‘I run errands for that lady,’ Gabriel explained. ‘Every Saturday. Jimmy and me have made a deal – he still collects bottles, I run the errands, then we split what we make – half each, even though I make more than he does. But I don’t mind; he’s got lots of brothers and sisters.’

‘What lady? What’s her name?’

‘Mrs Devine. The one that gave me the shilling that time. She’s really nice, Mama.’

Kathleen’s knees felt suddenly weak. She knew all about Mrs Devine. [‘Orphan Rock‘, Transit Lounge, March 2022]

Kathleen had every reason to be worried. Matilda Mary Devine – or ‘Tilly’, as the papers called her – headed one of the two most powerful razor-gangs in Sydney.

A legal loophole in the New South Wales Summary Offences [Amendment] Act of 1908 allowed Tilly – and her arch-enemy Kate Leigh – to become the most powerful women in Sydney’s underworld, ‘gang queens’ that caused Darlinghurst to be known as Razorhurst. The loophole was that the Offences Act made it illegal for men to profit from the earnings of prostitutes and brothel-keeping, but it made no mention of women, thus leaving it open for Tilly and Kate to do so.

‘Tilly’ Devine in 1925

Tilly Devine was born Matilda Mary Twiss on 8 September 1900 in Camberwell, South London, one of the city’s worst slum areas at the time. Leaving school when twelve years old, she worked in a factory for a time, but was determined to move out of poverty. She soon became a prostitute and, banking on her looks, worked in the glamourous theatre area of the West End. There, in 1916, she met James [Jim] Edward Joseph Devine, an Australian sapper in the 4th Tunnelling Company of the AIF [Australian Imperial Force]. When Tilly was still only 16, she and Jim married; it was a marriage soon filled with violence and drunkenness. During this time, Tilly continued earning a substantial income working as a prostitute. They had a son, whom they named Frederick.

‘Big Jim’ Devine

In 1919, Jim returned to Australia, and Tilly followed as a war bride on the Waimana, arriving in Sydney on the 13th January, 1920. Frederick was left with his grandparents in London. In Sydney, they rented a flat in Glenmore Road, Paddington [then a run-down slum area]. Paddington and surrounding suburbs were home to Sydney’s notorious underworld, with infamous criminals such as Phil ‘The Jew’ Jeffs [a gangster who controlled several night clubs, and owner of the 50-50 Club], Norman Bruhn [standover man and pimp, known for his garrotting skills], Guido Calletti [one of Sydney’s most notorious gunmen and razor slashers], and Frank Green [known as ‘The Little Gunman’], all close neighbours. There, Tilly went back to prostitution, charging top money because of her good looks and vivacious personality. Jim – now known as ‘Big Jim’, acted as her pimp, protector and chauffeur, dealing in illegal opium and cocaine on the side. Together, they earned enough to buy a house on the corner of Torrington and Malabar Roads, Maroubra, much to the dismay of their middle-class neighbours.

Matilda Devine: Criminal record #659LB, 27 May 1925 Long Bay Gaol. [Image: Sydney Living Museum]

During the following five years, Tilly was arrested on seventy-five occasions. Most of these arrested resulted either a fine or a few days in jail, but one arrest, for wounding a confectioner with a razor blade in 1925, resulted in a two-year sentence with light labour in Long Bay Women’s Prison, where she earned the nickname of ‘Pretty Tilly’.

But Tilly had no intention of being a prostitute all her life. By the end of the 1920s, she owned a string of brothels throughout Darlinghurst, Surry Hills, Paddington and Woolloomooloo, with a large number of bouncers and bodyguards protecting her girls and her properties. She earned the nickname ‘the Queen of the Night’, and had a reputation of being a benevolent tyrant who demanded total loyalty from her staff, and who would be generous in rewarding them, protecting them from violence and providing medical care, but who would not hesitate to throw out in the streets anyone who tried to hide their earnings, nor did she hesitate to bash or slash them in the process.

Kate Leigh, 1915

Tilly had one arch-enemy – Kate Leigh, known as ‘the Sly-grog Queen’. Kathleen Mary Josephine Leigh [née Beahan] was born in Dubbo, New South Wales, on the 10th of March 1881, the eighth child of boot-maker Timothy Beahan and his wife Charlotte. Kate had a neglected childhood, and when 12 years old was put in a girl’s home. At 19, she had a child out of wedlock [Eileen May Beahan]. She married three times – to James Leigh in 1902, to Edward Barry in 1922, and to Ernest Ryan in 1950. Between 1919 and 1955 Kate’s main enterprise was the sly-grog trade, running as many as twenty bootleg outlets, though at times she also dealt in drugs, stolen goods, and being a madam.

1930s cut-throat razor

Each women led a deadly gang where warfare was common, with Tilly and Kate fighting each other in the streets. And when the Pistol Licensing Act criminalised handguns, cut-throat razors became the weapon of choice. In 1936, however, the violence stopped after Police Commissioner William Mackay convinced them there would be little police interference in their businesses if they stopped the fighting.

Tilly Devine, 1930

The gang warfare may well have diminished, but not so Tilly’s flamboyant behaviour. She still appeared numerous times in court – usually for assault and/or indecent language – and always draped in furs and dripping with diamonds, much to the entertainment of Sydneysiders, who packed the public gallery whenever she was to appear. In January 1930, Tilly was once more arrested [this time for consorting, riotous behaviour and assaulting a police officer], but her solicitor convinced the judge Tilly was willing to leave the country for two years rather than go to jail again. The judge agreed, and Tilly left for London, only to return to Sydney in under a year. Then came the Depression and things slowed, but World War Two brought an influx of American servicemen and Tilly’s business boomed once again. During that time, she held respectable parties to raise funds for the families of Australian servicemen, for veteran’s associations, and for children in hospital.

In 1955, the Australian Tax Department ordered Tilly to pay £20,000 [roughly $703,600 in today’s money] for unpaid taxes and fines. She was forced to sell all but one of her properties to pay this bill. In 1969, that property in Palmer Street was firebombed by new rivals wanting to monopolise prostitution in Sydney. And that same year, the New South Wales Summary Offences Act was amended, making it illegal for women to live off the earnings of prostitution. Tilly’s reign was over. She died of cancer in Concord Hospital on 24 November 1970.

In 1973, playwright Peter Kenna wrote The Slaughter of St Teresa’s Day, inspired by incidents in Tilly’s life, and seventeen years later Icehouse recorded Miss Divine, a song about Tilly.

In 2001, Sydney-based author Larry Writer published Razor: Tilly Devine, Kate Leigh and the Razor Gangs [Macmillan], which won him the Ned Kelly Award: True Crime in 2002.

In 2008, Screentime Production began filming a six-season true-crime drama based on Melbourne and Sydney’s underworld, first broadcasted on Channel Nine [Australia]. Season Four, title Razor, focussed on the Leigh/Devine Sydney gangland wars of the ’30s, and was based on Larry Writer’s book of the same name. It starred Chelsie Preston Crayford as Tilly Devine; Danielle Cormack as Kate Leigh, and was first aired in 2011. #HistoricalFiction #OrphanRock #AussieLit #Australianfiction #histfic #aushist #Sydney #histsydney