HISTORICAL CRIME: It was August 8, 1929. Officers stepped over shards of broken glass and stones on the infamous Kellett Street, near Kings Cross. Blood trailed out from a flat and onto the narrow bitumen. There Tilly Devine’s men had faced off against the men of her nemesis, the incarcerated drug dealer Kate Leigh. This true slice of life tale from Sydney’s underworld is explored by our own G. L. Marlowe.
In the flat, blood stained rags lay on the floor, next to overturned tables and broken chairs. The room had a stench of booze (illegal, of course). If prohibition failed miserably in the US with its facade of freedom, democracy and glamour, imagine the utter failure it was in Australia, its comparatively boozier, criminal-inclined, strange cousin.
Other residents in the building had heard gunfire but claimed no other knowledge. It’s possible they truly didn’t know, but a general rule of the Cross was not to get in the middle of the current gang warfare – the quest for domination over the sly-grog and cocaine trade, and the conflict over who had the best girls ran rampant. Unlike their American criminal counterparts, this trade was run by women. While the law stated a man could not profit from the sex work industry, there was no law on the books forbidding women running a brothel and making a profit.
Outside a possibly unrelated skirmish began. It started as an offensive attack by Tilly Devine – British war bride, turned infamous madam and the ‘Queen of Woolloomooloo’ – while her rival Kate Leigh – the ‘Queen of the Underworld’ and leader of the sly grog and cocaine industry – was in prison again.
The attempt to attack Leigh’s sly-grog shops was met by an angry band of men, ready to defend their territory. Devine and Leigh were known across Sydney for their deadly feud and it seemed that even if the matriarch was locked away, her men’s loyalty remained.
The battle started as most pissing matches do: with insults and inebriation.
Kate Leigh (Image: Wikipedia)
What went down in history as a “battle” was really a drunken brawl. The newspapers called it a “pitched battle.” One not fought with conventional weapons. Apart from the odd pistol, razors and stones were the preferred weapon of choice. The Truth once claimed “Razorhurst, Gunhurst, Bottlehurst, Dopehurst – it used to be Darlinghurst,” highlighting the fear of being caught in the wrong place at the wrong time in the inner-city. After the Pistol Licensing Act of 1927 razor gangs became the new norm. The straight razor was a cheap, concealable weapon which left a nasty scar in the shape of an L. Particularly when one was slashed across the face with it.
When a copper saw one with a razor and asked, “What have you got there mate?” It was easy enough to reply, “Just fancied a shave officer.” While that response was likely to get you a kick in the gut from a disgruntled officer, it wasn’t an arrestable offence. Most turned a blind eye anyway, only after they were provided with the best girls and booze available.
Meanwhile on Kellett Street, cries rang out on the street, it is assumed that the bloody dispute in the flat spilled out onto the street; although it is possible that they were two events that happened simultaneously. A person can only remember so much when they’re high on cocaine and drunk. Lack of cooperation with the police also helps muddy the account.
What is clear is that the yelling and swearing soon tuned to spitting. Spitting turned into bottles and stones throwing.
Moments later razors slashed at bare skin and ripped through shirts. Blood dripped onto the road. Bodies slammed up against brick walls.
Tilly Devine (Image: Wikipedia)
Manager of the Palais Royale, J. C. Bendrodt sat in his flat. There had been commotion in flat opposite him and he kept quiet. The screaming, swearing and stabbing had taken it too far. It was too close to the Cross for it to be unexpected. It was a den of sin, gang violence, prostitution, drugs and any other form of debauchery the human mind could come up with. A man could learn to sleep through some drunken noise. Although cries of pain were something else.
Bendrodt opened his window yelling out to the men below. It is not recorded what he said but I can imagine it would have along the lines of: “Hey fellas, can you keep it down?” although there is a high probability that variations were said with some more colourful language.
The men stopped for a second, turned around and aimed rocks at Bendrodt’s window. He dove to the ground as shots fired towards his shut window. Bendrodt located his pistol and fired a warning shot at the men below. The crowd dispersed. Those on the sidelines, sitting in a car holding “open air beer and sandwich party,” watching the violence like it was a play, tore off into the night.
One of Kate Leigh’s men and possible lover – Bruce Doubleday Higgs – was dropped off at Sydney Hospital by a taxi driver with eight injuries to his face. All inflicted with a razor. 13 stitches later, he still adamantly refused to give names to the police. None of the other four injured people, three men and one woman, refused to give names.
The investigation stalled there.
Tilly and Kate would go onto have one of the most infamous rivalries in gangland Australia. Each being arrested multiple times for consorting, drug and prostitution charges, not to mention the many crimes they have been unofficially been blamed for. Tilly Devine had 207 convictions to her name compared to Kate’s 107.
Matilda ‘Tilly’ Devine with her brutal husband Jim in 1930 (Image: National Archives)
However, in local history, Kate was a woman of the people, an Australian criminal success story. A woman from Dubbo who fell into the criminal underworld through childhood neglect and bad marriages, only for her to become a beloved benefactress of the community.
The funds from her criminal enterprises went back into the community, it ws said, and she was further immortalised through the character of Delie Stock in Ruth Park’s, The Harp in the South.
Tilly however, the British war bride was not so loved; the criminal world moved on without her. Although it will never truly be known how many men and women were brought down in the crossfire.
For an altercation between Kate Leigh and Tilly Devine this one was comparatively minor. But it was a street skirmish that would go down in the annals of Australian history and a warning that Sydney’s underworld was not one to be trifled with.
Two deadly women, one sharp razor, a dangerous world of crime.