The most popular activity to be made illegal in Sydney was gambling. The Gaming and Betting Act of 1906, and the Police Offences Act two years later, ensured that people who persisted in one of Australia’s most common forms of recreation, betting on horses away from the track, were now criminals. So too were those who continued to engage in other gambling, such as two-up.
Illegal SP (starting price, ie. off-course) bookmakers flourished, in barber shops and pubs and workplaces all over the city. The SP, and other forms of gambling, were arguably different from other illegal activities because so few people regarded them as immoral. One senior policeman suggested “75 per cent of the populace sees nothing wrong in starting price betting”.
One indication of the public acceptance of gambling was that many criminals involved in it over the decades were allowed to mix in most levels of society, almost as if they were not really crooks. A famous example of this was Joe Taylor, who rose to prominence as one of the owners of Thommo’s Two-up School.
Thommo’s was started in Surry Hills around 1910 and ran through a succession of owners until coming under the control of a group including former boxer and league player Taylor in World War II. It was illegal, of course, and a big and well organised concern, really an outdoor casino. There were 40 employees, involved in duties such as running the game (which involves flipping coins and betting on the mix of heads and tails when they land), selling alcohol, and keeping a lookout for police.
All classes of society attended the games and every Monday a plain clothes policeman would visit Taylor to collect the payout. Already the police had emerged as the most organised criminals in town. To keep the wowsers happy, there would be police raids from time to time. Taylor would be advised well in advance, and hire vagrants who would be arrested.
Taylor is an interesting man because he was successful in a variety of legal and illegal ventures and indicates, with his connections on both sides of the law, how muddled social concepts of right and wrong were during a time when so many popular activities were illegal but still vigorously engaged in by all sorts of people. In 1949 he put his profits from the two-up school into the Celebrity Club in York Street.
Sydney’s nightclubs were an important part of the underworld for many years, changing from the sly grog drinking joints of the 1930s to the nightclubs of the forties and fifties (still involving after-hours drinking) to the illegal casinos of later years (which provided free drinks for patrons). They were popular places for anyone with money to socialise, including the better class of criminal.
A policeman named Ray Blissett told the Sun Herald, “I wasn’t above having an occasional meal at the old Celebrity when I was on the Consorting Squad. I used to bowl in there to see how many villains were on the premises.” Former criminal Karl Bonnette has recounted how in later years other members of the Consorting Squad would hang around Chequers nightclub to extort money from flush criminals.
The Celebrity Club was successful and around 1953 Joe Taylor opened the Carlisle Club, an illegal casino, in Kellett Street Kings Cross. It later became the Golden Nuggett and then The Kellett Club. Taylor’s clubs were decorated in his favourite colour, red, which also decorated his tie and cufflinks when he went to the races. He was a formidable gambler, leading bookie Bill Waterhouse to quip, “If the Bank of England was his bookmaker, there would be times when he would have it terrified.”
In 1962 Taylor’s horse Birthday Card won the Golden Slipper Stakes and he was presented with the trophy by his friend, the corrupt former premier and governor-general Sir William McKell.
Despite his extensive illegal activities, Taylor was a racehorse owner (he won the Golden Slipper in 1962) and served on the committee of City Tattersall’s Club. Associates included newspaper publisher Ezra Norton and Premier Sir Robert Askin. When Taylor died in 1976 his funeral was attended by 1,000 mourners, including police, politicians and gangsters.
During Taylor’s career, hundreds of smaller criminals flourished as SP bookmakers. According to author Alfred McCoy, this was the major illegal activity of the 1930s, and grew in strength as the Depression struck and men could no longer afford to go to the races, but still wanted to gamble. Illegal bookmakers paid standover men and police to be allowed to operate, while racecourse operators put pressure on the government to stamp out the SP, so that betters would be forced to come to the tracks. A royal commission in 1938 confirmed the existence of police corruption and the government launched a major anti-SP campaign, but the result was to drive bookmakers out of pubs and into the arms of organised criminals, who set up illegal gambling joints and took a cut.
Other beneficiaries of the crackdown were Sydney’s telephone bookies, whose business boomed. McCoy recounts that on the eve of the war with Japan, Prime Minister John Curtin was unable to make an urgent long-distance call to a state premier because there were 60 SP betting calls booked ahead of him.
Within a few years of the royal commission the government essentially gave up the fight against SP gambling, which was to persist as our most popular form of organised crime for the next four decades. Bookies would pay the local sergeant a fixed weekly amount that would be multiplied by the odds on the winner of the last race of a Saturday. (Police were gamblers too, of course.) Some writers have suggested this occurred in most police stations, meaning that most police were either paid by SP bookies or knew about it and said nothing. This created a culture of police corruption that lasted for decades and provided fertile ground for pay-offs for other crimes, such as illegal alcohol sales, prostitution and even drug dealing.
As we shall see, there are grounds for saying the most successful organised crime group in Sydney has been the New South Wales police force, whose members were able to combine this with doing an enormous amount of good in other areas of their work, often involving great courage on their part. But the belief that so-called “victimless crimes” were different from others proved extremely persuasive and persistent.
MAIN SOURCES: Drug Traffic by Alfred McCoy; Gangland Australia by James Morton and Susanna Lobez; The Prince and the Premier by David Hickie.