A tour of Sydney's Razor Gangs

Walking in the steps of Sydney’s Razor Gangs

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.

Sydney's Central Station Grand Concourse.
Where Crime Bosses recruited Razor Gang Members

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”.

Francis Kennedy Murdered here in 1922
Where Francis Kennedy was Murdered

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.

Razor Gangs

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.

Frog Hollow Reserve Surry Hills was a slum
Walking in the footsteps of the Razor Gangs

Legal Loopholes

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.

Surry Hills was home to the Razor Gangs
Discovering Surry Hills’ Back Streets

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.

Sandstone Cottage in Surry Hills
An Occasional Sandstone Cottage

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.

Arthur Stace

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.

Gambling in Surry Hills
This House was a Sly-Gambling Den

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.

Henry Lawson

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.

Green laneways in Surry Hills
Surprising Greenery

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.  

Hidden Saloon in Surry Hills
Shady Pines Saloon Entrance

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.

Useful Information

  • 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.

Comments

  1. Fascinating to get a peek into the underworld of the early 1920s. Here in the USA during that same time prohibition laws lead to organized crime and the rise of the mafia. Thanks for a great post.

    1. Author

      Interesting to get an insight into similarities in the USA in those days. Thanks Bernadette.

  2. Wow! What an insight into a life we’re not familiar with.

    Pretty scary area by the sound of it.

    Thanks Joanne

  3. Sounds like a great way to get both history and exercise in one go. I’ll definitely am inspired to book in to this.

    1. Author

      Yes, Bee, I learnt heaps and standing where things happened made it all the more real.

  4. Interesting how your guide tied the early history into recent times – the shark arm case and the Everleigh pay robbery. Wouldn’t it be bice if there was just one of those old cottages left in its original state so we could see how people really lived in them. I guess Ruth Park told us in Harp of the South.

    1. Author

      Yes, June, I thought that was clever. There were a few references to COVID too…. Time to reread Harp of the South.

  5. Very interesting.This links in with a book I am reading on Lillian Armfield Australia’s first female detective who took on Tilly Devine and the Razor Gangs written by Leigh Straw.I have not been on this walk yet but plan to thank you Joanne

    1. Author

      April, our guide did talk about Lillian Armfield. Thanks for the book recommendation. I look forward to reading it, Leone.

  6. That’s a great tale Jo. Thanks for letting us know about the walk and early life in Sydney. Most Sydney siders probably had relatives who lived somewhere there.

    1. Author

      Thanks Georgia. You’re right – I hadn’t thought about it like that. How life has changed.

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