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