Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Darlinghurst Blog: Books: Razor, By Larry Writer

The mean streets of 1920s and 30s Darlinghurst are soon to have a national audience when a television series based on Larry Writer's 2001 book, Razor, airs on the Nine Network from July 30 mid-August.
I am looking forward to seeing this show, not just because it is set in Darlinghurst, but because I love period pieces and they don't seem to be made all that often as they are apparently quite expensive to produce. 
Screentime, the makers of the Underbelly series of programs, are producing Razor. Much of it has been filmed on sets but I also understand they have shot parts of it on location. 
Writer's non-fiction book on which it is based will also be re-released to coincide with the television series so I expect there is going to be - if not already - a renewed fascination with this rough period in Sydney's history. 
I first read Razor about five years ago and re-read it recently, this time copying down all the street addresses, so that I could walk through Darlinghurst and check out all the historic Razor-gang sites. 
The book is about the birth of organised crime in Australia and centres on sly-grogger Kate Leigh, who was born in Dubbo, in the NSW central west in 1881, and brothel madam Matilda ''Tilly'' Devine who was born in Camberwell, in south London in 1900.

Leigh (above), who will be played by New Zealand actress Danielle Cormack, began her life of crime at the age of eight stealing from her parents, the local shop and playing truant from school. At ten, she ran away from home and by her mid-teens was running riot on the streets of Glebe and Surry Hills. By her 20s she was prostituting herself to make money for herself and daughter, Eileen. 
In 1914, living with a bunch of crooks in the slums of Frog Hollow, near Albion Street in Surry Hills, she helped plan the Eveleigh Railway Workshops payroll robbery. The famous heist, worth more than 3000 Pounds went wrong however, and Leigh ended up being sentenced to seven years at Long Bay Gaol, in Sydney's south-east.
''Seven years for stickin' to a man,'' Leigh said.
''I'll swing before I stick to another.''
Upon her release in 1919, Leigh decided to make the most of amendments to the Liquor Act, which had been made three years earlier. 
In 1916, 5000 Lighthorsemen and other members of the Australian Infantry Forces, unhappy about their harsh conditions and long working hours, went on a drunken rampage at Liverpool, southwest of Sydney.
According to Writer, this ''unbridled, booze-fuelled violence'' gave the anti-liquor lobby more ammunition and following a referendum, under NSW Premier William Holman, 60 per cent of New South Welshman voted for pubs to change their closing hours from 11pm to 6pm. 
This legislation remained until 1955 and resulted in what became known as the six o'clock swill when drinkers would rush the bar and try to down as many drinks before 6pm as possible - which had its own bad consequences.
Anyway, with bars and pubs now closing at 6pm, Leigh saw a business opportunity and when she was released from jail, opened her first sly-grog shop. Soon after, she had enough money to buy a home for herself and Eileen at 104 Riley Street, Darlinghurst (East Sydney):

And she also rented six premises in Surry Hills (such as 25, 27 and 31 Kippax Street, now demolished) which she used as ''sly groggeries'', including this one at 212 Devonshire Street:

According to Writer: ''At the height of her career, Kate ran more than 20 sly-groggeries.
"Some of her sly-grog shops were upmarket and frequented by businessman; others, said police, 'catered to the worst class of thieves and prostitutes'. 
"On Friday and Saturday nights, crowds of men milled in the streets awaiting admittance to 'Mum's', as her establishments were known.
''From the early 1920s until the 40s, Kate Leigh, as Sydney's leading sly-grogger and with her income protected by her own combative nature and a team of bashers and gunmen, was one of the wealthiest, and most flamboyant, Sydney-siders.
"Another key to her success, she always said, was that unlike many of her less successful rival illicit alcohol sellers, she did not partake of her product.''

