The 1920s: the Razor Wars

During the half-century since organized crime first established itself in Sydney there have been only two periods of prolonged and intense gang warfare — the razor gang wars covering the years 1927-30 and the syndicate executions of 1966-8. And of the two, the razor gang era was by far the more violent. Involving regular battles between four groups, the razor gang wars were essentially a struggle for the cocaine traffic. Although its origins were never satisfactorily explained, it is significant that the start of the killings in mid-1927 coincided with police pressure on the cocaine trade. As the State’s mounting anti-narcotics movement forced chemists and petty traffickers out of business, the underworld became the sole source of cocaine. Price and profitability increased and the city’s cocaine trade became a prize of great profit.

Confined to the narrow lanes of the Darlinghurst arc, the battles featured the ordinary straight razor as the weapon of choice. Barred from carrying concealed firearms without a police licence under the 1927 Pistol Act, criminals armed themselves with a straight razor which folded neatly into the jacket pocket and sharpened to a weapon capable of inflicting gruesome, L-shaped scars. Some standover men found their display a convincing deterrent to a prostitute with reservations about making her payments. Indicative of their widespread use, in a three month period in late 1927 police seized sixty-six razors from suspects searched in. connection with a variety of unrelated offences.

The gangs who fought these battles were confederations clustered about four dominant personalities: the demonstrative Kate Leigh, brothel owner and cocaine merchant; the hard cockney migrant Tilly Devine, brothel owner; the Melbourne razor gang leader Norman Bruhn, standover merchant; and Phil ‘The Jew’ Jeffs, cocaine distributor and sly grog patron. Their sudden rise to power in the mid-1920s is indicative of the importance of cocaine in the formation of the Sydney milieu.


The only New South Wales native among the four, Kathleen Behan Leigh was born at Dubbo in 1887, one of thirteen children of a local horse trainer. Badly maltreated as a child, she was found wandering the streets and was sent to Parramatta Industrial School at age ten. Released from the home at age fourteen, she found her way into Sydney and was soon sentenced to fourteen days for vagrancy, her first criminal conviction. She eventually found work as a waitress and married a carpenter. Breaking with her husband after only a few years of marriage, Kate Leigh discovered her life’s work as a brothel keeper in her mid-twenties, an age when most women in the trade were still on the streets. Arrested for ‘being the holder of a house frequented by prostitutes’ in December 1913, she was convicted and placed on a twelve months’ good behaviour bond. During her early years in the brothel trade she became the mistress of a well-known Sydney thief, ‘Jewey’ Freeman. When he was arrested in 1914 after the armed robbery of a payroll worth £3,300 from Sydney’s Eveleigh railway workshop, Kate Leigh testified for the defence and was sentenced to five years’ imprisonment for perjury. Her identification photo card taken at Long Bay gaol in 1915 shows her as a handsome woman with a strong face, 152 centimetres (5 feet 1 inch) tall and weighing only 51 kilograms (8 stone).

Upon release in 1919 Kate Leigh opened sly grog shops in Surry Hills, established a network of brothels in East Sydney and collected about her a coterie of strongmen who dominated the cocaine traffic. From her home at 104 Riley Street, East Sydney, at the centre of the red-light district, she involved herself in a variety of illegal activities including sly grog selling, receiving stolen goods, cocaine dealing, prostitution and various standover rackets. Always an active recruiter for her primary enterprise, Kate Leigh liked to approach handsome working-class women with stories of jewels, nice clothes and a good time. ‘It’s a nasty world’, she would say, ‘so it’s best to enjoy it while you can.’

