Tilly and Katie: How 2 gangland Queens started a war

At the turn of the 20th century, Sydney was in a battle for its soul. Gangs roamed the streets, their enemies lifeless bodies on pavements were a regular sight; Brothels, illegal bars and gambling everywhere; the city was fast becoming a booze soaked wasteland.

Two women ruled this all:

Tilly Devine and Katie Leigh



The birth of Sydney’s gang land

Ok, let’s set the scene: At the end of the First World War, Australian soldiers returned to discover that prohibition had hit the country hard – not a great welcome home present.

Massive chunks of Australia, including Sydney, saw tight drinking hours put in place, with absolutely no alcohol consumption allowed after 6pm.

Yeah, turns out if you tell people they can’t do something, they want to do it even more. Cue:

Kate Leigh AKA The Sly Grog Queen

Kate Leigh, Mug Shot
Meet Kate Leigh (and welcome to her mug shot pose masterclass)

Kate grew up in a neglectful household, and went straight from that, to a string of shitty relationships with petty criminals.

It wasn’t an ideal start in life.

But then Kate found crime and discovered she was pretty great at being a ruthless criminal! So she put all her energy into achieving her new dream; ruling Sydney’s underworld (I guess everyone needs a dream)

Kate got straight to work, taking advantage of Sydney’s new 6pm drinking curfew and opening a chain of illegal after hours bars.

Then, when Australia made cocaine illegal, she took advantage of that too! Buying all the coke she could, marking it the fuck up and selling it almost exclusively.

By the late 1920s Kate Leigh was one of Sydney’s biggest kings pins; her buisness was booming and life was sweet… well except for the constant thorn in Kate’s side:

Tilly Devine


Tilly Devine, Mug Shot
Meet Tilly Devine. Don’t be fooled by the timid mug shot, this woman is scary AF!

A sex worker from London, Tilly came to Sydney after she married what she thought was an millionaire Australian kangaroo farmer. It turned out that (frankly ridiculous) story was a lie and her new husband was, in actual fact, just an arse hat.

So, Tilly continued working as a sex worker in Sydney. BUT after a short jail spell (for stabbing a man in the face with a razor) she decided she needed a change.

Tilly didn’t just want to be her own boss, she wanted to be the ONLY boss. And she thought she knew how to do just that.

Sydney had a handy little loophole that Tilly thought she could use to her advantage. You see, in Sydney it was illegal to run a brothel or profit from sex work if you were a man.
Spoiler: Tilly wasn’t a man 

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That right there is some smart criminal-ing

By the late 1920s, Tilly was the city’s top madam, running a chain of leading brothels.

She was ALSO known as one of the most violent criminals in the game. She’d set fire to a policeman, pulled apart a mans face with a razor and generally slashed to ribbons any John who tried to cross her. Bitch. Was. Scary.

BUT Tilly wasn’t a one trick stab pony, she was a real renaissance woman (be it of the criminal variety) and along with her talent for violence and brothel running, she moved into the illegal booze trade.

Slight snag: Tilly was now directly encroaching on Kate Leigh’s buisness, and you KNOW Kate wasn’t happy with her bottom line being messed with!

Then again, neither was Tilly when Kate started opening brothels…

And neither was Kate when Tilly started looking into the drugs trade.

The stage was now set for an epic battle. Each woman wanted total domination and there was no way she could do that with the other around. There was only one option:

All out war!

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Things are about to get interesting, and really bloody!

The battle begins

Katie and Tilly both operated gangs to mange their businesses and, erm, ‘take care’ of their enemies.

With both women now firm rivals, their gangs knew their enemy; attacking each other on sight with razors, after Sydney outlawed guns.

Huge fights of with gang members cutting the living shit out of each other, became a common sight on Sydney’s streets.

This ceaseless violence became known as:

The Razor Gang Wars

But the violence wasn’t limited to street fights, here are just some of the delightful things Katie and Tilly did to each other:

  • Ransacked each other businesses
  • Set fire to each other’s businesses
  • And ordered rival gang members to be disfigured

…Oh and there was that one time that there was a shoot out at Tilly’s home and her husband shot Kate’s right hand man in the face.

Yep, shit has gotten VERY real

But the war didn’t just play out via stabbings, shootings and slashing. Oh no, Kate and Tilly had one HUGE weapon they liked to break out:


Yup! Along with killing and mutalation, Kate and Tilly both used public relations to destroy each other in the papers; you know, just like D list celebs do today!

