Sunday, November 27, 2011

The Brighton Shark Attack of 1930

When I was a young boy, my father, who had been a regular swimmer around Port Phillip Bay, near Melbourne, in the days of his youth, used to tell me about the terrible incident that took place off Brighton Pier in 1930, when a swimmer had been seized by a shark. 

I recently did an online newspaper search, and sure enough found many accounts of that terrible day. Here is what happened:

In the early days of Melbourne settlement fishermen reported numerous encounters with large sharks in Port Phillip Bay but up until 1930 there had been only two reported fatalities.

On February 6th 1876 a young man named Peter Rooney was attacked off St. Kilda beach, losing his leg, and dying from loss of blood soon after.

In 1881, one of two brothers sailing in a small yacht off Frankston, was carried away by a “giant” shark and his “arm, shoulder, waistcoat and watch” were later found inside the monster when it was caught some days after.

Contemporary 19th century drawing showing fishermen battling a large shark off the Brighton Pier

Pictures Collection
State Library of Victoria (Click to enlarge)

So two fatalities in more than fifty years of human activity in the Bay was hardly a bad record but on the afternoon of Saturday 15th February 1930 this was all about to be turned on its head when a terrifying shark attack claimed a third victim.

This attack was notably different to most others in that it was closely witnessed by a large crowd of people who literally had a "birds eye" view of the terrifying spectacle. 

Norman William Clark was with a small party of friends, diving and swimming around the Middle Brighton Pier on a fine and sunny late summer afternoon.

Swimming around piers, especially those from which fishermen operate is never a good idea. There is blood in the water from hooked fish and also fishermen will often gut their catch and throw the entrails back into the water. These activities can attract the attention of large and unwelcome visitors.

The Argus described the events that followed in the Monday morning edition of 17th February 1930:




Attacked by a shark off the end of the Middle Brighton pier on Saturday afternoon, Norman William Clark, aged 19 years, of Point Nepean road, North Brighton, was mutilated and dragged to his death before assistance could be obtained. 

Between 80 and 100 persons saw Clark disappear. So sudden was the attack that few people realised what had happened until they saw the shark grip Clark in its huge jaws. It came at him again and again, and eventually it disappeared with the body 50ft. from the pier. Witnesses described the shark as being at least 16ft. long.

The shark was seen a few seconds before it attacked Clark, but there was not enough time to give him warning. Some time before the tragedy Clark had been diving from other parts of the pier. He then went to the lower platform at the end of the pier, and after sitting there with his brother and the girl he dived in. He went out about 50ft. and returned to the platform. 

A few minutes later he dived in again, and swam out the same distance, returning to within 12ft. of the edge of the platform. He was treading water when the shark first attacked him. A few seconds later, a man on the pier, according to statements by witness, saw the shark glide through the water as if it had just come from beneath the pier. He called out, "A shark," but Clark apparently did not hear the warning, or perhaps thought that someone was joking. 

The next second he cried out, "Oh," and, throwing up one hand, he disappeared under the water. Even then few people realised that a shark had seized him. As he came up, however, the shark could be seen holding on to his leg. Clark appeared to be sitting across its nose, and he was punching it.

Horrified by the sight, many women on the pier fainted, and they had to be given stimulants. The girl who had been with Clark also fainted, and several men carried her along the pier. It was some time before she recovered. In the meantime, other women and men tried to frighten the shark away with noise, and it suddenly disappeared, dragging Clark down through the water. It carried him round to the south side of the pier. 

Photograph of the Brighton Pier, c 1930

Pictures Collection
State Library of Victoria (Click to enlarge)

When Clark came up again, he was still trying to beat off the shark, but his strength was fast ebbing. The water for yards around was stained red.

The shark, with its fin and tail out of the water, made another rush at Clark, and almost lifted him out of the water as it seized him round the chest in its jaws.

That was the last that was seen of Clark. He went down suddenly, several witnesses said, as if the shark had carried him away.


Clark, whose father died several years ago, lived with his mother. He was a winch driver by occupation. Frequently he visited the Middle Brighton beach. Well-built and tanned by the sun, he was a splendid swimmer and diver, and it had been mentioned that he was fond of swimming in the deep water at the end of the pier.

