Exploring the underbelly of Razorhurst

A Razorhurst Walking Tour makes its way through the historic, labyrinthine backstreets of Sydney's inner east. Photo: Razorhurst Walking Tour/Facebook.

John Moyle profiles the Razorhurst Walking Tour, which takes participants on journey through the history and criminal underbelly of Sydney’s inner east.

Post-World War I, Sydney’s dingy inner eastern suburbs became lucrative turf for prostitution, drugs, illicit booze and gambling.

Overseeing this cornucopia of crime were two women, who relied on thugs to protect their fiefdoms and create new territories, all done with the enforcement of a fearsome new weapon.

About Sydney’s gang wars in the twenties the Truth newspaper wrote, “ Men who defy the black muzzle quail before the bright blade held threateningly to their cheek.”

Picked up by an insatiable press, the legend of Razorhurst was born – and with it, the rise of Tilly Devine and Kate Leigh, the two richest women in Sydney, and a myriad of low lifes, who otherwise would have remained unknown, was assured.

One hundred years later, the legends are as strong as ever and now can be re-imagined on the Razorhurst Walking Tour.

Produced by Blacmange Productions, the Razorhurst Walking Tour is a two hour true crime walking tour through the streets of Kings Cross, Darlinghurst and East Sydney that takes participants back in time to the places where the criminals lived and their crimes took place.

“About eight years ago we were doing Kings Cross tours and at the time Larry Writer’s book Razor was a best seller and Underbelly: Razor was on TV, and I already knew the locations and had the essence of the script,” director and scriptwriter, Razorhurst Walking Tours, Stephen Carnell said.

Intro for the 2011 season of Channel Nine’s Underbelly: Razor, based on Larry Writer’s book of the same name. The book and TV series renewed interest in the underworld past of Sydney’s seedy inner east. Video: 2011tvonline/YouTube.

Using the email database from previous tours, Carnell thought that he could safely do one tour a week, but by early December 2020, this had jumped to three tours every Saturday.

“So I had to quickly recruit two more actors as tour guides,” Carnell said.

One of the early tour guides was comedian, story teller and Kinsg Cross local Kathryn Bendall, who came to the tours through a historical leaning for both the participants and the social  conditions of the times.

“The time between the wars sees the role of women changing and we have these two characters (Devine and Leigh) being thrown up by history and this was never repeated anywhere else in the world, even though a lot of the conditions were similar in terms of prohibition and the recovery from the war,” tour guide Kathryn Bendall said.

Bendall also saw similarities between the present pandemic and the one ravaging inner city areas in the early 1920s.

“The Spanish flu certainly played its part in the rise of organised crime in Sydney, and I became interested in things other than the stories of the wars as these two women literally tried to cut each other out of the scene,” Bendall said.

Peter Doyle is a two times Ned Kelly Award winner for crime writing and the curator of two major exhibitions at Sydney’s Justice & Police Museum.

His take on the enduring fascination of this period of Sydney’s history is that it is due to the public imagination and the continued interest from the press.

“In the public imagination, suddenly everything that the wowser imagination disdained – gambling, alcohol, extramarital sex, including gay sex, and in the twenties in particular, illicit drugs, especially cocaine – all these things were pursued in the imagination and reality in Sydney around Darlinghurst,” Doyle said.

Doyle added that the newspapers,Truth and Smith’s Weekly, also played an important role in creating the myths, especially as Devine and Leigh quickly learned how to manipulate their images through the judicious scattering of tit bits to eager reporters.

“The newspapers realised early on that they could sell copies with stories about Darlinghurst, and Tilly and Kate learned quickly how to be good interview subjects,” Doyle said.

“The fact that they were never out of the public’s imagination is largely due to journos rehashing old crime files.”

Kate Leigh (left) and Tilly Devine pictured in an undated photo. Photo: Razorhurst Walking Tour/Facebook.

The Razorhurst Walking Tour will bring to life not only Devine and Leigh, but also their supporting cast including uber whore Nelly Cameron, who ran away from her North Shore home at 14 and was soon servicing 10 men or more a day.

You will also hear about her thug lover, Frank ‘Little Gunman’ Green, who, despite having a hand almost severed in a razor fight, gunned down an opponent outside the Strand Hotel on William Street, where the Razorhurst Walking Tour tour ends.

What: Razorhurst 2-hour Walking Tour

When: 2pm, 4pm, 6pm each Saturday

Where: Darlinghurst, East Sydney and Kings Cross AKA Razorhurst. Meet under the Coca-Cola sign at top of William Street. End at Strand Hotel, corner William and Crown Streets.

Tickets: https://www.eventbrite.com.au/e/razorhurst-walking-tour-tickets-128215639429

For further information: contact Stephen Carnell on 0418 255 440.