The 1930s: Phil Jeffs

If SP operations grew during the 1930s, the sly grog trade remained a constant source of illicit income and standover revenues. Phil ‘The Jew’ Jeffs, the leading survivor of the 1920s, became Sydney’s most prominent sly grog trader during the 1930s. Unlike Kate Leigh, Jeffs went into temporary hiding during the intense Consorting Squad campaign of the early 1930s and severed his ties to the cocaine-prostitution racket when he reappeared. Concentrating his resources in the sly grog trade, he cultivated his police and political contacts, acquired a certain social respectability and became the largest operator of after-hours clubs in Sydney. Understanding that the violent drug dealer of the 1920s was being ostracized, Jeffs adopted the facade and contacts of a successful business man, becoming the progenitor of modern syndicate leaders of the 1960s. Instead of using ‘standover’ tactics to profit from the work of others, he invested his savings in his own enterprises.

While his rivals were continually before the courts in the early 1930s, Phil Jeffs retreated into a calculated obscurity as a simple ‘rouseabout’ at the 50-50 Club, a Darlinghurst sly grog shop. Court proceedings following a raid on the club in April 1933 revealed something of the acumen which had enabled Jeffs to survive. During the raid itself Jeffs calmly instructed employees not to make statements and reminded them that the evening’s cash receipts were for food, not liquor. In his court testimony, the nominal proprietor, the presentable Harold ‘Snowy’ Billington, made a transparently conscious effort to minimize Jeffs’ role at the club: ‘Jeffs is a general rouseabout at the place. He is there for my protection’. Speaking for the police, Detective James Walker described Jeffs as a former gunman. Billington’s multiple explanations to the contrary, Jeffs had purchased the club in 1925 and Billington was little more than his ‘cockatoo’.

Realizing the power of the police, Jeffs apparently came to some kind of understanding with members of the force to protect his interests. Although the police had the power to imprison Jeffs and close his club, they confined their activities to periodic arrests on minor charges. Between April 1933 and October 1935, for example, police raided the club six times and the courts levied only £185 in fines — making the cost of keeping the club open about £2 per week, far less than licensing and tax fees for a regular hotel. By 1937 it was widely believed that Jeffs’ club was ‘immune’ to police investigation for sly grog selling.


Jeffs used similar techniques in managing his high-society sly groggery, the 400 Club. Apparently aiming at a better class of clientele, Jeffs went into partnership with a society doctor. In September 1937, however, Jeffs took full control of the operations by mauling his partner, kicking him down the stairs, and barring him from the premises without any compensation.

His regular defiance of the state liquor laws became an open public scandal, but Jeffs had enough support from the police and in political parties to protect himself. Jeffs’ leading public defender during his years at the 400 Club was a N.S.W. state parliamentarian, Mr Anthony Alexander Alam, MLC, an investor in an earlier Hunter Street venue, Graham’s Nightclub, also involved in sly grog. In October 1936 Truth published a sensational expose of Graham’s — charging an unidentified MLC with owning a part interest. Following police raids several days later and fines of £230 for sly grog selling, Alam identified himself as the MLC referred to by filing a libel suit against the Truth for £10,000, which he settled several weeks later for £5. When the police launched a campaign against Jeffs’ two clubs in mid-1937. Alam spoke in the State Parliament, attacking the police for their harassment, directing a long and emotional tirade against the head of the special police betting squad, Inspector W.J. Keefe, who had been interfering with the operation of the city’s sly grog shops. Alam described Jeffs’ Club as an establishment of immaculate virtue: ‘The Governor’s wife herself could not go in unattended. They are run on the most respectable lines. Yet this Man [Inspector Keefe] has the audacity to threaten to take every man and woman from cabaret clubs. . . and run them off to the police station.’ It was indicative of Jeffs’ influence that the major address-in-reply to the Governor’s speech should be a passionate defence of the city’s leading criminal and that not a word of objection should be raised.

Jeffs’ strategy seems to have been successful, and his clubs received only infrequent attentions from the police during the late 1930s. When the police raided the club in April 1938, the thirty upper-class patrons arrested reportedly quite enjoyed the experience and found riding in the police van rather exciting.Commenting on Jeffs’ ‘immunity’ to police investigations, a conservative politician told the press in 1941: ‘We know the police have the power to put the night clubs down, but they don’t. There is a very definite reason for that which we dare not voice!’

After the 400 Club was well established, Jeffs purchased Oyster Bill’s Club at Tom Ugly’s Bridge in southern Sydney and refurnished it as a luxury road house. Complete renovations, a new swimming pool, top artists, and a good band made the club a leading venue for weekend entertainment. With a fortune estimated at some £250,000, Jeffs began to sell off his night clubs in the late 1930s and retire to a luxury apartment building he had constructed at Ettalong. In October 1942 his 400 Club was permanently shut by a national security order, closing out the last of his sly grog shops.

Surrounded by a library of 2,000 books and a coterie of beautiful women, Jeffs spent his retirement reading history and rewarding his women friends with generous gifts. When baccarat boomed in Sydney in 1944, Jeffs, according to several accounts, came out of retirement to organize several schools in the Kings Cross area with Sidney Kelley, another survivor of the razor gang wars. In October 1945 Phil Jeffs died suddenly — rumour had it that bullet wounds from the razor gang wars were the cause — and was buried with orthodox Jewish rites. His estate was valued at £65,000, small for a man whose reputed wealth had made the phrase ‘as rich as Phil the Jew’ a common expression in Sydney during the Depression. Explaining the difference between his estimated fortune of £500,000 and the estate of only £65,000, some newspapers reported that the bulk of his wealth had been given to the attractive blonde women who were the chief mourners at his sparsely-attended funeral.

Phil Jeffs’ death marked the end of an era. By 1945 the first generation of criminals who had established organized crime in Sydney had either died or faded into obscurity. But the milieu itself survived. The established vice trades, in concert with the special wartime black market and camp-follower commerce, spawned a second generation criminal class that has continued to dominate Sydney’s milieu.

from Drug Traffic by Alfred McCoy