A flamboyant personality, Kate Leigh in her later years appeared regularly at the trials of leading criminal identities chauffered in a late-model limousine, surrounded by bodyguards and attired in great floppy hats, ostrich-feather boas wreathed about her many layered chin, and clusters of diamond rings bunched on her stubby fingers. During a World War II bond rally at Martin Place she put down £5,000 cash as her contribution to the war effort to the cheers of an enthusiastic crowd. Although she was charged with at least a hundred different offences, she always managed an appropriate outrage when sentenced to prison and frequently had to be dragged from the courtroom as she screamed obscenities at judge, jury and police. Kate Leigh was also a woman of considerable courage. Once in March 1930, when trapped alone in her house at night by four criminals intent on killing her absent lover, she opened fire with a rifle, killing one and forcing the others to flee. Although her flamboyance and generosity have made her something of a folk heroine in Sydney, she is a figure of considerable importance in the history of organized crime. Like New York’s Charles ‘Lucky’ Luciano a decade later, it was her genius to mix narcotics selling with brothel keeping, thereby depriving her prostitutes of any savings and reducing them to working for drugs.


Kate Leigh’s perennial rival for control of the East Sydney vice trade was Matilda Mary Twiss Devine, a cockney bricklayer’s daughter born in Camberwell, London, on 6 September 1900. During World War I she met James Devine, a Melbourne-born criminal then serving as a soldier in the AIF. Married on 12 August 1917 when she was only sixteen, Tilly followed Jim Devine back to Australia in 1919 on a ‘bride’ ship. Landing at Sydney in January 1920, Tilly at first lived with her husband in a flat in Glenmore Road, Paddington. While he dabbled about the race track, Tilly Devine opened her first brothel in Palmer Street and by 1925 was known in the press as the ‘queen of the night’. Mrs Devine received her first major conviction in February 1925 when she assaulted a commercial traveller in Liverpool Street, East Sydney. Her prisoner description card filed at Long Bay gaol in July 1925 shows her as an attractive woman, 162.5 centimetres (5 feet 4 inches) tall and weighing 72 kilograms (11 stone 4 pounds), with sixty-six prior convictions. A month after her arrest her husband was sentenced to six months’ imprisonment for living on the immoral earnings of women, namely her income as a brothel keeper.


As Jim Devine’s conviction demonstrated, Tilly’s power, like Kate Leigh’s, was based on a curious loophole in the State prostitution laws that encouraged the rise of women brothel keepers. The Vagrancy Act had forced prostitution off the street into brothels, while other laws made it illegal for a man, but not a woman, to profit from the ‘immoral earnings’ of women.

A hard woman with a vicious temper, Tilly Devine aspired to a certain sense of style, and removed her household to a comfortable house in Maroubra during Darlinghurst’s years of gang violence. There she maintained a proper home with crystal glassware and a dinner service. She liked to talk about what fine people her parents were, and expressed nothing but disdain for Kate Leigh’s crude colonial style. When Kate Leigh told Truth in 1930 that the title of ‘the worst woman in Sydney’ belonged to Tilly Devine, Tilly replied from London asking the newspaper ‘to keep my name out of papers in any connection with Kate Lee’s, as I don’t wish to know her class’. And in another press interview two years later Tilly Devine expressed contempt for her rival: ‘I’m not like Kate Leigh anyway. I might drink and have a run in with the police now and then, but I don’t take dope, and no one can say I have ruined young girls. Kate Leigh does all this’. If Kate Leigh’s diamonds flashed with a folksy gaudiness and she became a patron to the poor of Surry Hills, Tilly’s diamonds sparkled with a hard glitter and she gave nothing to anyone. During the razor wars Tilly Devine managed the business, and her husband, a skilled gunman, provided protection for the operations through his bodyguards.


