In the 1920’s, the streets of Sydney ran with blood as a pair of criminal empires went to war, armed with razors. The most famous of the violent clashes became known as “The Battle of Blood Alley”, but perhaps what is most surprising about the gang wars was that the leaders of the rival empires were both women. Tilly Devine and Kate Leigh spent years battling for control of booze, drugs and prostitution on the streets of Sydney, and during their reign as Queens of their domains, they both became rich, but not without the crimson stain of blood on their manicured hands.
Tilly Devine was born Matilda Mary Twiss in London, England in 1900, and by her early teens she was plying her trade as a prostitute on the cobbled streets of the capital. At the tender age of 16, Tilly met and married an Australian serviceman named Jim Devine, but her nuptials did nothing to slow her burgeoning career as a lady of the night. When Jim returned to his native Australia, Tilly followed her man, and by the early 1920’s, the pair had become deeply involved in illegal narcotics and the gangs that were building up to fight for control of drugs on the streets.
For her part, Tilly continued her life as a prostitute, but it was an odd loophole in the 1905 NSW Vagrancy Act which allowed her to make the leap from street girl to Madam. Part of the act stated that men were not allowed to run brothels, but that simply opened the door for women, many of whom were funded by dirty money, to take over the institutions and thus rise to power themselves. This was the case for Tilly Devine who became one of the most notorious madams in Sydney, providing girls for prominent businessmen and state politicians.
Tilly used the proceeds from her brothel to spread out into other criminal activities, and while she was convicted 204 times, and spent much of her time in jail, she managed to amass a huge fortune, a chunk of which she poured into Sydney real estate ventures. The Devine’s massive fortune was legendary among the citizens of Sydney, as was the vicious nature of her husband Jim, who was tied in to a number of high profile murders, yet somehow always managed to escape conviction based on pleas of self-defense. The pair had a tempestuous relationship, and at one point Jim tried to shoot his wife to death, but she was able to dodge the bullets that were intended for her.
The marriage eventually reached its conclusion in 1944, by which time the business was in its first stages of decline Tilly was nailed with a huge tax bill in 1955, but claimed that she had more money and jewels than she knew what to do with, and was able to remain in business until 1968, when she finally sold off the last of her brothels. Tilly passed in 1970, and by that time the tales of the infamous razor wars of the late 1920’s were beginning to slip into the annals of history, as was her legendary feud with crosstown criminal rival Kate Leigh.
The pair pitched had their gangs pitch running battles in the streets, with the razor attacks prompted by the Pistol Licensing Act 1927, which outlawed the carrying of handguns. The razors were particularly effective when it came to disfiguring the rival prostitutes, and by the time the worst of the fighting had passed, it was believed that more than 500 people had fallen victim to death or injury by the barber’s blade. Leigh and Devine were not above the fighting, and on more than one occasion the pair clashed in the street in violent brawls.
Kate Leigh had a reputation as a woman not to be messed with, and where many of the more successful Madams required protection from gangs, she was more often the one that did the protecting of them. Born in 1887 in Dubbo, NSW, Kate Leigh suffered from serious neglect at the hands of her parents, which landed her in a girls’ home by the time she was 12. She also gave birth to her first child at the tender age of 13, and by 15 was on the first of her three marriages. It’s believed that her rough upbringing, and introduction to adulthood at such a young age, was what brought about her steely resolve.
Much like her bitter rival Tilly Devine, Kate used the loophole in the law to become the Madam of her own brothel, and while that was a lucrative venture, the majority of her fortune came from alcohol, and sly-grog bars in particular. These were establishments which operated after the legal closing time of 6pm, and in combination with the criminalization of cocaine in 1927, Leigh had the perfect pair of substances that she could sell at huge profits. At the height of her success, Kate became known as the “Queen of the Underworld”, and was believed to have as many as 20 of the sly-grog bars in operation at any given time. What was strange was that despite her making a fortune off of booze and drugs, she never drank or smoked her entire life.
Kate Leigh and Tilley Devine lived the majority of their lives in fierce competition with one another, yet at the end, their demises took on a rather coincidental decline. Kate was hit with a massive tax bill that left her bankrupt and virtually destitute, despite the massive wealth she had accumulated at the height of her criminal successes. Her undoing really began in 1955 when the sly-grog trade was virtually killed off with the introduction of drinking till 10pm. Leigh lived out the remainder of her life in a tiny room inside of her once illegal hotels, and was financially independent on her nephew for the last few years of her life, which ended in 1964 at the age of 82.
The truth of the matter is that the loopholes in the law that allowed the rise of these criminal empires, helped bring them down once those holes were firmly shut with new legislation. The Vagrancy Amendment Act of 1929 placed strict penalties on those who were caught in possession of razors without a valid reason, which in turn led to a major decline in the gang violence that had plagued the late 20’s. 1936 saw a new police commissioner brought into the area, and his efforts at curtailing the illegal movement of booze and cocaine went a long way to halting much of the trafficking. The biggest blow to the razor war are was the World War II which saw many of the street hoods drafted and sent off to fight, leaving the Sydney streets free of much of the criminal element who had helped keep the battle going.
In modern times, Tilley and Kate are looked upon as almost likeable figures, perhaps because their violent tendencies were aimed at each other, whilst providing “services” that the locals would have found some way to get their hands on even without the help of the 2 madams. That era is now the subject of an Australian TV show called Underbelly : Razor, which has helped fuel renewed interest in the era, and helps lead the debate on whether Tilley Devin and Kate Leigh were evil ladies, or simply just shrewd business women with a criminal edge.