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Yeah its a weird AF plot twist, just roll with it

Kate bloody loved a good bit of PR,  you see, she wanted to be seen as Sydney’s Jovial mother figure.

Sure she might have shot and killed a couple of guys, but really, underneath it all, she was just a nice lady who happened to run a criminal empire. You Guys… people actually bought this!

In fact it wasn’t even difficult for Katie to become a beloved (if terrifying) criminal. 

While Tilly was famously slashing John’s and dousing policemen in petrol, Kate was making a very public show of donating some of her ill gotten gains to poor children and hosting Christmas for the cities poverty stricken families. Kate just looked so much better compared to her rival!

Even when she was being trailed by police, Kate found time for an old timey photo op.

In one newspaper write up of Kate’s crimes, the journalist took time to note that the detective followed Kate while she was:
‘Bound on a noble errand of supplying food to unemployed’

Kate Leigh with camera
Awww that smile almost makes you forget all the crime and murder!

Now, obvs there was no way that Tilly was letting Kate be the public’s favourite and so she went all in, tearing apart her rivals image.

Tilly played up her English roots in a bid to appear classy, often bought up Kate’s childhood abuse (to try and illustrate how rough Kate was) and of course, Tilly was more than happy to trash her rival to any journalist she could find, saying:

‘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’

Tilly Devine
All class that Tilly

But the women’s tabloid fun and games was to end.

By the early 1930s police were hot on Tilly and Kate’s heels, after yet another series of armed brawls between their gangs had terrorised Sydney.

As the net closed, Tilly fled home to England for several years; Kate wasn’t so lucky.

After a series of raids, Kate was arrested, spending the next few years locked up.

Obviously Kate being Kate, she owned prison; inviting the wardens wife for tea and pretty much ruling over the inmates.

But when she was released Kate found herself in a very different world, with drugs and illegal boozing now completely off Sydney’s streets.

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Remember kids, don’t do drugs!

Luckily (for her) Kate managed to keep her brothel businesses running and therefore could remain one of Sydney’s wealthiest citizens.

Tilly also landed on her feet, once more back in Sydney and operating her chain of brothels.

Then in the 1940s Kate and Tilly did the impossible, they called a truce.

By now all their friends were dead or in jail, both women truly only had each other.

Obviously that didn’t stop them from continuing to constantly tear each other a new one in the press.

Tilly Devine and Kate Leigh
awww, these two ruined so many lives

Eventually karma came around for Tilly and Kate 

BUT it wasn’t guns or gangs that were Tilly and Kate’s downfall… It was taxes, which obviously both women had been dodging for years.

By the time the taxman caught up with Kate in 1954, she owed so much that paying it back bankrupted her.

Tilly was slightly better off, losing almost all her property and only just managing to hold on to one small brothel.

10 years later in 1964, Kate Leigh died in a one room bedsit. Tilly followed in 1968, her funeral almost unattended, the only eulogy given by Sydneys Police Commissioner, who said (in possibly the most contradictory sentence ever uttered by someone working in the police):

‘She was a villain, but who am I to judge her?’

4 hacks to smuggle booze prohibition style

Booze! Who doesn’t love it? Trick question – we all do! But what happens when this universal love suddenly becomes illegal? Well, you drink it anyway…just very craftily.

During the prohibition you could be fined thousands and even thrown in jail if you were caught with alcohol, so smuggling booze became serious business.

And its only slightly very illegal!

Now first step for smuggling alcohol – you need to get alcohol to smuggle.

Whilst some breweries got through prohibition by making ‘near beer’ (anywhere from 2 – 0.5% alcohol) those who kept on making the strong stuff had to go deep underground. Operating in woods or under the guise of farms and other out of the way businesses.

It was vital that these suppliers remained unknown and untraceable for police.

This wasn’t an easy task – keeping entire breweries secret required some James Bond level covert operations! Bar sneaking and guns, we all know that James Bond is nothing without wierd gadgets from Q…with that in mind I present:

Cow Shoes

Cow shoes, used during the prohibition, these shoes helped mask the footprints of bootleggers, making them appear as vow hooves and throwing of policeNo these are not lift shoes (a ‘la Tom Cruise) they are in fact designed to make the wearers footprints look like cow hooves.

