Thanks, Tilly and Kate!

Sitemeter shows this month on the Floating Life sites shaping as the best of the last twelve months. Already it’s the best in terms of page views, with 12,915. Part of this is continuing Australia’s Got Talent interest, but the chief reason seems to be Surry Hills and Darlinghurst in 30s and 40s, and this post from Floating Life (14 January 2008) which I now duly repost!

Back when I was 16-19 years old one of my contemporaries at Sydney University, an acquaintance I would sometimes walk from Redfern with, was, though I didn’t know it, the nephew of Tilly Devine. That, in Darlinghurst/Surry Hills terms, is a bit like saying “the nephew of Al Capone” — there were similarities, especially in the idea of prohibition involved which, though not as radical in Sydney, did generate “sly grog shops” and a bigger inner city drug trade than most of us now realise; otherwise you’d have to say our female Capones were a touch less sinister. Tilly Devine and her Surry Hills rival Kate Leigh dominated inner Sydney life in the days when it had this common name:


Visit that site; it’s excellent.

I just read about the connection between my fellow student and Tilly Devine in Larry Writer’s Razor (Pan Macmillan 2001) which I have just borrowed from Surry Hills Library. The student is now a very respectable, possibly retired, historian.

You may read a little more about those exciting times here:

From 1927-1930, Darlinghurst, Sydney was the scene of violent gang warfare. Two of the toughest gangsters on the scene at the time were Kate Leigh and Tilly Devine, whose battle to become the Queen of the Underworld fuelled the razor gang wars of Darlinghurst through their most violent years.

GUY NOBLE: In 1916, in the Sydney suburb of Liverpool, 5,000 troops of the Australian Light Brigade went for a riotous pub crawl that only ended three days and 50km later here in East Sydney.
The citizens of the time were so appalled by what had taken place that the government was forced to take action. It introduced six o’clock closing, which had an enormous impact on Sydneysiders for decades afterwards. This created an opportunity for two women with a criminal sense of enterprise. And the story of their feud is notorious in the history of this town.
VOICE-OVER: The Sydney suburb of Darlinghurst went under a different name in the Depression years. In local slang, it was ‘Razorhurst’. A place where razor gangs ruled with glistening blades and one of the great girl fights of Australian history played itself out in violent blows. The feud of crime queens Kate Leigh and Tilly Devine was a marriage of hatred. Till death do us part was one of its vows.
LANCE HOBAN, MBE, RETIRED NSW POLICE INSPECTOR: They were rivals in the world of crime. Kate was always very jealous of being known as the queen of the underworld. Tilly was always the queen of the bordellos. But they were always rivals to see who had attained the greatest notoriety.
LARRY WRITER, AUTHOR OF ‘RAZOR’: Kate and Tilly really became rivals when the Razor Gang wars broke out. There had always been gangs on the streets. But in 1927, we had the pistol licensing laws came in, which called for very heavy jail terms for anyone caught with a concealed weapon. So the crooks, instead of carrying pistols, armed themselves with razors. The other benefit of a razor was that it was a terrifying instrument in that people usually gave up their money if they were confronted by a glistening blade, gleaning off the lamplight amid a Kings Cross lane…

I think I’ll enjoy the book. By the way, Miranda Devine is apparently called “Tilly” by some, but as far as I know is no relation.

Of course Channel Nine’s latest Underbelly is responsible.

That is a documentary, not the current TV series, which I haven’t been following.

Addenda 30 August

I have recalled a few more posts I have done related to this.

Australian poem: 2008 series: #2 — Kenneth Slessor (1901-1971) "Snowdrops"

Surry Hills 24: just a walk around the block 2

You can’t walk this block without encountering the spirit of Kate Leigh, one-time Queen of The Hills.

This is where she ended her days:

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212A Devonshire Street

And here, I think, is the balcony from which she distributed largesse to the children of Surry Hills at Christmas, when at the height of her fame.

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7 thoughts on “Thanks, Tilly and Kate!

  1. The famous Kate Leigh photograph (black and white Chirstmas photo), taken at her sly grog shop and home, is at No. 2 Lansdowne Street, Surry Hills, Sydney, NSW in December 1949. The house was later demolished for the construction of Ward Park. Furthermore the photo shows two doors and your photo only shows one door.

  2. That photo is taken of right next to the south east corner of Ward Park on the south side of Landsdowne Street so perhaps it’s as near as we can now get to imagining what the place would be like today. Frankly I was a little sad that there were no obvious indications of its history.

    I visited there today and also 212A Devonshire (at least in the current numbering – I’ve no idea whether there would have been any changes) and again there’s no sign of its history (no plaque – or at least not that I noticed) and I was a little disappointed but at least I’ve had a little more of a grounding in the historical geography of a suburb I’ve now lived in for nearly twenty years.

    I’ve had a couple of Devine brothels pointed out to me in the past (I think around Forbes Street) but I’ve never had those identifications authenticated in any way so today was the closest I’ve come to feeling it was fairly safe to assume that the locations were fairly authentic. Thanks again, Neil.

  3. Pingback: Coming to you for the first time from the Yum Yum Cafe… | Neil's final decade

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