I sat down on Sunday night to watch Underbelly: Razor with a sense of impending dread. Much like when you attend a school band concert. You really hope it’s going to be good, but as the opening bars of Bohemian Rhapsody are squeaked out by the trumpets, you know you’re in for a long night.
And that was pretty much how it was on Sunday night. I’m not going to go on about the gratuitous sex, tits and arse, because it is part of the Underbelly franchise and that’s what they do. But I was hoping that they would at least hold true to the essence of the story and not deprive the women of the power, business acumen and toughness they undoubtedly had.
I first came across the story of Kate Leigh and Tilly Devine at the Sydney Justice and Police Museum’s Femme Fatale exhibition a couple of years ago. It was a fascinating, bloody and sordid tale of prostitution, sly grog and murder. The Kingpins of the Sydney Crime World for well over a decade from the mid 1920’s were Kate Leigh and Tilly Devine.
A few months later I joined a Walking Tour of Surry Hills and Darlinghurst that focused on the history of the area, particularly the lifelong rivalry between these two women. Surry Hills and Darlinghurst are now gentrified inner city suburbs of Sydney. Cafes, vintage boutiques, restaurants, bars and stylish furniture shops sit amongst the terrace houses and laneways. But back in the first half of the 20th century they were slums housing the working poor, bubonic plague and the razor gangs of the 1920s and 1930s.
According to the TV series Razor, Kate Leigh and Tilly Devine were glamorous crooks surrounded by men who did the hard graft and in Tilly’s case, it was her husband who ran the show. I’m not suggesting these women were standout role models, but the fact is they were both very astute business women, vicious and ruthless who held extraordinary power within Sydney society.
They were never outwitted or played for fools by standover man and gangster, Norm Bruhn. And he certainly didn’t come up with the idea of using a razor sitting in a barber’s chair in 1927. Tilly Devine had already served time at Long Bay Gaol for slashing a man’s face with a razor in 1925. And it had been the weapon of choice for petty criminals and muggers for some time.
It was Tilly Devine who realised that the law specifically stipulating that men couldn’t run brothels, meant that a woman was immune from prosecution. She bank-rolled her first brothel from the money she had saved as a working prostitute and went on to build a network of the most lucrative and well run brothels Sydney has ever seen.
Kate Leigh operated a sly grog business for 35 years. At the height of her career, she ran twenty-six outlets. She was one Sydney’s wealthiest citizens. She also traded in stolen goods and was a major supplier of cocaine.
Kate and Tilly held onto their power through brute force and intimidation. Kate shot dead a man in 1930, but was acquitted on the grounds of self-defense. They were both bare knuckle street brawlers and used a razor or a gun if they needed to. The Razor Gang wars were instigated by these two women, who used the men in their employ to protect their business empires.
Like Al Capone, the notorious Chicago gangster, Kate Leigh and Tilly Devine were eventually brought to justice by the Tax Department. They both died in abject poverty.
And as for prostitute Nellie Cameron, she never worked for Tilly Devine. She didn’t need to. She may have been from a middle class family, but she was a thief and a drug-runner with strong criminal contacts and could defend her patch on the corner of William and Palmer St.s without any help. Nellie Cameron committed suicide in her Darlinghurst apartment at the age of 41.
Of course, the Underbelly series has never pretended to be a documentary, they’re made to be entertaining. But why did they dilute these incredibly strong women? They certainly haven’t done that with the male protagonists in this, or any of the other seasons in the series. Did they think the public wouldn’t accept that women were capable of such violence or have the ability to hold on to the businesses they built for such a long period of time? Or is it just more titillating to reduce them to scantily clad, often naked, women for the entertainment of the viewing public?
The series is based on the book Razor, by Larry Writer. It’s a great read and an extraordinary insight to a fascinating time in Australia’s history.
I also obtained images from the Razorhurst website and the book, Femme Fatale, published by the Historic Houses Trust of NSW.