Australia in the 1920s: Uncovering the Razor Gangs of Sydney
The 1920s were an exciting period in history. Returned soldiers who had fought in World War I were coming to grips with what they had experienced and re-establishing their place in society. The jazz age was coming into being, and hope permeated across many sectors of society, heralding a time of social, political, and cultural change. During this period, criminal gangs made their mark on the streets of Sydney, Australia, with two of the most feared gangs led by women.
The inner-city suburbs of Sydney in the 1920s were a tough place. Kings Cross, Paddington, Darlinghurst, Surry Hills, and Woolloomooloo were sprawling slums of unsanitary, ramshackle Victorian terraces and makeshift shacks teeming with criminals, drunks and drug addicts, and those too desperately poor to escape to the city’s burgeoning outer garden suburbs.
Kings Cross and Woolloomooloo were known as areas of prostitution, gambling, and drinking. While Australia didn’t have a prohibition on alcohol, pubs (drinking establishments) closed at 6 pm. Not only that, the government had outlawed the sale of cocaine in pharmacies, pushing the sale of this drug underground. For that reason, people would frequent illicit bars or brothels to continue drinking and gambling throughout the night.
The rise of the razor gangs
The practice of gang members carrying a razor became more prevalent after a 1927 law that made it illegal for someone found to have a concealed gun on their person without a license. Instead, gangs would arm themselves with a cut-throat razor that left ‘L’ shaped wounds on their victims.
It’s in this environment that two women rose to infamy, battling each other for supremacy of the criminal underworld. They recruited gangs of men to kill or disfigure their victims and leave a path of devastation in their wake.
The two Queens
Tilly Devine, known as the ‘Queen of Woolloomooloo,’ ran a string of brothels centered around Darlinghurst and Kings Cross, and in particular, Palmer Street. Born in London in 1900, Tilly began working as a prostitute soon after leaving school. She married Australian soldier James Edward Devine in 1917, following him to Australia after the war. When she arrived in Sydney in 1920, she resumed her profession as a prostitute with her husband as the protection. After serving two years in jail for wounding a man, Tilly decided it was time to move onto the next stage of her career, become a madam, and opened several brothels, with Jim using these establishments to sell cocaine. It was an interesting law that only made it illegal for men to earn a living off prostitution that enabled Tilly to remain free from prison during this time.
The ‘Queen of Surry Hills,’ Kate Leigh, sold moonshine and was a fence for stolen property. Born in the New South Wales regional town of Dubbo, Kate experienced mistreatment as a child, placed into a home at ten years old. At fourteen, Kate made her way to Sydney. She quickly established herself in the criminal sector, becoming a brothel owner in her mid-twenties. She expanded her enterprise to selling sly grog (illegal alcohol), trading in stolen goods and drugs, and other activities on her release from jail in 1919, after spending five years in Long Bay jail for perjury.
Three years of warfare
The battles between Tilly and Kate escalated in July 1929, when one of Kate’s enforcers came across two of Tilly’s henchmen and shot one of them with a revolver. Later that evening, Kate’s men attempted to storm Tilly’s house, where she was hiding out with her husband and the two henchmen involved in the initial confrontation. Tilly’s husband, an expert marksman, shot and killed one intruder, escaping a prison sentence on the defense that he was defending his home and family.
A series of confrontations followed this over 1929 and 1930 between the two gangs, with brawls and gunfights happening across the inner city suburbs. This increase in open warfare and an acknowledgment of the ‘organization’ of crime in these areas not only provided fodder for the media but prompted the government to pass legislation specifically aimed at stamping out the razor gangs.
At the end of 1929, the New South Wales parliament made it illegal for anyone to ‘habitually consort with reputed thieves, prostitutes, or persons who have no visible or lawful means of support.’
Police arrested Tilly for consorting with prostitutes in January 1930. Tilly agreed to leave Australia to escape trial, sailing back to England in February 1930 to care for her ailing mother. She left her enterprise in the hands of her husband, who proved not up to the task. When Tilly returned to Australia in 1932, she found her once-thriving illegitimate businesses in complete disarray.
Fortunes were not favorable to Kate either. Even though she had established strong political connections, they were not enough to keep her from jail. Arrested and jailed for consorting in 1929, she was re-arrested in 1933 for receiving stolen goods. On this occasion, they sentenced her to ‘rustication’ or exile to rural New South Wales for at least five years, ending one of the more vicious periods of Sydney’s criminal history.