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.


  1. Very entertaining reading. Have you noticed the two people on the right-hand side of the Charlotte Lane photo? What's going on there, I wonder.

  2. Thanks Corinne;

    Yes I noticed those two - don't know what they're up to. Being Charlotte Lane in 1927 it may not be nice!