In the 1920s and 30s crime bosses lurked here where I am standing in Sydney’s Central Station Grand Concourse, looking to recruit young runaways into a life of crime or prostitution.
Slums, Slashings and Sly-Grog
I’ve joined a “Slums, Slashings & Sly-grog” tour to learn more about life at that time in Surry Hills and Darlinghurst.
A Murder in Surry Hills
Leaving the station, we turn into a deserted narrow lane. April, our guide, tells us that railway worker Francis Charles Kennedy was murdered here in June 1922. She reads from an article published in Truth describing the area as:
“Undoubtedly one of the most to-be-avoided sections of Sydney’s underworld … an ill-kept, ill-lighted thoroughfare … a favoured haunt of some of the worst characters in Sydney”.
A window bangs shut above our heads making us start. Apart from metal roller garage doors, the monochrome streetscape differs little from the 1922 photograph in April’s folder. I wouldn’t want to walk down this lane at night.
Familiar with the names Tilly Devine and Kate Leigh, I’m about to learn how they rose through the underworld ranks to become arch rivals heading two of the most feared Razor Gangs.
Walking through the backstreets of Surry Hills and Darlinghurst, April explains how well-intentioned laws can have unintended consequences.
It was illegal for men (but not women) to earn a living off prostitutes and an offence under the Police Offences (Amendment) Act of 1908 to solicit in a public place, which provided the perfect opening for women to run brothels.
April describes how Sydney’s “first lock out laws” – the early closing laws of 1916 – resulted in an increase in sly-grog shops. Then gangsters exchanged firearms for cut throat razors after the Pistol Licensing Act of 1927 came in giving birth to the Razor Gang and the trademark L-shaped slice made on a victim’s face.
Kate Leigh and Tilly Devine
Leigh, born in Dubbo in 1881, developed a sly-grog empire and a reputation as a community figure. Affectionately known as ‘Mum, she threw an annual Christmas party for the neighbourhood.
Born in London in 1900, Devine arrived in Sydney in 1920, having worked as a prostitute. She soon became well-known to the police. Specialising in brothels, Devine also became very wealthy.
April reveals a lesser known side of Surry Hills as we walk through backstreets and laneways hearing stories related to the buildings we pass. She introduces us to various crime figures and the first female police officer, Lillian Armfield.
Surry Hills in the 1920s
Surry Hills in the 20s and 30s was not a place you where you’d choose to live. Homes were overcrowded and damp. Sly- grog shops and brothels operated from unmarked houses. Prostitutes, hooked on cocaine worked as drug mules and dealers.
Frog Hollow, a triangular pocket of green grass nestled between two high sandstone walls looks peaceful and innocent enough. A small dog chases a ball. In the early 1900s, the picture was very different.
A slum, it was favoured by criminals because the three exits facilitated escape. Known as “one of the most depraved areas of Sydney”, the houses were crowded together, damp and had poor ventilation.
It’s hard to imagine today’s deserted and almost sanitized version of Surry Hills as they were around 100 years ago. Between the many terraces, some carefully restored, we’re delighted to discover the occasional original sandstone home. Pots with plants of various shapes and sizes add greenery to otherwise stark laneways.
Outside a house, formerly a sly gambling den, April introduces us to Arthur Stace. He used to be a cockatoo or lookout for a Two Up “school”. Later we see the Burton Street Tabernacle where Stace, after an epiphany of sorts decided to “shout eternity” by chalking the word on the streets of Sydney for years thereafter.
April shares many stories. She describes how “COVID safe” robbers (they wore handkerchiefs) used a car for the first time as a getaway in the Eveleigh Payday Heist. She tells of the shark whose stomach contained a tattooed limb – severed by human hands – causing a murder investigation.
I learn that Henry Lawson was incarcerated in the old Darlinghurst Gaol. He called it Starvinghurst because of the meagre rations. April recites part of his poem “One Hundred and Three” which refers to his prison number and time in gaol.
The description April gives of the plush red furnishings and scantily dressed girls inside one of Tilly Devine’s brothels in the red-light district of Palmer street sounds much like what I’d expect of similar establishments today.
Then we learn how one of Kate Leigh’s brushes with the law involved a tin of cocaine being thrown into the fire during a police raid. It was pulled out the fire by Lillian Armfield.
A Fitting end to a Fine Tour
Opening a nondescript door in yet another laneway, we’re faced with a second dark wooden door. This opens onto steps leading to a darkened room with lamps providing a dull yellow glow. The Shady Pines Saloon is a fitting place to end a tour of crime and skullduggery.
Walking back to the station I pass a red light above an open red door. A brothel. Not much has changed.
I joined the tour at my own expense.
Prefer to explore Surry Hills independently? Read more here
- The “Slums, Slashings & Sly-grog” tour run by Journey Walks is fast paced and involves hill-walking. It is not suitable for people with mobility issues.