Following in the footsteps of the Razor Gangs - Part 2
William Street was where Tilly Devine first worked as a prostitute when she arrived in Sydney in 1920. Brougham Street, which runs off William, is where the notorious razor gangster Guido Calletti was shot dead by a member of the Brougham Street Gang, after Calletti blithely gatecrashed a party and announced he was taking over their turf.
Calletti was briefly married to the beautiful prostitute Nellie Cameron who fled her respectable upper north shore family to become an in-demand prostitute and the lover of, among others, Calletti, Frank ‘the Little Gunman’ Green and Norman Bruhn. Nellie Cameron eventually found love with an Irish seaman, but, convinced she had contracted cancer from bullet wounds sustained in her wild days, she gassed herself on 8 November 1953, aged 41.
Heading west down William Street, on the left stands the Chard Building, whose fourth floor was once the site of the 50-50 Club, a glittering vice den run by Phil ‘the Jew’ Jeffs where prostitution and drug dealing were rife and paid-off police gave due warning before they raided. The club was a hangout for high and low life.
Tilly Devine supplied the prostitutes, Kate Leigh the booze and cocaine. Staff drugged customers and photographed them in compromising positions in back rooms, then demanded money for the return of the incriminating photos. The sign KINGS BRIDGE CLUB was on the door, as was a peephole that opened when a customer knocked so Jeffs or a henchman could give the visitor the once-over before admitting them.
Phil Jeffs was a gutter rat who, realising his dream to become an antipodean Al Capone, transformed himself into a well-spoken and nattily attired nightclub entrepreneur
Nevertheless he remained up to his ears in standover work and dealing drugs. It was at the so-called Battle of Blood Alley, in Eaton Avenue, Kings Cross, on 7 May 1929, that rival drug and standover gangs clashed. This led to the shooting of Jeffs, who had been adulterating the cocaine he sold. After his brush with mortality, he retired to the safe life at Ettalong on the NSW Central Coast and died there a wealthy man in 1945, probably from the effects of the bullet wounds he’d suffered in the Battle of Blood Alley. Of all the Sydney crime czars of the 1920s and 30s he was the only one to die with his fortune intact.
On the corner of William and Crown streets is the Strand Hotel. It was on the footpath outside this pub that Frank ‘the Little Gunman’ Green, with Tilly’s husband Jim in tow, shot dead Barney Dalton and wounded another of Kate Leigh’s lovers, Wally Tomlinson, on 9 November 1929.
This episode in the Devine–Leigh gang war had its genesis earlier that year, on 17 July, when Leigh henchman Gregory Gaffney shot Green in Woolloomooloo and Green fled to the Devines’ home in Maroubra to have his wound tended.
That night, Gaffney and Wally Tomlinson turned up to finish the job. When they were trying to storm the house, Jim Devine shot Gaffney dead and wounded Tomlinson. Nor were ‘Big Jim’ and Frank Green done with the Leigh mob, as the blood spilled at the Strand Hotel attests. Both Green and Devine were exonerated when prosecutors could find no witnesses prepared to incriminate them.
Stay tuned for Larry's next blog post exploring the streets of Sydney's 1920s underworld and find out more about our exciting line-up of events accompanying our Underworld: Mugshots from the Roaring Twenties exhibition here.
Larry is a Sydney-based author. His book Razor, the saga of Kate Leigh and Tilly Devine and the razor gangs of Sydney in the 1920s and 30s, was a national bestseller, won the Ned Kelly Award for best Australian True Crime book of 2002 and was the basis of the top-rating 2011 series Underbelly Razor. Razor was also named as one of the best books of the year in The Sydney Morning Herald, The Age, the Courier-Mail and The Australian.