The victor in this four-year gang was was another Sydney migrant, Phil Jeffs, also known as Phil Davies, but better known a ‘Phil the Jew’. When he died in 1945 after a quarter century in Sydney’s milieu, even the hyperbolic prose of the Truth was not quite equal to the task of summing up his remarkable career. Under the headline ‘Phil the Jew, King of Thugs’, his obituary began with the line: ‘Phil the Jew, Sydney racketeer, gangster, drug pedlar, procurer, sly groger, alleged phizz gig for some detectives, gunman and wealthy friend of some politicians and many police, died on Tuesday’. Born in the Jewish ghetto of Riga, Latvia, in 1896, Jeffs was orphaned as an infant, grew up fossicking for garbage in the West End of London, and went to sea. Jumping ship in Sydney in 1912, he worked as a ‘boot’ at the Coogee Bay Hotel until he was fired for theft. By 1925 he was well-known in underworld as the proprietor of the 50-50 Club, a Darlinghurst sly-grog shop. To conceal his actual ownership, Jeffs hired the well-spoken Harold ‘Snowy’ Billington to play the proprietor while he posed as the ‘rouseabout’. Similarly, when he opened a chic sly grog shop — the 400 Club — in the Parkes Building on Hunter Street in the 1930s, he went into partnership with a society doctor until the club was well-established. During the 1920s Jeffs was one of the toughest razor-men on the streets and emerged as one of the city’s major cocaine dealers. A man of considerable intellect and self-taught erudition, Jeffs was perhaps the most capable criminal of his generation.


During the opening rounds of the razor war in 1927 the three Sydney syndicates — led by Tilly Devine, Kate Leigh, and Phil Jeffs — combined to destroy a razor gang led by Victorian criminal Norman Bruhn. A wharf labourer by trade, Bruhn had made a reputation for himself in the Melbourne underworld as a garrotter, standover merchant and armed robber. One of several Melbourne personalities forced into exile by police in the mid-1920s, Bruhn, then about thirty, moved to Sydney with his wife and two children, and rented rooms at East Sydney. Moving about the Darlinghurst area at night, Bruhn collected standover payments from prostitutes and sly grog shops with several other known criminals: George Wallace, twenty-four, a bull-like man known as the ‘Midnight Raper’ for the methods he used to collect from streetwalkers; Frank Frederick Hayes, later known as ‘Razor Jack’; and John ‘Snowy’ Cutmore, a pudgy blonde of medium height and build known in his native Melbourne as a member of the ‘Safe Prosecution Gang’ which had extorted money from successful thieves.

Shortly after the N.S.W. Pistol Act came into force and Bruhn’s gang began using the razor, the press reported a wave of assaults of unprecedented brutality. The earliest account of the razor gang phenomenon appeared in the Truth edition of 12 June 1927. Victims with L-shaped slashes cut deep into their faces were appearing at casualty wards and a group of Liverpool Street thieves had been robbed by the razor gang. Truth asked, referring to the southern city’s spectacular gun battles several years earlier, ‘Is the spirit of Melbourne invading Sydney?’

Initially involved in the cocaine traffic, Bruhn’s group turned its efforts to extorting standover payments from the active cocaine dealers. A reaction was not long in coming. On the night of 22 June, 1927, Norman Bruhn was shot fatally as he was walking down Charlotte Lane in East Sydney on his way to make a collection. Although later accounts have speculated that a gunman had been hired by the cocaine dealers to murder him, no substantial evidence has been offered to identify the killer. Interviewed by Truth, veteran N.S.W. Police Commissioner James Mitchell stated: ‘The shooting is clearly interwoven with the drug traffic’.

Bruhn’s razor gang fragmented after his demise. In July a nighttime crowd at the Plaza Cafe in King Street confronted the ‘Midnight Raper’, George Wallace, alone and armed with a razor, and drove him out into the street. His reputation in the Sydney milieu quickly faded and he was of little consequence in the underworld of the 1930s. Moving on to Perth, he died there after a knifing in 1949. In August 1928 Frank ‘Razor Jack’ Hayes was gunned down in another Darlinghurst street battle, and some time later quit Sydney for Germany. John ‘Snowy’ Cutmore fled to Melbourne and was himself killed in a gun battle with ‘Squizzy’ Taylor.

