Doyenne of the Razor Gang Wars

Doyenne of the Razor Gang Wars

Nell Darby explains how a digital archive has helped bring to life two women’s criminality – and animosity – in pre WW2 Australia

Dr Nell Darby, Writer who specialises in social and crime history

Dr Nell Darby

Writer who specialises in social and crime history

One of the brilliant aspects of modern life both for anyone interested in the history of crime is the digitisation of records that may otherwise have languished in archives, seen only by a handful of people, or even by the archivist alone. Digitising records, and putting them into their wider social or political context opens them up to a wider range of people, and also enables those living in other countries to learn about the crime history of a different nation.

The State Archives of New South Wales has put online a particularly interesting digital gallery that looks at the criminal world of the state in the 1920s and early 1930s. The gallery can be found here, and it looks at a fascinating story from a world that we associate with flappers and art deco, glamour and dancing. It shows that there was an underbelly to this glamour in Australia, where organised crime rose at this time due to the prohibition on both prostitution and legalised selling of cocaine through places such as chemists, and the early closing of public bars and hotels.

Tilly Devine, pictured in 1925
Tilly Devine, pictured in 1925

In various Sydney suburbs at this time, various gangs were battling it out for supremacy and control of the criminal underworld. They were known as ‘razor gangs’, because they liked to use cut throat razors as their weapons. In Australia, the Pistol Licensing Act of 1927 had clamped down on the use of firearms – if anyone was found with an unlicensed firearm, they would automatically get time in gaol. Therefore, other weapons were used to avoid this danger.

Interestingly, the razor gang wars in the Sydney area were led not by men, but by women – two in particular. Tilly Devine was a brothel owner, running several in the suburbs of Darlinghurst and the Cross, and known as the Queen of Woolloomooloo. Her rival was Kate Leigh – the Queen of Surry Hills – who ran drugs networks and illegal drinking establishments.

Tilly had a long, but unhappy, marriage with fellow dodgy dealer Jim Devine
Tilly had a long, but unhappy, marriage with fellow dodgy dealer Jim Devine

South Londoner
Tilly Devine was not Australian, but a south Londoner, born Matilda Twiss in September 1900. She grew up in the family home at 57 Hollington Street, Camberwell, where her parents had eleven children, of whom three had died by 1911. It was clear that prospects were meagre for little Tilly Twiss in London: in 1911, Edward Twiss was working as a labourer for the borough council; her sister Alice was a laundress, and brother Peter was a messenger.

In February 1916, far away from Tilly, a shearer named James Edward Devine, of Brunswick in Victoria, Australia, enlisted for foreign service. While on overseas service, James Devine met Matilda Twiss, and the couple married at Camberwell in the summer of 1917. James was 24; his new wife just 17. Two years later, in Camberwell, their son, Frederick Ralph, was born. But the war was over, and James Devine – known as Jim – returned to Australia. Tilly followed him in 1920, but left her son behind, in the charge of her parents.

Tilly’s leaving of her son indicates that she was not a conventional woman. Neither was her marriage conventional. On arriving in Australia, she took on work – not in a shop, or domestic service, but as a prostitute, with her husband acting, in effect, as her pimp.

1920s Sydney was the location of the Razor Gang Wars
1920s Sydney was the location of the Razor Gang Wars

Turning to crime
The first police mention we get of Tilly is in December 1921, when, with her husband, her name appears in the indexes to Sydney Quarter Sessions criminal cases. From that year on, every year of the 1920s appears to see Matilda Devine’s name appear in either the criminal record indexes or in police gazettes. In 1922, she was charged with riotous behaviour, in 1923 with attempted theft. In 1924, she and her husband were charged with maliciously damage. Then, in 1925, she was convicted of malicious wounding – she had walked into a barber’s shop and slashed a man named Sydney Corke with a razor blade – and sentenced to two years’ hard labour. Between 1921 and 1925, she racked up 79 convictions on charges relating to her career in prostitution.

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On her release, she decided to run her own brothels rather than continue as a street prostitute, and organised a network of brothels around Palmer Street, where she lived. Jim Devine was also able to sell cocaine from her brothels. However, Tilly’s brushes with the law continued; for example, in 1927, a warrant was issued for her arrest after the ‘well dressed’ woman was said to have behaved ‘in an offensive manner’. Two years later, she was charged with demanding money by menaces from one William Joseph Ashcroft, having been arrested by the Sydney Police, and committed for trial at the Quarter Sessions. Her committal featured in an issue of the New South Wales Police Gazette – along with, on another page, another entry for her, this time being charged with stealing £15 from one Robert Powell.

Kate Leigh, pictured in a reformatory photograph
Kate Leigh, pictured in a reformatory photograph

Powerful rival
Tilly was a powerful and strong woman, both mentally and physically – weighing in at over 11 stone – but she still needed men to help her. Frank Green was a small man in stature but formidable, the first glance at him revealing a razor scar on his cheek. Tilly employed him to help protect her brothels, and Sid McDonald to work as her bodyguard. And she needed protection. She was engaged in a feud with Kate Leigh, 20 years her senior, and described by the Australian Dictionary of Biography ( as a ‘crime entrepreneur’. Unlike Tilly, Kate was a born and bred Australian, but like her rival, had a long criminal record and had also been married to a fellow criminal (in fact, more than one). Like Kate, she also had a gang of male gangsters who would protect her – but she could also protect them, usually with her rifle, which she was skilled in using. Kate’s main employment was in running bootleg drinking outlets, and a network to distribute cocaine. Although Kate was feared by many, Tilly referred to her in disparaging terms as a ‘white slaver’ or a ‘dope pusher’.

Their feud came to a head on 17 July 1929, when Kate’s gang ambushed Tilly’s men Frank Green and Sid McDonald, who then returned to the Devine home. At midnight, Kate’s gang attacked; but Gregory Gaffney, working for Kate, was shot dead by Jim Devine. Jim was found not guilty of murder, it being accepted that he had merely been ‘protecting’ his home from an attacker.

The 1930s and 1940s suggest calmer times, if archival documents are to be believed. Electoral registers for this period record Matilda living in Sydney and being occupied in ‘house duties’. But the archives can mislead. Behind the scenes, Tilly continued to be arrested, usually on charges of consorting with prostitutes, and at one point, had to agree to leave Australia and stay in England for a year. In addition, Tilly and Jim were in an abusive relationship, a wild lifestyle resulting in bouts of violence. Eventually, in 1943 the couple divorced, and two years later, Tilly married Eric Parsons in Sydney. She continued to run her brothels, and host excessive parties, whilst also continuing to appear in court occasionally on various charges.

The New South Wales State Archive has put online a digital gallery about the two women
The New South Wales State Archive has put online a digital gallery about the two women

End of an era
In 1955, unpaid taxes meant that she had to sell much of her properties, leaving her with just one brothel, which she continued to run until two years before her death. Her old adversary didn’t do much better: Kate Leigh was made bankrupt in the 1950s, having failed to pay the tax arrears she owed.

It was now the end of an era. Kate Leigh died in 1964 in her home turf of Surry Hills; Tilly died six years later, of bronchitis. The age of Tilly Devine and the Razor Gang Wars was over: and the lives of two formidable, criminal women were too.

police gazettepolice gazette 2police gazette 3
Just some of Tilly’s criminal exploits are recorded in the pages of police gazettes

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