Following in the Footsteps of the Razor Gangs: Charlotte Lane

6 July 2018

George Wallace, Special Photograph number 800, 18 April 1922, Central Police Station, Sydney. New South Wales Police Forensic Photography Archive, Sydney Living Museums

On 22 June 1927, the original razor gangster, Norman Bruhn, was shot to death by a gunman lurking in the shadows outside Mac’s sly-grog shop in Charlotte Lane, just around the corner from Stanley Street in Darlinghurst.

Bruhn had come from Melbourne and formed the first razor gang, comprising ‘Razor Jack’ Hayes, George ‘the Midnight Raper’ Wallace (pictured above) and ‘Snowy’ Cutmore (pictured below).

John Daniel ‘Snowy’ Cutmore, Special Photograph number 842, 5 July 1922. New South Wales Police Forensic Photography Archive, Sydney Living Museums

Their aim was to forcibly divest Tilly and Kate of their lucrative criminal enterprises, and for a time they ran riot. ‘Two women running crime in Sydney?’ Bruhn had scoffed. ‘How easy is this going to be!’ Bruhn’s razor men set about ransacking Tilly’s and Kate’s premises and beating up their customers.

On his last day alive, Bruhn had spent the afternoon drinking at the Court House Hotel in Oxford Street, then caught a cab to Mac’s. When he left, just after 10pm, he was shot down. When dying, true to the criminal code, Bruhn refused to name his assailant to police, and his murderer was never apprehended. But the word on the mean streets of Darlinghurst was that Tilly Devine ordered Frank Green to pull the trigger.

Francis Donald Green, alias Frank Green, criminal record number 19723, 25th October 1923, State Penitentiary, Long Bay. NSW Police Forensic Photography Archive, Justice and Police Museum, Sydney Living Museums

The remaining members of Bruhn’s gang fled: Wallace to Perth, where he was knifed to death; Cutmore to Melbourne, where, the following year, he was involved in a shootout with Melbourne gangster Squizzy Taylor that proved fatal to both men; Hayes served in World War II, from which, it is believed, he never returned.

Battle to become Sydney’s unchallenged crime boss

From 1927 to the introduction of the consorting laws in 1930, Tilly Devine’s and Kate Leigh’s mobs went at each other. The women’s criminal activities rarely overlapped, and while Tilly’s stamping ground was Darlinghurst, Paddington, Woolloomooloo and Kings Cross, Kate’s kingdom was headquartered in Surry Hills, but they had a fierce personal rivalry and genuinely despised each other. Each longed to be known as Sydney’s unchallenged crime boss, with all the wealth, power, fear and headlines that status guaranteed.

Liverpool Street, Riley Street intersection, Darlinghurst, looking east, Sydney, c1930 NSW Police Forensic Photography Archive, Justice and Police Museum, Sydney Living Museums

Whenever Leigh or Devine gang members met, such as in Kellett Street in August 1929, there was a strong chance that violence would ensue. Kate would order the beating up and slashing of Tilly’s men and women. Tilly’s minions, in turn, ransacked Kate’s grog shops and attacked her cocaine peddlers. Kate stationed snipers with rifles on Surry Hills rooftops to ward off Tilly’s troops. In Kate’s pay were such hair-trigger hoodlums as her lover Wally Tomlinson, Gregory ‘the Gunman’ Gaffney, Bruce Higgs, Bill ‘the Octopus’ Flanagan and Barney Dalton. Protecting Tilly’s interests were her violent and drunken husband ‘Big Jim’ Devine (who shot Gaffney dead and is pictured below), Frankie ‘the Little Gunman’ Green (who dispatched Dalton), Guido Calletti, Sid McDonald, and the lethal, and beautiful, prostitute Nellie Cameron. In the Leigh–Devine gang wars, at least six were slain and scores maimed and wounded.

James Edward Devine, criminal record number 20724, 6th March 1925, State Penitentiary, Long Bay. NSW Police Forensic Photography Archive, Justice and Police Museum, Sydney Living Museums

As well as plotting attacks, Tilly and Kate ratted on each other to the police, and published scathing denunciations in the letters columns of the daily press. After Kate accused Tilly of, among many atrocities, stealing her dog and adding it to her kennel of Pomeranians, Tilly fired off a rebuttal to the Truth:

Mug shot of Kate Leigh, 1930. NSW Police Forensic Photography Archive, Sydney Living Museums JP89/610-4

Former policewoman Peg Fisher spoke to me in 2000 about her first assignment, 70 years before, in 1930, to go out and gather information about Tilly and Kate. Peg told me, ‘In a lane near Palmer Street, Darlinghurst, I came face to face with Tilly. She was blocking the footpath, preventing me from proceeding. She said, “You’re the new copper, ain’t you? Well, you’re not comin’ down this bloody street …” She grabbed me and started shaking me. Next thing, a woman wearing a big black hat got off a tram. It was Kate Leigh. She came up to where Tilly was shaking me like a rag doll and, without a word, she king-hit Tilly Devine and then sat on her in the road’.

But Tilly could handle herself. Peg Fisher told me, ‘Oh, she was a dirty fighter and very strong. I saw her and Kate have a blue in Oxford Street. Tilly had Kate’s hat off and was pummelling her on the ground. Kate got much the worst of it’.

Stay tuned for Larry's next blog post exploring the mean streets of Sydney in the 1920s and find out more about Sydney's underworld in our current exhibition at the Museum of Sydney until 12 August.

About the author

Courtesy Larry Writer

Larry Writer

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.

Read more about Larry.

Published on