The victim, Norman William Clark of North Brighton
(Click to enlarge)

Mr. David Clark, an elder brother of the victim, said yesterday that his brother was a Sea Scout, and he took an active interest in all kinds of sport. "Norman was a keen cricketer, and on Saturday I wanted him to play in a team of which I am a member," he added. "We were a man short in my team, and I wanted him to fill in the vacancy. He said that he had made arrangements to go swimming."

Although not mentioned in the newspaper account, from the description of the shark and its method of attack it seems likely that the monster was a white pointer.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Sydney's Razor Gang Wars 1925 to 1935

The recent success of the Underbelly television series has focussed attention on a rather strange period in the history of Sydney, when the kingpins of crime were two women, who brutally ruled the underworld of the city, and became fabulously wealthy in the process. This is a short history of what happened during the period from around 1925 to 1935 - a particularly violent decade.

Soon after the end of the First World War, with thousands of ex servicemen returning home after years away, a period of lawlessness descended on Sydney, the like of which has not been seen before or since.

Several factors shaped the occurrences of this period. Firstly, after the end of the war, many ex servicemen, after experiencing first hand the horrors of the frontline, had become irreligious and hedonistic with little or no thought or concern of an afterlife or judgement day. Simply put, tomorrow did not exist.

Erich Remarque well described the feelings of the World War One trench soldier in his classic "All Quiet on The Western Front" : We are forlorn like children, and experienced like old men, we are crude and sorrowful and superficial - I believe we are lost.

After drunken troop riots in Sydney in 1916, the temperance movement had initiated a referendum that resulted in 6 o’clock hotel closing taking the place of the old 11 pm mark. However the demand for alcohol after 6 was as strong as ever and a booming sly grog trade followed.

The desire for quick thrills resulted in a burgeoning prostitution industry and big money was there to be earned on Sydney’s streets. Cocaine, a previously legal drug sold over the counter in chemist shops during the first two decades of the century, was declared illegal, but because the demand was well established, the underworld was only too happy to take over the purchase and distribution of the drug, called “snow” during this time. Users were called “snow droppers”.

The Pistol Licensing Act came into force in 1927, and this produced an automatic six-month gaol sentence for anyone carrying an unlicensed firearm. As a result, the weapon of choice for many criminals became the cut throat razor, and this was used to threaten, intimidate and disfigure opponents.

In addition, the Great Depression had hit hard in Sydney, and high unemployment drove many men and women to crime, just to survive.

All these circumstances were similar to the situation in America with the Prohibition wars well under way during the “Roaring Twenties”, but instead of Al Capone and Lucky Luciano, Australia had Kate Leigh and Tilly Devine, two of the roughest and toughest ladies in the history of the country.

Kate Leigh made her fortune sly grogging, buying large amounts of alcohol legally during trading hours, and then selling it after 6 pm at huge mark up prices. She became extremely wealthy and defended her interests by hiring a gang of razor wielding thugs that suppressed any opposition. Nevertheless there were several takeover attempts and in 1930 she shot dead a gunman, Snowy Prendergast, who tried to break into her terrace at 104 Riley Street.

Kate did considerable prison time because of all her activities but was also known for her generosity, in particular for the lavish Christmas parties she turned on for the impoverished children of Surry Hills all through the depression years. These were held at her main address at 2 Lansdowne Street, Surry Hills. 

Kate Leigh's Prison File in 1915.
Courtesy of State Records NSW

(Click on image to enlarge)

Matilda Devine, (nee Twiss) or Tilly as she became known, was an Englishwoman who had married an Australian soldier, “Big Jim” Devine, and followed him back to Australia at the end of the war. Tilly quickly and accurately assessed the social climate of Sydney and set up an organised group of brothels in Palmer Street Darlinghurst, taking up residence herself at number 191. 

She cunningly recruited girls from the nearby Crown Street Women’s Hospital, many of whom were down from the country, having babies “out of wedlock” and without any other means of support.

Tilly brought a hitherto unseen high state of organisation to prostitution, offering her girls board, lodging and ”snow”, as well as a range of services to clients at varying pay scales. These ranged from quick and cheap back alley encounters for barrow boys to well appointed rooms for the service of gentlemen callers at greatly increased rates. Tilly received a cut in all these transactions and, like Kate Leigh, became a very wealthy woman as a result.

