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Sydney 1929: Tilly Devine & Kate Leigh rule the underworld. The Razor Gang Wars erupt. Blood flows. Tour their territory of RAZORHURST.

About this Event


You'll walk a guided tour of RAZORHURST, which covers the historic areas of Darlinghurst, East Sydney and Kings Cross. You'll stop to view Blood Alley, where the first major battle occurred; Kellett Street where the second battle occurred; the lane where Guido Calletti was murdered; the lanes of East Sydney, where Tilly's brothels were located; Phil Jeffs 50:50 Club, the hub of illegal gambling, cocaine and prostitution; Tilly's house, the HQ of prostitution; Nellie's house; and the Tradesmen's Arms, where Tilly's gang hung out. This area is referred to as RAZORHURST because the gangsters weapon of choice was the cut throat razor.


In the late 1920’s Sydney is a boom town for vice and criminal enterprise and policing is slack to say the least. There are enormous opportunities to build criminal empires based upon the wicked desires of the average man and woman. Because of a legal loophole, these opportunities are more readily available to women. Kate Leigh and Tilly Devine are the gals who grab these opportunities


Sydney in the early twentieth century is place where drinking, prostitution, owing guns, betting and gambling is in full swing and you can buy ‘snow’ (cocaine) over the counter. Every vice is legal or is at least being overlooked by the law. A bunch of do-gooders called Wowsers start a campaign for reforms and in 1916 five thousand soldiers from the infantry go on an unprecedented three day bender, rampaging and terrorizing the city. New laws instead of eradicating crime actually build the legal foundations on which syndicated crime can build. Huge wealth is up for grabs for anyone with enough ruthless ambition and foresight to capitalize on the vices Australians loves.

Rebellious KATE LEIGH runs with the wildest of men and runs her own brothel she fast becomes a prize gangster gal known for her daring spunk, good looks and sexual deviancy. Determining no man will rule over her she’s fast becoming the Queen of the Underworld with bashers and musclemen protecting her growing empire.

But another femme fatale is rising up, English girl TILLY DEVINE nineteen years Kate’s junior. In love with glitz and glamour and looking the part, she’s the party girl of the century with 79 arrests just in her first few years. The Police Offences Amendment Act of 1908 make it illegal only for men to keep a brothel and so after re-evaluating her life in a stint in jail she emerges the Madam of the Bordello and bankrolls the best and biggest network of organised brothels in Sydney. Organised crime has arrived in Sydney!


Now the equilibrium snaps, trust flies out the window and vendettas start breaking out among rival gang members. With guns outlawed razors honed to deathly perfection become the new weapon of choice. Not only are they easy to conceal but they are have a psychological terror all of their own. Intimidation and the promise of disfiguration gleam on every blade. Nothing compares to the personal vendettas and rivalry between Underworld Queens Tilly Devine and Kate Leigh. Kate’s motto is to “retaliate first” and she does so with a passion and voracity. The Bloodletting begins in what quickly becomes known as Sydney’s Razor Gang Wars.

A tabloid newspaper the Truth cashes in. Being the voice of social conscience one minute and a voyeuristic capitalizing trash paper the next sales skyrocket.


Premier THOMAS BAVIN and law enforcer WILLLIAM MACKAY race to bring in new laws before all hell breaks loose. Meanwhile Phil ‘the Jew’ Jeff’s starts the Battle of Blood Alley on May 7th, 1929 as a Woolloomooloo gang discovers he’s heavily cutting their cocaine. The war lasts 30 minutes and Jeff’s is later found on the front lawn of his luxurious Kensington home near death. Believing he is done for he squeals only to survive and turn up in court in a snazzy purple suit with a different story. The code of silence is restored.

During 28 and 29 pistol packing Kate orders the slashing of Tilly’s girls and spiteful Tilly retaliates by sending her boys to bust up Kate’s grog shops. Kate’s revenge attacks are not far behind and bodies start dropping like flies. Both women start to take advantage of the tabloids and the cat fights carry over to sell newspapers and make them the talk of the town.

On 17th July 29 Kate’s man GAFFNEY shoots Tilly’s top henchman Green. Green hides out at Tilly and Jim’s but Gaffney finds out about it and makes a beeline there to finish the job. The Devine’s are loaded to the hilt and are waiting for them. Gaffney dies and Kate’s lover WALLY TOMLINSON is hit. Tilly puts on a great show in court and they all celebrate Jim’s “not guilty verdict”. Now Tilly decides to really take Kate on especially as Kate just happens to behind bars. A few days later on the 8th August Tilly’s whole gang turns up on Kellett Street at King’s Cross for a good old gang war. The mayhem and butchery is horrendous

The police and public all wait in terror of a gangland Armageddon they know is on their doorstep. The gangs stockpile weapons and on the 9th November Green and Big Jim start it off by shooting Dalton and Tomlinson outside the Strand Hotel. Now things heat up as Tomlinson surviving a bullet turns evidence against Green but not Devine. Kate’s house is hit a few times in the search for her lover then on the 27th March Kate makes good on her threats and blows one of the hit men away dressed in a nightie. The jury acquits her.