Like Leigh, Matilda Devine also decided that the ''straight and narrow life was a route for fools'' and as a teenager began prostituting herself on the streets of London. She was soon making 15-20 Pounds a week, when the average wage was about 2-3 Pounds.
At 17 she married Australian solider James Devine, and at the end of the war she followed him back to Australia, arriving in Sydney in 1920.
Devine, who will be played by another New Zealand actress Chelsie Preston-Crayford, moved from various digs in Paddington, Woolloomooloo and Darlinghurst, and wasted no time in getting on the streets and making money, with her husband acting as pimp.
''Between 1921 and 1925 she was arrested 79 times for her usual offences - whoring, obscene language, offensive behaviour and fighting,'' Writer writes.
''But by 1924-25, she was getting into more serious trouble . . . on a charge card dated 11 January 1925, Tilly is described as a 'married woman residing with her husband. She is a prostitute of the worst type and an associate of criminals and vagrants'.''
Devine served time at Long Bay Gaol for the beating of a commercial traveller and was also sentenced to a further two years for slashing a man with a razor.
Like Leigh, Writer writes, Devine used her time in jail to take stock of her life and when she was released, she set about building ''the biggest, best-organised, most lucrative, brothel network Sydney has ever seen.''
Her first brothel was in a ''slum cottage'' in Palmer Street,  Darlinghurst, where she ''fitted out its rooms with beds and faux-exotic decor and put a red light in the window''.

191 Palmer Street, which became Devine's Darlinghurst headquarters after she moved to Torrington Road, Maroubra, in Sydney's south.

Like Leigh, Devine also took advantage of the legislation, specifically the Police Offences (Amendment) Act of 1908, which made prostitution illegal for the first time, forcing street workers into brothels.
Devine provided the premises for the prostitutes and the women paid her a percentage of their earnings. She also charged freelancers 2 Pounds a shift to use her rooms.
Jim Devine sold cocaine to the prostitutes (users were known as snow-droppers) as it made ''economic sense to foster drug addiction in the workers: it ensured loyalty and meant prostitutes increasingly preferred payment in cocaine rather than cash.''

Cops such as Frank ''Bumper'' Farrell (above left) and William Mackay (above right) policed the streets of Darlinghurst in their unique way. Mackay cut a deal with Devine and Leigh that if they could run their businesses cleanly and without violence, and if they agreed to act as informants on others, they would not be targeted by the boys in blue. 
Farrell, who is the subject of Writer's most recent book, Bumper, published last year, was said to ''inspire a fear in crooks''. Devine would act like a good schoolgirl when he was around. Leigh was not so fond of Farrell and called him that ''Bloody Bumper''.
The cops had a lot to deal with in those days.
Sydney was no longer a small town but a ''sprawling metropolis with a decaying inner-city surrounded by middle class suburbia. In the two decades from 1910, Sydney's population doubled from 630,000 to 1.2 million.''
And the drug trade was ''out of hand''. In the 1920s there were about 5000 drug addicts in Kings Cross, Darlinghurst and Woolloomooloo.
People smoked marijuana and opium, injected heroin and morphine, drank paraldehyde and chorodyne, but cocaine was Sydney's drug of choice.
''Snow was snorted by the rich at parties, by businessman in swish 'snow parlours' where each table had a bowl of the drug in the centre, by vagrants in alleyways, by mobsters needing a belt of courage before pulling a job, and by prostitutes seeking fortification to get through a Darlinghurst night,'' Writer writes.

Not only did the cops have to deal with Devine and Leigh, drugs, sly groggeries and prostitution, Razor also has an ensemble cast of violent crooks, standover men and thugs, such as Frank ''the little gunman'' Green (above left), Phil Jeffs (above right) and Norman Bruhn:

Razor, the book, takes its name from the preferred use of weapon in those days. According to Writer: ''Sydney's criminals had always kept handguns and knives in their armoury, but after the Pistol Licensing Act of 1927 dealt an automatic prison term to anyone with an unlicensed firearm, may outlaws began carrying another weapon:  a cut-throat razor, honed sharp.''
Bruhn, a mate of Leslie ''Squizzy'' Taylor arrived in Sydney from Melbourne in 1926 and within months was the number one criminal in Darlinghurst and Kings Cross. Bruhn and his gang made the razor their trademark weapon. 
''A cut-throat, Bengal-style straight shaving blade could be bought for a few pence at a grocer's or chemist's,'' Writer writes of the proliferation of the weapon.
''Although they could do horrendous damage, a blade, unlike a gun, was not necessarily used for killing. 
"Many victims of razor attacks did die, but the razor was more often used as an instrument of intimidation and disfiguration.''
Bruhn, who lived with his wife, Irene, in a ''seamy little flat'' at 21 Francis Street (below) died after being shot twice in the stomach in June 1927.

