A slashing good time had by all

Razor-gang days revisited on tour of Sydney's old underbelly

Domestic travel
WHERE ANGELS FEARED TO TREAD: April McNee leads a tour through the now largely-respectable streets and lanes of what used to be Sydney's underbelly. Photo: Joanne Karcz

WHERE ANGELS FEARED TO TREAD: April McNee leads a tour through the now largely-respectable streets and lanes of what used to be Sydney's underbelly. Photo: Joanne Karcz

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Go for a walk where criminals lurked on Slums, Slashings & Sly-grog guided our.

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IN the 1920s and '30s, crime bosses looking to recruit young runaways into a life of crime or prostitution, lurked where I am standing in Sydney's Central Station grand concourse.

I've joined a Slums, Slashings & Sly-grog tour to learn more about life at that time in the suburbs of Surry Hills and Darlinghurst.

Leaving the station, we turn into a deserted narrow lane where railway worker Francis Charles Kennedy was murdered in June 1922, according to our guide April McNee. The Truth newspaper of the day described it as: "Undoubtedly one of the most to-be-avoided sections of Sydney's underworld... an ill-kept, ill-lighted thoroughfare ... a favoured haunt of some of the worst characters in Sydney".

A window bangs shut above our heads, startling everyone. Apart from the lane's metal roller garage doors, the monochrome streetscape differs little from the 1922 photograph in April's folder. I wouldn't want to walk down this lane at night.

Already familiar with the underworld names of Tilly Devine and Kate Leigh, I'm keen to learn how they rose through the underworld ranks to become arch-rivals, heading up two of the most feared of Sydney's razor gangs.

WICKED WAYS: Tilly Devine was one of the most powerful women in Sydney in her day. Her turf was East Sydney, while her rival Kate Lee was the crime queen of Surry Hills. Images courtesy of Sydney Living Museums, www.sydneylivingmuseums.com.au.

WICKED WAYS: Tilly Devine was one of the most powerful women in Sydney in her day. Her turf was East Sydney, while her rival Kate Lee was the crime queen of Surry Hills. Images courtesy of Sydney Living Museums, www.sydneylivingmuseums.com.au.

As we walk the back streets of Surry Hills and Darlinghurst, April explains how well-intentioned laws can have unintended consequences.

It was illegal for men (but not women) to make a living off the earnings of prostitutes, and an offence under the Police Offences (Amendment) Act of 1908 to solicit in a public place. This provided the perfect opportunity for women to run brothels.

At the same time Sydney's "first lock-out laws" - the early closing laws of 1916 - resulted in an increase in sly-grog shops. Gangsters exchanged firearms for cut-throat razors after the enactment of the 1927 Pistol Licensing Act of 1927, giving rise to the razor gang and the trademark L-shaped slice made on a victim's face.

Kate Leigh, born in Dubbo in 1881, developed a sly-grog empire in Sydney. Affectionately known as "Mum", she threw an annual Christmas party for the neighbourhood. Prostitute Tilly Devine arrived in Sydney from London in 1920 and quickly became a very wealthy madam.

The lesser known side of Surry Hills continues to be revealed as we walk its back streets and laneways. The Surry Hills of a century ago was not a place you'd choose to live. Homes were overcrowded and damp, sly-grog shops and brothels operated from unmarked houses, and prostitutes, hooked on cocaine, worked as drug mules and dealers.

Today Frog Hollow, a triangular pocket of green grass nestled between two high sandstone walls, looks peaceful and innocent enough. Back then it was popular with criminals because the three exits made a handy escape route.

It's hard to imagine today's deserted and almost sanitised version of Surry Hills as it was around 100 years ago.

Outside a house, formerly a sly gambling den, April tells us about Arthur Stace, who used to be a "cockatoo", or look-out, for an illegal two-up school.

Later we see the Burton Street Tabernacle where Stace, after an epiphany of sorts, decided to "shout eternity" by chalking the word on the streets of Sydney for years thereafter.

Opening a nondescript door in yet another laneway, we're faced with a second dark wooden door. This opens onto steps leading to a darkened room with lamps providing a dull yellow glow. It's the Shady Pines Saloon, a fitting place to end this tour of crime and skulduggery.

IF YOU GO

The Slums, Slashings & Sly-grog tour is run by Journey Walks, a team of local historians and heritage professionals. The cost of the two-and-a-half hour tour is $46. It is fast paced and involves hill-walking so is not suitable for people with mobility issues.

Joanne Karcz writes a regular travel blog: visit www.travelwithjoanne.com

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