Wall Street crashes in 29 and new laws finally come into place in 1930, both are a real kick in the guts for the gangs. The Consorting Clause gives the police a bite for once; they can arrest any criminal seen with another. The Crimes Amendment Bill gives an automatic six months for razor possession plus a flogging. The two-man Drug Bureau gets long awaited reinforcements. FRANK “BUMPER” FARRELS starts off what turns into the 21 Division. Crims now give intelligence when busted or face jail time. To top it off Australia gets one of the world’s first ever police women – LILLIAN ARMFIELD the “Rugged Angel”

It doesn’t take Tilly long before she is in front of the judge. She strikes a clever bargain sailing to England instead of serving jail time and “saves the taxpayer the money”. Tilly throws herself some outrageous farewell parties and sets sail All in all the gals’ empires run well with their absence. Unfortunately Tilly arrives back from London to find Jim cheating on her and in a rage he shoots. Up on attempted murder charges Tilly forgives him before the court date but that doesn’t save Big Jim


Jeff’s, who has being lying low, starts using his money to buy himself a respectable life. He snaps up the Fifty-Fifty Club and the 400 where you have to pay to get your table served, to get a drink to use the bathroom and pay five pounds just to leave. Crooked cops, politician, celebrities, socialites and crime lords all flock to his stylish clubs to drink champagne and dance under the chandeliers. His dream of being a kingpin and respectable man has come true.

In 1933 Nellie and another gangster girl DULCIE MARKHAM are working for Tilly. Up on drug charges Nellie skips to Queensland with lover Green but a furious Caletti chases them and the two fight it out in Woolloomooloo with 500 spectators watching. After an hour with no winner Nellie gets to choose. Calletti wins out until he next goes to gaol and Nellie returns like a yoyo to Green. Smarting up Calletti marries Nellie the moment he gets out of jail.

Kate meanwhile is having a hard time. She is getting old and fat. Her beauty is long since disappeared. Up on charges she tries to pull off one of Tilly’s trick and offers to return to her home town Dubbo to serve out her time.

Tilly, however, is coming into her own and operates her brothels on multiple levels so she can cash in on men form every walk of life. She gets her girls hooked on cocaine so they can’t leave and Big Jim is their dealer. Inspired by Hollywood movies her dream of riches and fame and a bad girl image are being realized. She is a brilliant entrepreneur. But for both gals their time is running out.


When hardnose copper William Mackay becomes police commissioner in 1936 he marches Tilly and Kate into his office with all his senior policemen. Giving an ultimatum that unless they quit their feuding and get on with more low key business arrangements he will ensure they get twenty years each as guests of her majesty. They are to act as informers in return for keeping their “businesses,” Mackay bans all slashing and shootings also. The old gals grudgingly agree to the terms however doesn’t stop the theatrical blues in the streets when they meet or their tabloid wars. Things now go from bad to worse. Crack downs on cocaine hurt the drug arm of the gangs. Bookmaking is hit. The Truth newspaper starts embarrassing the police force by proving that dirty politicians have shares in the nightclubs and other rackets. Farrell and his hard hitting straight cops start to make head way into the underworld with a network of informants, including Tilly and Kate themselves. But nothing hits as hard as the beginning of WWII.


Things start to fall apart for Tilly. Her cheating drunk of a husband is known as a wife basher and starts living with his lovers. He pays Tilly a visit when he wants money and beats her if she refuses. She finally goes to court to get a divorce. Then is gaol she meets ERIC PARSONS the barman of the Tradesman’s Arms and marries him. For a wedding present Kate sends an undertaker and five fire trucks. Swell girl. Tilly and Eric fight often and he sports a bullet wound from her.

Kate also marries again but breaks up and clubs are now licensed so her sly grog business is sinking. Jeff’s who had given up the clubs dies of a septic bullet wound (the only one to actually die rich, for all the good it does him.) Tilly plans a grand trip to England for the Queen’s Coronation and her and Kate set up an unusual kiss and make up photo shoot. . Meanwhile things get much worse for Nellie. Found crawling in an alleyway with a bullet wound, surgeons remove a bullet from her guts and find a hand full more in her slashed up body. Beautiful still as always, she suffers from post operation depression and sticks her head in a gas oven. She is only 41.


Both Kate and Tilly live high of the hog. Parties, charities, jewels, and furs not to mention fines and bribes and the rising costs of henchmen cut into their savings the papers estimate Tilly has the most dough and both make ten times what the prime minister does. The 50’s swing around and in true Al Capone style so does the taxman. First Kate gets hit, but she can’t pay. The government sues and panicking her friends who have lent to her sues her too. She declares bankruptcy in 54 and faces humiliation in court. In 1955 the 6 O’clock Swill ends and with it Kate Leigh's Empire. She is left renting out vegetable and fruit carts. Tilly fairs better with one striped house and one seedy brothel to her name.

Arthritic and destitute Kate Leigh comes off society’s radar. Living with past regrets and complaints about how she had been given a raw deal in life she suffers a stroke early in 64 and slips into a coma. Her dogged old ticker keeps pounding away even though her brain is dead. She dies the following Tuesday - some reports say she chokes on her own cursed tongue. Kate gets a grand farewell party.

Tilly isn’t so lucky, outliving everyone and outliving her era new crime lords are making names for themselves like ABE SAFFRON and JOE BORG. In 1968 Borg blows up in a car bombing and Tilly faces threats when another bomb comes her way, possibility by the same killers. So she up and quits the crime business for good helped along by a repeal of the law that set her up in the first place. Regrets set in along with stomach cancer. In Nov 1970 she has a stroke and dies.

Tilly and Kate’s successors bibliography:

1950s: THE RISE OF MR SIN [Abe Saffron]

1990s: THE RISE OF THE GOLDEN BOY [John Ibrahim]

Tilly Devine ran dozens of brothels so she was known as Queen of the Bordellos.

Kate Leigh ran scores of Sly Grog shops offering liquor, gambling, and cocaine, she was known as the Snow Queen.

Nellie Cameron was Tilly's star prostitute and was escorted by many notorious gangsters. Most died, so she was know as the Angel of Death.