Tilly Devine's Prison File in 1925.
Courtesy of State Records NSW

(Click on image to enlarge)

She also defended her interests through hiring gangs of toughs, including her husband Big Jim, a violent, evil tempered gambler who beat her badly and often. Tilly also racked up numerous convictions over the years, but was able to escape the “living off immoral earnings” charge because, strangely enough, this law applied only to men and not women.

Kate and Tilly detested each other and their gangs had frequent violent encounters, producing a series of tit for tat killings and mutilations that dominated the headlines all through the period.

These were the so called “razor wars” of Sydney, that raged well into the 1930’s and were mainly concentrated in the Darlinghurst, Surry Hills and East Sydney area. But as with Al Capone, the taxman was able to do what the law enforcement agencies could not, by eventually putting both Kate and Tilly out of business through the levying of huge back taxes and fines because of undeclared income. 

Kate was declared bankrupt and died in one of her old sly grog shops at 212 Devonshire St. Surry Hills in 1964. Tilly’s wealth was also much reduced and she finally died at the Concord Repatriation Hospital in 1970.

Some of the main characters of the period were:

Norman Bruhn: A particularly violent Melbourne criminal who had come to Sydney in 1927 and headed up a razor gang to extort money from other criminals, usually cocaine dealers or robbers. Bruhn was shot dead in Charlotte Lane, Darlinghurst late in 1927. 

Frank Green's Prison File in 1933.
Courtesy of State Records NSW

(Click on image to enlarge)

Frank Green: An undersized but homicidal alcoholic and cocaine addict who was for a time the main “muscle” in Tilly Devine’s Gang. Green murdered several people, including the rival gunman Barney Dalton, in the infamous shooting outside the Strand Hotel in 1929.

The police file gives a hint of his violent lifestyle - "Bullet wounds on right side of back and on right side of abdomen. Large scar on right cheek. "ILD" above female bust outside right upper arm". (The scar on his right cheek was from a razor slash).

For a period Sydney’s number 1 tough guy, Green met a violent end when his then girlfriend, Beatrice Haggett, plunged a large carving knife into his chest at their flat in Cooper Street, Paddington, in 1956.
At her trial it took the jury only fifteen minutes to find her not guilty, on the grounds of self defence.

Guido Calletti's Prison File 1935
Courtesy of State Records NSW

(Click on image to enlarge)

Guido Calletti: An illiterate thug, thief and mugger who specialised in beating up strangers for their wallet. He was also the leader of the notorious Darlinghurst Push, one of the most violent gangs of the era. An avowed enemy of Frank Green because both were vying for the hand of Nellie Cameron (see below). When Green was in gaol Calletti was the recognised king of the Sydney underworld. He was shot dead by a member of the Brougham Street Gang at a party in Brougham Street in 1939. 

Nellie Cameron's Prison File in 1930.
Courtesy of State Records NSW

(Click on image to enlarge)

Nellie Cameron: A total enigma, who was raised in an upper middle class North Shore family and went to an exclusive girls school. Attractive and curvaceous, when she was 16 she left home and headed straight for the bordellos of Darlinghurst where she became one of the highest priced prostitutes of the era. Despite her refined upbringing she chose to co-habit with some of the worst low life in Sydney, including Frank Green and Guido Calletti who she alternately lived with, depending who was in gaol at the time.
As her beauty faded with the years she went to live in a flat in Surry Hills where she ended her life with her head in the gas oven in 1952. Numerous bullet wounds were found on her body at the post mortem.

Newspaperman Eric Baume reported in disapproving tones of the scenes at her funeral. "Avid sensation hunters got strange thrills from following trash such as Nellie Cameron as though she had been one of the nurses who died under Japanese gunfire that awful day not so many years ago, or an Australian officer kneeling erect to be beheaded".

Jim Devine's Prison File in 1939.
Courtesy of State Records NSW

(Click on image to enlarge)

Big Jim Devine: Tilly Devine’s husband and a violent, foul tempered thug with a gambling problem. Jim killed at least two people and regularly beat up Tilly if she would not provide him enough money for the racetrack. They divorced in 1942 and Jim journeyed to Melbourne where he died in 1964.