Frank Green was the ''most lethal gunman in Sydney'' and employed by Devine to protect her brothels. Green lived at 21 Harmer Street, Woolloomooloo (below), with his wife and children, but also carried on affairs with countless prostitutes, including Nellie Cameron. He was known as a drunkard, a psychopath and cocaine addict and ''wouldn't hesitate to bash up a prostitute if she didn't hand him a cut of her immoral earnings.''
Green died in 1956 when he was stabbed in the heart by his then girlfriend, Beatrice Haggett, at their flat on Cooper Street, Surry Hills.

Phil 'The Jew' Jeffs was born in Latvia in 1896 and jumped ship in Sydney in 1912. He operated a fruit barrow in Darlinghurst before following his dream to be a ''rich crime boss, decked in fine clothes and loved by beautiful women.'' He set out by mugging drunks, selling drugs and working as a cockatoo at sly grog-shops. In 1929, his dodgy drug deals ignited the Battle of Blood Alley in Eaton Avenue, Kings Cross (now an enclosed courtyard off Bayswater Road). 
Jeffs had been cutting his cocaine with boracic acid and when one gang realised they were being ripped off, they challenged him to a fight. Everyone was injured, and Jeffs almost fatally, but he went on to fight another day, even after being shot in his own home in 1929.

In the 1920s, Jeffs worked as a bouncer at the Fifty-Fifty Club, ''a seedy dance hall and sly grog and cocaine palace'' in the Chard Building (above, built in 1924) on the corner of William and Forbes streets.
In 1932 Jeffs purchased the club at a discount price as the owner was tired of police raids. 
According to Writer: ''A visitor to the Fifty-Fifty Club in its riotous mid-30s heyday would enter the creaking cage elevator at ground level, and ride up past nondescript offices on floors one to three before alighting at the fourth floor . . . the doorman would open the door, and frisk guests for firearms and ensure that they had money.
''If approved, the visitor entered a cavernous room with carpet on the floor, slightly tatty lounge suites, decorative palms and flower-filled vases, and deep chairs festooned with colourful cushions . . . guests sat drinking heavily or snorting cocaine from small bowls.''
I walk by this building, now home to Royalty Prussia, countless times, but Writer really brings the history alive. Razor, the book, is worth buying just for this chapter, which includes incredible detail about what Devine, Leigh and their fellow crooks would get up to when they were On The Town.

Other characters in Razor seem more glamorous, such as that of Pretty Dulcie Markham (above left) and Nellie Cameron (above right). Yet both worked as prostitutes and were rough as guts. Markham apparently ''confounded anyone who equated beauty with purity'' while Cameron was ''the most sought after gangster's girl''.

Cameron had a flat at 253 Liverpool Street (above) where she would entertain her clients, one of whom was shot in the buttocks in November 1944. In the 1950s she lived in a flat on Denham Street (below) where she stuck her head in a gas oven and died at the age of 41.

In the end it was not the police who got Leigh and Devine, but the taxman. Leigh had once lived in a grand terrace on Lansdowne Street in Surry Hills (below), but by the 1950s she was bankrupt and forced to live in a ''squalid'' room at 212 Devonshire Street, from where she had once operated a sly-groggery. When the government ended the six o'clock swill in 1955, Leigh was out of business. She died on February 4, 1964 at St Vincent's Hospital, after suffering a stroke. 

For Devine, who had once owned properties throughout the inner-city and eastern suburbs, including a terrace at 145 Brougham Street, Woolloomooloo (below), the end was equally unglamorous. Devine quit crime in 1968 and struggled to make ends meet on the old age pension. She died at Concord Repatriation Hospital, in Sydney's west, on November 24, 1970.

Writer's extremely well-researched book really brings this period of Sydney's history alive. 
Since it was published in 2001, it has inspired a GPS-guided tour, a stage show, and now a television series. Judging by this website, there could also be a film in the works.
Devine has also been remembered, with a small bar in Crown Lane named after her.

UPDATE: Interview with Razor author Larry Writer


Ruby said...

Great post, as always, Violet! I, too, can't wait for the series but - judging by the promos I've seen - it looks a bit lame, in a cheesy Channel 9 kinda way. I hope it's better than the promos make it out to be.

Violet Tingle said...