For two years violence in the Sydney milieu was isolated, but in mid-1929 war broke out among Sydney’s three major syndicates. The first battle in this new round was fought on 7 May 1929 between Phil Jeffs and rival cocaine dealers. Apparently provoked when Jeffs adulterated a cocaine shipment with boracic acid, the battle was a half-hour brawl in Eaton Avenue, Darlinghurst involving twenty men armed with pistols, razors and knuckle dusters. Jeffs himself participated actively in the fighting. When a wounded rival tried to escape by jumping on the running board of a passing taxi, Jeffs hauled him off and kicked him in the face. Escaping to his house in Kensington, Jeffs was shot four times by pursuing gangsters but recovered after hospitalization.

Two months later the Kate Leigh and Tilly Devine gangs began a prolonged struggle for the East Sydney vice rackets. At 7.30 p.m. on the evening of 17 July 1929, two of Tilly Devine’s gladiators, Francis Green and Sidney McDonald, were walking in Nicholson Street, Woolloomooloo when they met one of Kate Leigh’s enforcers, George ‘Gunman’ Gaffney. Tensions between the two gangs had been rising, and Gaffney kicked Green to the ground and shot him with a revolver. At 10.30 p.m. McDonald met his employers Jim and Tilly Devine in Darlinghurst and told them of the shooting. Hailing a taxi, the three returned to the Devine residence in Maroubra, stopping en route at the home of a friend where Jim Devine borrowed a .303 military rifle. Discharged from the casualty ward, Frank Green caught the tram to Maroubra, arriving at Devine’s house just before midnight.

Sometime after midnight another taxi pulled into Torrington Road and discharged at least two armed men, ‘Gunman’ Gaffney and Kate Leigh’s bodyguard, Walter Thomlinson. As the two climbed the fence into the yard, Jim Devine came out onto the veranda with McDonald, a crack marksman in the AIF, and the .303 rifle. Gaffney allegedly shouted, ‘I’m out for the blood of you bastard’, and was fatally wounded in the ensuing exchange of fire. Police interviewed Gaffney before he expired, but, true to the Australian omerta, he refused to identify his assailant. At his trial Jim Devine claimed that he had fired eight shots in defence of his home and wife, and court found the homicide justifiable. Reciprocating the courtesy extended him by the Leigh faction, Jim Devine refused to co-operate with police proceedings against Thomlinson.

The Leigh-Devine war continued with the Devine faction taking the offensive and the Leigh group the casualties. In August 1929 the two gangs brawled in Kellet Street, Kings Cross with razors and revolvers. Three months later, on 9 November 1929, Devine gunman Frank Green followed two of Kate Leigh’s men, Walter Thomlinson and Bernard H. Dalton, as they left Sharland’s Hotel, in William Street, Woolloomooloo. Shouting ‘cop this you bastard’, Green fired his revolver at the pair, apparently aiming at Thomlinson but instead fatally wounding Dalton. His funeral was a spectacle, and Kate Leigh arrived in her chauffer-driven Studebaker escorted by Thomlinson.

Fearing retribution, Frank Green went into hiding with Sidney McDonald for five months before they were arrested. Instead of the ritual refusal, Thomlinson picked Green out of a police line-up as the man who had shot Dalton. The betrayal angered the underworld. Riding the police tram to Long Bay gaol, Green was overheard saying: ‘The bastard picked me today. It’s a pity I didn’t get him as well as Dalton while I was at it’. During a lunch break at Green’s murder trial in January 1930, his mate McDonald assaulted Thomlinson, an act of loyalty which earned him twelve months in gaol. Several months later four criminals broke into Kate Leigh’s house with the intention of punishing Thomlinson. Kate opened fire with a rifle killing John W. Prendergast, a criminal and cocaine addict known to be friendly with Green. Thomlinson’s uncorroborated testimony was insufficient for a conviction and Green was eventually released.


