1919: Kate leaves jail, starts her sly grog business at 104 Riley St, Darlinghurst.
- 1922: Marries Edward Joseph Barry, a sly grog dealer and small-time crook.
- March 1930: Fatally shoots John ‘Snowy’ Prendergast who had broken into her house looking for her lover and henchman Wally Tomlinson.
- 1932: Sentenced to six months imprisonment for ‘habitually consorting with women of ill-repute’.
- 1936: Agrees to a truce with Tilly Devine, on the insistence of Police Commissioner William Mackay.
- 1942: Sentenced to six months in prison for selling sly grog. It was her fifth conviction for selling alcohol without a licence, but she successfully appealed it.
- 1950: Marries her old friend and convicted armed robber Ernest Alexander ‘Shiner’ Ryan. They separate soon after the wedding.
- 1954: Made bankrupt for not paying taxes.
- 1955: 6 ‘o’clock swill law rescinded and with that, Kate Leigh’s business is done. Spends her remaining years living in secluded poverty at her home at 212 Devonshire Street.
- Died: 1964, of a stroke, aged 82. Her funeral at St Peter’s Catholic Church in Devonshire Street is attended by over 700 mourners, including politicians, policemen and criminals. She had notched up 107 convictions in her life.
- Born: 1900 in Camberwell, London – “Matilda Mary Twiss”.
- 1916: Working as a prostitute around the Strand. Meets Australian soldier James ‘Big Jim’ Devine.
- 1917: Marries James Devine, her marriage certificate recording her age as 21 (she’s 16).
- 1919: Leaves England on a ‘war-bride ship’, arrives in Sydney in January 1920. Continues working as a prostitute in East Sydney along William Street and elsewhere.
- 1921 – 1925: Arrested 79 times for whoring, obscene language, offensive behaviour and fighting.
- 1925: Sentenced to two years at Long Bay Gaol for slashing a man with a razor.
- 1927: Upon her release, buys a cottage on Palmer St and sets up her first brothel.
- Late 1920s: Has 18 brothels around Darlinghurst and East Sydney. Moves to Maroubra.
- 1930: Charged with consorting, riotous behaviour, and assaulting a police officer. Agrees to leave the country for two years, rather than go to prison, but is back in Sydney in less than a year.
- 1936: Agrees to a truce with Kate Leigh, on the insistence of Police Commissioner William Mackay.
- 1943: Files for divorce from Jim Devine on the grounds of cruelty, which is finalised in January 1944.
- 1945: Marries Eric Parsons, a seaman and barman.
- 1948 & 1953: Visits England to see her elderly father and for the Queen’s coronation.
- 1955: Tax Department orders her to pay $20,000 in unpaid income tax and fines. She is forced to sell many of her properties off.
- 1959: Tilly’s extensive brothel empire is back to just one establishment in Palmer Street.
- 1968: Her last brothel closes after being firebombed by new criminal entrepreneurs.
- Died: 1970, succumbs to cancer in Concord Hospital on 24 November 1970.
- Born: 1892
- 1916: Meets Tilly Devine while in London. He has already fought in the Middle East as a sapper in the Australian Imperial Forces.
- 1917: Marries Tilly Devine.
- 1918: Returns to Australia. Tilly follows a year later.
- 1925: Sentenced to 18 months for living off the immoral earnings of a prostitute (his wife)
- 17 July 1929: Shoots Gaffney dead at his Maroubra house and wounds Tomlinson.
- January 1944: Divorce with Tilly is finalised, moves to Melbourne and finds work as a warehouse storeman. He fades into obscurity, with only a couple of visits to Sydney.
- Died: 18 August 1966
- Born: 1884 in Mittagong.
- 1907: Working as a nurse at the Callan Park Hospital for the Insane in Callan Park
- 1915: Joins the New South Wales Police Force as the first female police detective.
- July 1930: Part of the raid on Kate Leigh’s house at 104 Riley Street by the drug squad.
- 1946: Received the King’s Police and Fire Service Medal for her life’s work.
- 1949: Retires from the police force at age 65 and is awarded the Imperial Service Medal.
- Died: 26 August 1971, aged 86. Her funeral includes a police guard of honour.
- Born: 1902, grows up in Eastwood, north-west of Sydney.
- 1927: Establishes himself as leader of the Darlinghurst Push.
- 1931: After attacking a grazier following a drinking session, Calletti is beaten and arrested, and sentenced to 2 years in prison.
- 1933: Green and Calletti slug it out in a backstreet fist fight watched by almost 600 people to settle who gets to be Cameron’s lover. With no clear winner, Cameron stays with Calletti. Shortly after, Calletti is back in prison for 6 months.
- 1934: Marries Nellie Cameron after whisking her away to Melbourne, while Green is in prison.
