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Kate Leigh - Queen of the Underworld

In 1916, after a riot by 5,000 pub-crawling Anzacs outraged the public, Premier William Holden called a state of emergency and closed Sydney's pubs. This was the beginning of the 'Six O'Clock Swill'. Anybody thirsty after dark had to look elsewhere.

Kate Leigh took advantage of the huge market and for thirty-five years provided illegal liquor, known as 'sly grog'. At the height of her career, Kate ran more than twenty sly-groggeries. Some of her sly-grog shops were upmarket and frequented by businessmen, others, said police, 'catered to the worst class of thieves and prostitutes'. On Friday and Saturday nights, crowds of men milled in the street awaiting admittance to 'Mum's' as her establishments were known. Her main dispensary was a flat above her fruit-and-vegetable shop at 212 Devonshire Street, where she remained until her death from a stroke on 31 January 1964, aged eighty-two.

From the early 1920s until the '40s, Kate Leigh, as Sydney's leading sly-grogger and with her income protected by her own combative nature and a team of bashers and gunmen, was one of the wealthiest, and most flamboyant, Sydneysiders. Larger than life, greedy, funny when she felt like it and vicious when she needed to be, Kate was like a twentieth-century Long John Silver, a pirate captain aboard the jolly brig Surry Hills. Aside from running the groggeries, she was a standover merchant, a dealer in drugs (for a while she was known as 'the Snow Queen'), a fence for stolen property and, more for sport than anything else, a deft shoplifter. By the mid '20s, the newspapers would be calling her the 'Most Evil Woman in Sydney'.

No more remarkable woman ever strode upon the stage of Sydney's nightlife than this middle-aged, matronly dame who slinks a furtive figure in the background of the drama of real life. A sinister, shadowy character, she plays a dominating part in the tragedy which is spelt D-O-P-E. She meets young women in cafes and hotel lounges, and she ingratiates herself with them. Such a nice, agreeable dame! Such a monster in human disguise. For she deals in a commodity that means more than the wrecking of physical health. It means the destruction of mental health, the warping of the moral outlook, the damning of the eternal soul. Clever and unscrupulous enough to know that once a victim is made, she becomes a sure customer for life. To show them the door to Drugland she paints a glowing picture of the joys inside. She conjures up hours of gay, exotic happiness. They open the door, slowly, hesitatingly. She stands behind them and reassures. They enter and find - a living hell. Price is nothing to the victims. They will pay all that is asked. They want more and more and more. If it gets too dear for them, they stop at nothing to get the money. They will impose on their friends, they will steal and descend as low as a woman can to feed the ravenous appetite that dope creates. It is a tragic but terribly true thing a great percentage of fallen women who walk the pavements of Sydney are drug-takers.

NSW Police Force Archives
Adapted from the award winning book Razor, by Larry Writer © 2001, Pan Macmillan Australia Pty Ltd. Second edition now available with new material. Find out more >> about the bookBuy the book >>