I just spoke to someone who went to a preview screening of the first two episodes today and they said it was brilliant. Lots of nudity and violence with a graphic novel style, ie art deco text 'kapows!'.
They said a lot of it was shot in Redfern outside vacated buildings on The Block, but there were also recognisable Darlinghurst locations such as the East Village Hotel and Palmer Street. Can't wait! VTx

Anonymous said...

Dear Violet... It's Larry Writer here. I absolutely adore your blog... it's a brilliant love letter to a wonderful place. Just on Underbelly Razor, after hearing so many horror stories from authors whose books had been massacred by film makers, I was a little fearful about how Screentime would adapt my book. But I'm just so glad to be able to report that from the first the Underbelly writers, researchers, directors and actors and production designers have been brilliant, and taken so much care to create something special that does justice to the people and events of the period. I admit I'm biased, but Underbelly Razor is pretty damn wonderful, and watching the first two episodes was pretty emotional experience for me as Tilly, Kate, Nellie, Frankie, Guido and the others sprang to life on the streets of Darlinghurst. Anyway, don't take my word for it; have a look when it is screened and decide for yourself. I'd love to know what you and yourt correspondents think. Again, thank you for My Darling Darlinghurst.

Violet Tingle said...

Dear Larry Writer, Thanks for writing, I feel honoured. Can't wait to see Razor on screen. VT

Anonymous said...

As a working girl who has (at rock bottom!) worked on the streets of Darlinghurst including Palmer St & lived all over the area, watching the Underbelly Razor series was a fantastic journey through a piece of history created in places that I know well and have had strong experiences in! Yes some of it was slightly cheesy but by the end I was hooked and sorry to see the series finish. I can also thank the series for bringing me to discover this website which I will continue to follow- Darlinghurst has such fantastic history-past and presently created!! Larry Writer- I would LOVE to share my present day exxperiences with you!! If you see this and are interested in speaking to me email ......

Anonymous said...

Loved the Razor series. My father was a child in that area of Darlinghurst so I was able to place him in a little part of Australian history. The actors were absolutely fantastic. The music was sensational. Loved every minute of it.

Anonymous said...

Ive just finished watching the Razor series and loved it. My family are from Paddington. I am doing my family history and have found out that Tilly Devine had paid for My Great Grandfathers funeral,the wake went for 3 days and my Grandfather used to hang out with Tilly.I visited Sydney recently to tour the streets where my family grew up. Very interesting.

Lee said...

I just finished watching the 'Razor' series and loved seeing all that history. Your blog adds extra interest seeing all those building that were a part of that history in modern day. Well done!

Anonymous said...


i'm in search for the book in Belgium.
i can't find it :-(. I need it for a monologue. Someone who can help me with this? also in Ibooks i can't find it.
Thank you.

If anyone can help me, email me please

Unknown said...

There were some significant factual errors in Writer's book. A readable introduction to the period, but don't take all that is written as fact.

Anonymous said...

I grow up in darlinghurst in the 70,s I,m very proud of my history,an terribly sad that it's fading past it brakes my heart that it's disappearing, I feels like I,m losing myself, dulice, pearl beautiful people, I,d always brushed dulice,s hair an put her tiara on her when I was a little girl

Leigh Straw said...

I have just been contracted by New South Books to write a true crime biography of Kate Leigh. I am a great fan of Larry Writer's book but have wanted to write a book entirely about Kate. I'm interested in talking with anyone who might want to share their memories from Darlinghurst and Surry Hills. I used to live on Palmer Street and then moved up to Esther Street and Devonshire Street in Surry Hills. I'm back in WA now but frequently come back to Sydney.

Please email me at

Leigh Straw

bushgirl said...

A relative of mine who we think was our grandmother but can't prove it yet was a prostitute in that era. She mixed with the Razor gang mob. She was born Dorothy Edmonds but went under many names. She was known as Dot Tremaine and had many convictions. She was once married to Gordon Barr and others. Committed bigamy once. She was known as the Flying Angel and my nephew and I are researching her life. There is so much about her on Trove under the name Dot Tremaine. So all very interesting.

bushgirl said...

I had a relative who we think is our grandmother. She was a prostitute around the the time of the Razor Gang and was once married to Gordon Barr. She had many aliases but mostly was known as Dot or Dorothy Tremaine. She was known as The Flying Angel. Wish I could find a bit about her. There is lots on Trove.