- October 1937: Sentenced to 6 months in prison for consorting. When released, discovers Cameron has headed north, and begins a relationship with Dulcie Markham, another prostitute nicknamed ‘The Angel of Death’.
- Died: 1939, as a result of gunshot wounds to the abdomen after gatecrashing a party of the Brougham Street Gang.
Frank ‘the Little Gunman’ Green
- Born: 1902, “Francis Roland Green”
- 1920: Records first offence, for using indecent language.
- Late 1920s: Working as a gunman for Tilly Devine.
- 17 July 1929: Shot by Gregory Gaffney in Woolloomooloo.
- 9 November 1929: Shoots dead Barney Dalton and wounds Wally Tomlinson outside the Strand Hotel (corner of William and Crown streets, Darlinghurst).
- March 1930: Green acquitted of the murder of Dalton. Has a falling out with Devines and no longer works for them.
- 1933: Green and Calletti slug it out in a backstreet fist fight watched by almost 600 people to settle who gets to be Cameron’s lover. With no clear winner, Cameron stays with Calletti.
- January 1934: Back in prison on a consorting charge.
- Died: 26 April 1956. Stabbed to death by his girlfriend at his home in Paddington. The coroner discovers his body is riddled by bullet wounds.
- Born: 1910 on the Lower North Shore.
- 1926: Runs away from home and becomes a prostitute, cocaine runner and a fence for stolen property. Meets and becomes Norman Bruhn’s lover and he is her pimp.
- 1927: After Bruhn’s death, becomes the lover of Frank Green.
- 1934: Marries Guido Calletti.
- Died: 8 November 1953, aged 41. Convinced she had contracted cancer from bullet wounds sustained in her wild days, she gassed herself. More than 700 friends and admirers attended her funeral, including Kate Leigh, Tilly Devine and Frank Green.
Phil ‘the Jew’ Jeffs
- Born: 1896 in Riga, Latvia before his family moves to London.
- 1912: Signs up for a working passage on a cargo vessel to Sydney.
- Early 1920s: begins working as a low-level criminal in Sydney.
- 7 May 1929: ‘Battle of Blood Alley’ in Eaton Avenue, a brawl between Jeffs and a rival gang. Jeffs is shot but recovers, retreating to the Central Coast for several years.
- 1932: Returns to Sydney and takes over the Fifty-Fifty club on William Street.
- 1933: Opens the 400 Club in the Sydney CBD. Buys off police and politicians.
- 1937: Police start cracking down on Jeffs’ nightclubs and he begins selling them.
- 1942: Fifty-Fifty club closes after a national security order due to wartime.
- Died: 1945, having retired to Ettalong on the NSW Central Coast as a wealthy man, potentially from lingering gunshot wounds. He leaves a fortune of $65,000 pounds.
- Born: 1984
- 1914 – 1918: Serves in WWI with the Australian infantry. Court-martialled and deserts on numerous occasions, and spends time in hospital for venereal diseases.
- 1926: Arrives in Sydney with his wife and family after absconding from bail in Melbourne. His gang of George ‘The Midnight Raper’ Wallace, John ‘Snowy’ Cutmore and Lancelot ‘Sailor the Slasher’ Saidler, begin their attacks on other gangs, with razors their weapon of choice.
- Died: 22 June 1927, shot to death by a gunman lurking in the shadows outside Mack’s sly-grog shop in Charlotte Lane in Darlinghurst.
- Born: 1899
- 1916: Charged at age 16 with “Shooting At, With Intent To Murder”.
- Late 1920s: Living with Kate Leigh and working as her bodyguard.
- 17 July 1929: Wounded after the shoot-out in Maroubra which killed Gaffney.
- 9 November 1929: Wounded by Frank Green outside the Strand Hotel.
- Died: 5 Sep 1968
- Born: 1901
- 1920s: Works for Kate Leigh.
- 17 July 1929: Shoots Frank Green in Woolloomooloo after his girlfriend gets into a fight with Nellie Cameron (Frank Green’s girlfriend). Follows Green to Maroubra that evening to finish the job.
- Died: 17 July 1929, killed as a result of shooting by Jim Devine at Maroubra.
Articles and blog posts:
- Tilly Devine & the Razor Gang Wars, 1927-1931 | NSW State Archives
- Dick’s Blog: Sydney’s Razor Gang Wars 1925 to 1935
- Following in the footsteps of the Razor Gangs | Sydney Living Museums
- Following in the Footsteps of the Razor Gangs: Charlotte Lane | Sydney Living Museums
- Following in the footsteps of the Razor Gangs – Part 2 | Sydney Living Museums
- Underbelly – Razor: Tilly Devine, Kate Leigh and the Razor Gangs by Larry Writer
- The Worst Woman in Sydney: The Life and Crimes of Kate Leigh by Leigh Straw
- Lillian Armfield: How Australia’s first female detective took on Tilly Devine and the Razor Gangs and changed the face of the force by Leigh Straw
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