The idea was that any cops looking to try and trace bootleggers to their supplier would lose them when a persons footprints suddenly turned into a cows….which I guess that was a totally normal occurrence in the 1920s and early 30s, as was cattle going for lone forest jaunts…

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I don’t know, I’m not a cow historian *shrug*

Cow shoes weren’t the only method to throw off police. Bootleggers also pimped their rides into supped up cars that were easily able outrun the po po. They even went so far as to build a cross country underwater cable car to outfox the fuzz.

Yep, that’s right:

 A cross country underwater cable car… made of torpedoes

Detroit was a bootleggers dream, mainly because it sat right next to Canada, land of maple, manners and legal alcohol!

But how to transport this booze to the US? A boat could was very visible (therefore very catchable) and swimming it over seemed like a whole deal. So naturally an underwater system was built

From Popular Science, 1932
From Popular Science, March 1932

Torpedoes were filled with liqueur and then attached to a mile-long underwater cable line, running from Canada to Detroit. Thanks to the quick motor running the cable line, a 1932 edition of Popular Science estimates that around 40 torpedoes worth of hooch were transported to America every hour.

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That is an impressive amount of definitely tainted illegal booze

As well as torpedo underwater pipelines, bootleggers also had more, erm…homespun ways of smuggling alcohol:

Stuffing booze in random crap

The imagination of bootleggers was apparently endless. Sadly rather than using this imagination for writing the next great American novel, they funneled their skills into putting alcohol into anything they could get there hands on.

Here are just some of the things Alcohol was smuggled in:

  • Eggs
  • Tinned ‘food’
  • Walking canes
  • Bibles
  • Tailors dummies
  • Christmas trees
  • Pig carcasses
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I fear Babe may not have made it to the city during prohibition

But no matter how ingenious (or mean to pigs) the smuggle, the bootleggers always got caught…welll…unless they were women.

The riot girls of rum running

For some reason police just didn’t seem to suspect women of smuggling booze and even when they were caught, they were let off really lightly (seriously, one woman’s sentence was actually to attend church each Sunday for 2 years…)

Unsurprisingly some women took advantage of this and made serious coin.

Marie Waite (AKA Spanish Marie) was one of these women. Marie single handedly created an entire convey to move tons of alcohol from Havana to Florida’s Key West. Through her active prohibition years she raked in at least $1 million, which in 1920s money, is some Gatsby-esque shit. money gif.gif

Marie wasn’t alone. Female bootleggers even created a guide to smuggling booze on ones person. From flasks attached to thighs to full on aprons ladden with whisky bottles, their creativity for creating clothes made of cocktails knew no bounds.

The world of female ‘rum running’ was a really diverse one. This open – yet illegal trade -allowed women from all walks of life to make their fortune, as one journalist put it:

‘Some are bold, brainy and beautiful, some hard-boiled and homely, some white, some black, some brown. (But) All are thorns in the sides of Prohibition’flapper wink gif.gif


This was interesting, where can i find out more? Well, I really need you guys to help me on this one! I’m struggling to find any really amazing books on women in prohibition, in particular, female rum runners…if you know if any, hit me up in the comments or on our Twitter! 

How the Harlem Renaissance woke America

The Harlem Renaissance was a game changer. as a much a cultural awakening for the African American community as for the United States as a whole.

Thrusting black voices into pop culture, creating a new crop of black artists and cultural icons and most importantly; fostering a pride that hadn’t been allowed to exist before.

Negro American Magazine
A 1928 copy of Negro American Magazine, fearing civil rights campaigner, Erma Seweatt

The first generation of people born free had a fight on their hands. Removed from the shackles of slavery, they were still oppressed and persecuted in their own country.

So, it shouldn’t come as a huge shock that throughout the 1920s and 30s many chose to leave the Southern states and instead head for Northern cities like Chicago and New York, where things were a whole lot more progressive.

Faced with these new bright lights, they didn’t back down. Forming communities and using art, literature, theatre and music to express themselves, their history and their future.

Strange Fruit

One of the most acclaimed artists to come from the Harlem Renaissance is the one and only Billie Holiday. Billie Holiday .jpg

Billie came up during the renaissance and it was here she grew her voice. Famed for touching upon subjects other singers shied away from; perhaps her most iconic song is Strange Fruit.

Recorded in the late 1930s, Strange Fruit deals with lynching. Blunt and unflinching it soon became a protest song.

Southern trees bear a strange fruit

Blood on the leaves and blood at the root

Black body swinging in the Southern breeze

Though Billie feared repercussions for performing the song, she felt compelled to continue singing. After all it was the the truth, not just for her, but for everyone in America.