Before the battle could be rejoined the police intervened and crushed the razor gangs. The lurid quality of the gang warfare in central Sydney aroused considerable consternation among the press and Parliament, which culminated in the passage of the N.S.W. Vagrancy (Amendment) Act 1929 with its Draconian ‘consorting clause’. Calling for the passage of such an act a year earlier, Truth had editorialized: ‘Labouring under a lax Crimes Act, Sydney has degenerated into a violent lawlessness in which ruthless underworld bids fair to demoralize orderly civil life’. Only two weeks later, Truth noted the fundamental change that had transpired in the underworld: ‘Crime in Sydney has become an organized profession’.

Passed by Parliament with bipartisan support in late 1929, the ‘Consorting Clause’ was written specifically to assist in the destruction of the razor gangs. The new clause provided harsh penalties for anyone who ‘habitually consorts with reputed thieves, or prostitutes, or persons who have no visible or lawful means of support’, meaning in effect that it was a serious crime for known criminals to associate with each other. It was one of the most authoritarian and effective measures against organized crime ever passed in a Western democracy. Under supporting clauses of the act, police testimony of such associations or lack of lawful income constituted prima facie evidence of illegal activity and could stand as the basis for conviction. In short, the N.S.W. police were given almost unlimited powers to imprison any citizen who had associates they deemed criminal.

In anticipation of the act’s passage, the N.S.W. police formed a Consorting Squad and ordered it into action as soon as the new act became effective in January 1930. The results surprised almost everyone. In 1930 the police arrested fifty-four men and sixty-two women for ‘consorting’ of whom sixty-eight were sentenced to prison. The following year saw an increase as sixty-eight males and eighty-one females were charged, resulting in 121 prison sentences. After only a few weeks of Consorting Squad operations, the government minister responsible for police, Mr Chaffey, told Truth: ‘The reign of terror is ended. The Consorting Clause gave the police more power than they sought, and the results certainly exceed anything I expected’. In March the Police Commissioner told the press that ‘no other Act of Parliament had been of such assistance for years in ridding the city and streets of undesirables’.Through the passage of the new Vagrancy Act and the formation of the Consorting Squad — together with the work of the Drug Bureau and a special vice unit targeted for sly grog and illegal gambling — N.S.W. politicians had finally given the police the weapons they needed for a frontal assault on organized crime.

While most of the convictions involved petty thieves and streetwalkers, leading criminal personalities soon felt the effects. Once before the courts, criminals found that an aroused N.S.W. judiciary had abandoned its impartiality in cases dealing with organized crime and was inclined to assist the police. A Sydney stipendiary magistrate, in a decision that exemplified the judiciary’s posture, sentenced a man arrested for simple possession of a razor to six months’ hard labour.

The first prominent criminal to test the consorting clause was Matilda Devine. Arrested in January 1930 and charged with consorting with prostitutes — that is, her employees — she promised the judge that within one month she would leave Australia for two years if she were not tried. For three weeks she was feted in a round of parties and in late February sailed for England in a third-class cabin, leaving her husband Jim behind to manage her affairs.

While Tilly tended her ailing mother, her husband proved that she was in fact the leader of their network by falling into a series of petty scrapes which led ultimately to his trial for murder. In March 1931 he was slashed severely across the face by a razorman, and three months later was arrested for murder. Evidently pressed by police operations against his standover collections, Frank Green dropped by the Maroubra home on the evening of 16 June, robbed Devine of his diamond stick-pin at gunpoint, and fled the house to a waiting taxi. Devine pursued him, firing with his rifle, but in error hit and killed the taxi driver. Although detained by police for some time, neither Green nor Devine was imprisoned.By the time she returned to Sydney in January 1932, Tilly Devine’s group was in disarray.

