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Kate Leigh, 1915, State Records NSW

Kate Leigh, 1915, Long Bay Gaol record, State Records NSW

The Dictionary of Sydney has some fascinating new articles including one on the famous ‘the Sly-Grog Queen’ Kate Leigh, written by Catie Gilchrist. I spoke to Jamie Travers about Kate Leigh’s story on 2SER Breakfast and how she became labelled ‘the worst woman in Sydney’.

Kathleen Mary Josephine Beahan was born in Dubbo on 10 March 1881. As a child, Kate often ran away from home and at age 12, was sent to Parramatta Industrial School for Girls. After being released at age 16, Kate found work in factories and shops in Glebe and Surry Hills. In 1901, she was arrested for vagrancy, receiving 14 days’ hard labour in gaol, the first of many stretches at Long Bay Gaol.

When she was 21, she married Jack Lee, who was part-Chinese and an illegal bookmaker and petty criminal. She anglicised the Chinese name Lee to Leigh, and the couple divorced in 1922. She was in trouble with the law again in 1913, for abusive language and keeping a brothel. But in March 1915, she was convicted of perjury when she swore in court to being with one of the perpetrators of the Eveleigh Railway Workshop robbery. This was a famous armed robbery which occurred in daylight in June 1914 and was the first time a getaway car was used in any crime in Australia. One of Kate’s lovers, Samuel ‘Jewey’ Freeman received a 10-year sentence at Parramatta Gaol while Kate was sent to Long Bay Gaol. Upon her release in 1919, she became engaged in the criminal activities for which she earned her nickname, ‘the Sly-Grog Queen’.

Kate Leigh, 1932, Long Bay Gaol record, State Records NSW

Kate Leigh, 1932, Long Bay Gaol record, State Records NSW

So we heard recently from Dr Lisa Murray about the introduction of the six o’clock closing of hotels and pubs in 1916. For 35 years, Kate took advantage of this legislation and provided illegal liquor, known as sly-grog, to Sydneysiders after hours. She became one of Sydney’s leading underworld figures, running more than 20 sly-groggeries in Surry Hills and East Sydney. Her product was considered good quality and some of her establishments were frequented by businessmen and politicians, and affectionately referred to as ‘Mum’s’.

In addition to the sly-grog trade for which she made a fortune, Kate was also a Madam running various brothels and dealt in cocaine, opium and stolen goods. There was almost constant police surveillance on her headquarters at Riley Street, Surry Hills, and Kate contended with other rival gangs giving rise to the razor gang wars during the 1920s and 1930s.

Tilly Devine

Matilda ‘Tilly’ Devine, Criminal record number 659LB, Long Bay, 27 May 1925. Sydney Living Museums

The NSW Vagrancy (Amendment) Act 1929 was introduced to curb the ‘Terror on the streets’, and included a clause making it an offence to consort with known criminals and prostitutes. As a result, Kate’s properties were often raided for sly-grog, cocaine, criminals and prostitutes, but her gangland rival, Tilly Devine, flourished. The two women frequently fought on the streets and it wasn’t until 1936 that the violence came to end after the pair came to a truce.

In 1930, she pleaded not guilty to the murder of John ‘Snowy’ Prendergast, a fellow underworld figure. The jury acquitted her after she claimed she had been defending her life and property. From the 1940s to 1950s, despite her convictions, Kate’s violent reputation became a distant memory and she became known in the local community as a generous philanthropist and kind woman. She suffered a stroke and died at St Vincent’s Hospital in February 1964, aged 82. During her life, she received 107 criminal convictions and served 13 gaol terms, and was known for her courtroom antics. Over 700 people attended her funeral which included politicians and members of the police force.

Listen to my segment at 2SER radio. For other interesting segments, see my Dictionary of Sydney project post and visit the Dictionary of Sydney blog.