Underbelly: articles

Queen of crime ... Kate Leigh

The old underbelly of Sydney's history

IF you thought Roberta Williams stole the show as Underbelly's femme fatale, you haven't seen anything yet.

The hit TV franchise takes a historical twist for the next series, following the story of Sydney's famed "vice queens" Tilly Devine and Kate Leigh.

With production set to roll on Screentime's Underbelly: Razor next month, the dark deeds and colourful histories of the two women will return them to the spotlight they fought over for more than four decades from the 1920s.

Typically draped in furs and dripping in diamonds, Devine and Leigh battled for control of the mean streets of Sydney, with personal armies of henchmen spilling blood or losing their lives for their bosses.

Casting for the fourth instalment of Nine's blockbuster series has yet to be confirmed, but the gig is poised to make stars of the key female leads in the way it has for actors Gyton Grantley (as Carl Williams) and Firass Dirani (as John Ibrahim).

Based largely on the book Razor by Larry Writer, it will cover the razor gang feuds that boiled over in Darlinghurst, Kings Cross and Surry Hills.

The razor gangs got their name after pistol licensing laws brought jail terms for concealing a gun, so crooks switched to carrying blades.

Devine built her legend on a string of brothels in Palmer St, Darlinghurst, with standover man husband "Big Jim" working out of the Tradesman's Arms, a notorious "bloodhouse" now trading as the trendy East Village pub.

Leigh, who lived out her years in a terrace in Devonshire St, Surry Hills, made her mark as the queen of sly grog.

After local laws prohibited public drinking after 6pm, the Dubbo-born woman did a roaring trade in illegal liquor and drinking dens.

Entry to her establishments could be gained by asking the question: "Oh, is Mum in?", earning Leigh the maternal nickname.

But motherly types they weren't, with Devine arrested 204 times and Leigh ordering the murder of countless rivals.

The small-screen drama will build towards their most violent clash - a frenzied riot that took over Kellett St, Kings Cross on August 9, 1929.

The TV series is likely to spark a new interest in their underworld haunts, from the old to the new, like chic Darlinghurst wine bar Love, Tilly Devine.

By Holly Byrnes
December 30, 2010
The Daily Telegraph