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Tradesman's Arms

In the 1920s and '30s, the East Village Hotel was 'the Tradesman's Arms', a bloodhouse with sawdust on the floor to soak up the spit and vomit, hard stools at the bar and a dozen cheap wooden tables and chairs scattered around. The air was think with coarse language, raucous laughter and the cigarette smoke pumped out by the Arms's clientele - the factory workers and bakers from the nearby Sergeants pie factory, prostitutes, pimps, pickpockets, muggers, con men, SP (starting-price) bookies and drug dealers. Cards and two-up were regularly played in the back bar. Fights erupted regularly. Tilly Devine called in to transact business, since the Arms was in the heart of her red-light stomping ground, and just across the street from the brothel and sometimes home at 191 Palmer Street. Nellie Cameron and Frank Green were also regulars.

Tilly Devine - Queen of the Bordellos
After working as a prostitute for ten years Tilly capitalized on the astounding anomaly in the Offences (Amendment) Act of 1908 that made it illegal for a male pimp or brothel-keeper to profit from the immoral earnings of prostitutes but not for a woman to do so. She became a madam, using the money she had salted away to bankroll the biggest, best-organised, most lucrative brothel network Sydney has ever seen.

In her employ were prostitutes of every age and background. Big Jim sold cocaine to his wife's prostitutes. It made economic sense for brothel-keepers like the Devines to foster drug addiction in the sex workers: it ensured loyalty and meant prostitutes increasingly preferred payment in cocaine rather than in cash.

Tilly Devine was on her way to becoming the woman about whom it was written in a police article at the end of her 204 conviction criminal career:

She has been in conflict with society all her life. She has fought it with words, with action, and with her bare hands. She has held it by the throat and shaken it. She has spat in its face. Her sense of values, her code of morals and of ethics, are her own and she well tolerate no interference. For the average man, her life had held that singular fascination the criminologist describes - the fascination of the thunderstorm.

In her employ were prostitutes of every age and background: seasoned streetwalkers who'd been operating since before the war, hard-up housewives and mothers from the suburbs trying to support their families, lonely and poor young women who had come to the city from the country, or inner-city street kids drawn by danger and excitement and the chance to make more money than they could working in a factory or shop. Tilly was regarded as a benevolent despot by her workers. If they did their job she pampered and protected them. But if she caught her 'girls' cheating her, she'd sack them - and often beat them as a parting gift.
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 >>