Strange Fruit became a stalwart Billie Holiday number for her – yet her record company refused to print it.  Strange Fruit .gif

Remember this was the 1930s. The civil rights movement was just a seed. Such public protests were unheard of and tended to end with, well, lynching. But Strange Fruit couldn’t be contained, eventually being released as a single by Comodor.

Strange Fruit remains a protest strong and a vital reminder of this dark time in Americas history. But it’s still banned by some.

When English singer, Rebecca Fergerson, was asked to perform at Donald Trumps inauguration, she agreed…if she could sing Strange Fruit. You can guess what Trump said.

He said no (because he is a wanker)

Shuffle Along

In an era when ‘one black per bill’ was the theatrical norm, musical Shuffle Along high kicked in and smashed every existing idea of what African Americans could contribute to theatre to shittery and back.

Shuffle Along Chorus
The chorus of Shuffle Along taking a break from ass kicking

Now I know musical theatre doesn’t seem like the tool with which groundbreaking cultural change occurs

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Much rainbow, such social change

But forget what you think you know. Shuffle Along contains absolutely no technicolor dreamcoats, no needy scarred blokes living below opera houses and no jazz hands (ok fine-maybe some jazz hands)

Produced and written by an all black team and starring a black cast, Shuffle Along shook shit up when it made its debut on the early 1920s, with many of the cast enjoying their Broadway debut (including the incredible Josephine Baker!)

The musical revolved around a mayoral election (of course!) but the politics wasn’t confined to the stage. Shuffle Along 2.jpg

Shuffle Along took off, engaging with theatre goers from all backgrounds. It proved to Theatre bigwigs that even with a cast and creative team who comprised of waaay more than ‘one black’-the public didn’t care; they wanted to pay to see the show. In fact they wanted to see more shows led by African American casts and creatives!

Bigger than that (and it’s a pretty big biggy) the huge popularity of Shuffle Along led to the 1920s desegregation of theatres. For the first time, black theatre goers didn’t have to watch from way up in the gods; at Shuffle Along they could sit up at the front.

See, isn’t musical theatre great!

The Cotton club

For all the groundbreaking being done uptown, racism still existed in Harlem as it did across America. One such hot bed was popular night club, The Cotton Club.

Cotton Club Dancers.jpg
Ok it looks fun…but trust me its not!

As it’s name suggests, the cotton club wasn’t a haven for any form of equality, with the clubs owner, gangster Owen ‘the killer’ Madden wanting his club to ooze ‘stylish plantation’ and insisting on only playing ‘jungle music’ for his all white patrons.

Owen Madden.jpg
Surprising that someone with the middle name ‘killer’ is also a cock

But there was light! For all the Cotton Clubs racism, it’s all African American workforce was tenacious and somehow managed to turn the clubs stage into one of modern jazz’s early breeding grounds.

Acclaimed musical pioneer, Duke Ellington, served as the Cotton Clubs band leader during the late twenties. There He formed one of history’s greatest jazz orchestras and soon their music took over Americas radio stations.

Duke Ellington.jpg
Duke Ellington

After Duke left for far greener (and less racist) pastures, a new bandleader was appointed-the equally groundbreaking, Cab Calloway. Cab brought drama and flair to the clubs music, in addition to call and repeat scatting that can be seen in still iconic tracks like Minnie the Moocher.

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Now those…those are moves.

Yet despite the acclaimed music on stage, the Cotton Club remained determinedly segregated. So it’s perhaps no bad thing that it was forced to close during the Harlem race riots of 1935.

The seeds of civil rights

1935s Harlem race riot effectively ended the renaissance. Much like the Cotton Club, Harlem was a hive of contradictions. Whilst it’s art celebrated the community and was applauded at the highest levels, many of Harlem’s occupants were essentially living in slums.

Things were uneasy. And After rumours ran rife that a young Puerto Rican teen had been beaten to death for shoplifting, the riot was sparked.

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Police arrest a man during the 1935 riot

The renaissance art left its impact though. It lay a groundwork of pride and built a clear community voice that would be developed when the civil rights movement started to emerge following WW2.

The music, theatre and talent of this era would become forever synonymous of black culture. Whilst WW2 waged on and civil rights waited, the renaissance artists work served as a lingering reminder of everything that could be and one day would be achieved

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