Phil Jeffs: Perhaps the smartest crim of the era, he was one of the few to die of natural causes. His forte was illegal gambling and he operated the Fifty Fifty Club in William Street in the 1930’s. Here it was possible to gamble and drink, and as a sideline, girls were also available in private rooms, provided with the compliments of Tilly Devine. He later acquired the 400 Club, and ended his criminal career as a wealthy man. During his time as an entrepreneur he did gaol time for larceny, was accused of raping a married woman, was shot and seriously wounded and charged with selling liquor without a licence. He died in his mansion at Ettalong in 1945. For views of his spectacular house, built in the so called P&O style, see

Lillian Armfield: A pioneering police officer, one of the first female detectives on the Force. Although the then Police Commissioner Bill Mackay was initially dubious about having women as detectives, Armfield’s appointment soon paid big dividends, with many of the street prostitutes providing her with valuable information they withheld from the male detectives. She became an expert gatherer of street intelligence.
Her career was long and distinguished and she finally retired from the Force in 1949, having being awarded the Imperial Service Medal and the Kings Police and Fire Service Medal.

A book about her incredible career was assembled by author Vince Kelly: Rugged Angel: The Amazing Career of Policewoman Lillian Armfield: Angus and Robertson Publishers, Sydney: 1961.

Some of the key addresses and locations of the Razor War era:

212 Devonshire Street, Surry Hills – Kate Leigh’s main sly grog shop and later home during the 1950’s.

21A Francis Street, Darlinghurst - Norman Bruhn’s address in 1927

The section of Elizabeth Street around Central Station and the then Toohey’s Brewery in Surry Hills was known as “the Barbary Coast”. The “Blue Lion “ and “Aurora” hotels were part of this.

Ernie Goods Wine bar – 236 Elizabeth Street, Surry Hills; “Sailor the Slasher” Saidler shot dead there by Ernie Goods in 1930.

Corner of Goulburn and Riley streets, Surry Hills, March 1928, Lawrence Tracey shot and killed.

Charlotte Lane, Darlinghurst – a vice centre of Sydney in the 1920’s – site of the shotting of Norman Bruhn in 1927.

Image above: The corner of Charlotte Lane and Hargrave Street in 1927. Image courtesy of the City of Sydney Archives. (Click on image to enlarge) 

Kellett Street, Kings Cross, site of vicious brawl between the gangs of Tilly Devine and Kate Leigh on 8th August 1929.

Corner of Malabar and Torrington Roads, Maroubra – house owned by Tilly and Jim Devine. Site of two murders in the 1920’s.

The Strand Hotel in William Street, East Sydney – where Frank Green shot to death Barney Dalton and wounded Wally Tomlinson in 1929.

Image: The Strand Hotel in 1915.  Image courtesy of the City of Sydney Archives. (Click to enlarge) 

104 Riley Street Surry Hills– Kate Leigh’s home for many years. 

191 Palmer Street Darlinghurst – Tilly Devine’s home in Darlinghurst

“Tradesman’s Arms” Hotel – top of Palmer Street Darlinghurst – now “The East Village Hotel” - criminal haunt of 1920’s and 30’s. Guido Calletti, Nellie Cameron, Frank Green, Tilly Devine were regulars there.

Chard House, 171 William St East Sydney – on the 4th floor was the infamous “Fifty-Fifty Club” owned by Phil Jeffs.

Image: The Prince Albert Hotel . Looking southeast from the corner of Riley street and William Street 1916.  Image courtesy of the City of Sydney Archives. (Click to enlarge) 

17 Denham Street, Surry Hills, home of Nellie Cameron in the 1950’s

25, 27 and 31 Kippax St. Surry Hills – houses owned by Kate Leigh and used for drugging and robbing passing victims.

2 Lansdowne St Surry Hills: Kate Leigh’s home for many years

21 Harmer Street Woolloomooloo: Frank Green’s house during the late 1920’s.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Rock Fishing

Rock fishing is a pleasurable pastime in the right conditions, with the added bonus of bringing home a few tasty fish for the dinner table. But it can also be quite dangerous, with ocean swells sometimes ramping up unexpectedly to trap the unwary fishermen.
Above: Large waves can quickly break across rock ledges used by rock fishermen. Image from Wikipedia Commons.