Deprived of Tilly Devine’s leadership and pressed by police, Frank Green’s criminal career went into a sharp decline that illustrates of the impact of the Consorting Clause. Born in Redfern in 1902, Green passed through the usual criminal apprenticeship and had emerged by the late 1920s, despite his short height, as a leading standover merchant. He was one of the main gladiators of the razor wars and by 1930 was considered Sydney’s top gunman. During the five years following passage of the Consorting Clause, however, Green spent his time either in hiding, in prison or locked in a bizarre battle with another standover man, Guido Caletti, for possession of a striking ex-prostitute named Nellie Cameron. In November 1931 Green was shot and seriously wounded by one of Nellie Cameron’s other lovers. Detained by police on consorting charges, Green escaped briefly in August 1932 to collect standover taxes from streetwalkers and Phil Jeffs’ 50-50 Club. After escaping again Green was arrested and sentenced with Guido Caletti to twelve months’ gaol on consorting offences. Green — now vilified by the press as ‘Sydney’s Scarface Al Capone, desperate racketeer and underworld sharpshooter’ — had been collecting standover tax on sly grog, prostitution, SP bookmaking, cocaine, and Chinese opium dens. Only a few months after his release from Long Bay, he was severely wounded in a razor attack and entered hospital in June 1934 for surgery on the severed tendons in his gun hand. It proved impossible for Green, operating as he did by himself, to maintain a constant presence in the streets or play a leadership role in the Sydney milieu.

Perhaps the most powerful Sydney milieu leader of the 1920s, Kate Leigh, despite some influential contacts in the Labor Party, suffered most from the police offensive. Arrested in a police raid on one of her rented houses at 25 Kippax Street, Surry Hills, Leigh was sentenced to four months’ imprisonment in February 1929 for providing premises where notorious thieves and garrotters consorted. Most damaging to her reputation, however, was a Drug Bureau raid on her East Sydney home in mid-1930. Sergeants Wickham and Thompson of the Drug Bureau searched her house discovering cocaine and arrested three of her women distributors. Truth labelled her ‘Sydney’s Vicious Harridan of the Underworld’, and reported that ‘she had held the dope game in a grip that was as tight as that of any Midas’. Police later testified that she was ‘a notorious cocaine trafficker’. Despite a vigorous effort by her defence counsel, Kate Leigh was convicted of cocaine possession and sentenced to twelve months’ imprisonment and a fine of £250 or another twelve months at the discretion of the court — then the heaviest sentence ever imposed in New South Wales for a narcotics offence. Dragged screaming from the Appeals Court some months later, she settled into a comfortable prison life as the ‘underworld hag queen of Long Bay’, ruling over the women inmates, many of whom were Darlinghurst prostitutes, receiving the Governor’s wife for tea, and still managing her Palmer Street brothels.

While Kate Leigh vacationed at Long Bay, the Drug Bureau continued its investigation of her organization. Shortly after she entered prison, police arrested Frederick Dangar, thirty-eight, bookmaker, after he attempted to purchase fifteen grams of cocaine from a North Sydney chemist without a prescription on the excuse that he needed it for a horse. Testifying at his trial at Central Police Court on 13 February 1931, Detective Sergeant Wickham stated that ‘Dangar drifted into the drug traffic, and became the right-hand man of Kate Leigh’. Finding him guilty, the magistrate fined Dangar £250, in default twelve months’ imprisonment.

At the end of her first year in Long Bay, Kate Leigh used her influence with a Sydney Labor alderman to persuade the courts to accept payment of £250 in lieu of another year’s sentence. Perhaps pressed by the severity of the Depression, she was again arrested by police in January 1933 for receiving stolen goods and sentenced to ‘rustication’: banishment to N.S.W. country towns at least 200 miles from Sydney for five years. Several months earlier her daughter Eileen had agreed to exile herself from New South Wales for three years in lieu of a prison term. These sentences were harsh, but represented a curious kind of chivalry as well — no leading male criminal was ever offered the option of exile instead of prison.

The combined efforts of the Drug Bureau and Consorting Squad eliminated cocaine trafficking as a major organized crime activity by the mid-1930s. Initially, however, the results were rather slow. Testifying against a Surry Hills cocaine pedlar in July 1930, Sergeant Wickham stated that to date there had been no decrease in the drug traffic and some ’90 per cent of the immoral women of this city were drug addicts’.

from Drug Traffic by Alfred McCoy