Numerous tragedies have occurred along the Australian shoreline over the years, usually involving fishermen being washed off the rocks where they can be injured or drowned in the pounding waves. One such event occurred on Sunday 30th May 1937 near Victor Harbour in South Australia. It was reported in The Mail, soon after:

Stories Of Big Waves

Many stories of hairbreadth escapes from big, unexpected waves are being told among Victor Harbor anglers following the tragedy last Sunday, when H. M. Mildred, of Adelaide, was washed by a huge wave from a rocky ledge and drowned at the base of a 200-ft. headland near Waitpinga.

General opinion is that novices should not fish on the rocks and cliff faces of the South Coast without some one who knows the dangers.

Mr. Paul Cudmore tells how on a fine, hot day he and several companions lost all the fish they had caught, and some of their tackle. It was on the other side of Waitpinga beach, where three strangely shaped rocks project from the water.

The men had to wade through water up to their armpits to reach the farthest rock, where they caught three dozen 2-lb. sweep. Suddenly the water, which was comparatively smooth, rose up without warning, and rods, lines, bags, and fish were swept into the water. It was not so much a wave as a sudden movement of the sea.

As the men were clinging to the rock they saw two big sharks snapping up their fish. Within two minutes the water had subsided, and they recovered some of their tackle. But in view of the accident, and the arrival of the sharks, they decided to call it a day.

Big surf breaking across ledges favoured by rock fishermen can easily wash people into the water. Image from Wikipedia Commons.

Even today there are regular tragedies involving rock fishermen being swept from the shoreline and so safety remains of paramount importance. Important tips from the experts include:

* Know the tides and weather expected on the day
* Never fish alone
* Wear a personal flotation device, light clothing and shoes with cleats or non slip soles.
* Never turn your back to the sea.
* If you are swept in, swim away from the rocks.
* Be aware of any emergency rescue devices nearby, such as life rings and anchor points.

The golden rule of rock fishing: No fish is worth your life.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Tsunamis in Australia

A tsunami is a wave, or train of waves that have been generated by a large scale displacement the ocean. This is usually caused by an undersea earthquake, but can also be the result of landslides, volcanic activity and more rarely, the impact of meteors.

As we have seen in recent times tsunamis can be devastating and immensely lethal. The Boxing Day tsunami of 2004 was one of the great disasters of modern history with over a quarter of a million people losing their lives as giant waves crashed along the coasts of Indonesia, Thailand, Sri Lanka and India. More recently, on March 11 2011, a tsunami struck the coastline of eastern Japan, killing over 13,000 people and producing many billions of dollars worth of damage.

Devastated township in Sumatra following the Boxing day tsunami of 2004. (Image from Wikipedia Commons – click to enlarge)

As a result of these tsunamis, a question commonly asked today is “Can Australia be struck by a tsunami”? The answer is certainly yes and indeed several such events have been recorded over the last 200 years.

However, the threat posed by tsunamis to the Australian coast varies markedly according to location. The risk is low along the southern coastline of the mainland, including South Australia, but moderate along the northwest coast of Western Australia because of its exposure to the geologically active area around Indonesia.

In August 1977 a large earthquake near Indonesia produced a tsunami at Cape Leveque, on the Western Australian coast to the north of Broome, that generated rises in sea level of 6m above the norm.

The Boxing Day Tsunami of 2004 was detected right along the Australian coastline as was another tsunami in May 1960, when a massive earthquake occurred in Chile. This latter event also produced a surge of water along the NSW coast, and boats were torn from their moorings in Sydney Harbour, Newcastle and Evans Head.

Going back further, another massive Chilean earthquake on 14th August 1868 was also detected in South Australia but produced a far greater effect in Newcastle Harbour on the NSW coast, as the tsunami finally reached the area. A contemporary newspaper report described the scene:

"An extraordinary tidal disturbance has been experienced here this morning since half past 6 o'clock, - the vessels at the coal shoots broke from their moorings, one nearly losing her masts; the ship “Lucibelle”, 1000 tons, was swung round four times, although a strong ebb tide was running; and the vessels in harbour swung round in all directions".

Newcastle Harbour – hit by the tsunami of 1868 (Image from Wikipedia Commons – click to enlarge)

In order to alert the Australian public about any tsunami activity approaching the Australian shoreline, the Joint Australian Tsunami Warning Centre was established in 2007, operated by the Bureau of Meteorology and Geoscience Australia.