From vice queen to Surry Hills matriarch

Leigh Straw


Kate Leigh ruled the eastern Sydney crime scene for decades with an intelligent, tough and violent approach to criminal enterprise. Leigh was one of Australia’s first major criminal–celebrities, decades before ‘Chopper’ Read and the Melbourne ‘Underbelly’ identities. Leigh Straw, author of The Worst Woman in Sydney: The life and crimes of Kate Leighlooks at the importance of community in the Kate Leigh story. 

From the 1920s,  Kate Leigh  made a fortune from sly grog, cocaine and prostitution, challenging the assumption that serious crime was a man’s domain. Of all the rules she broke in her life, Leigh’s most significant one is that she was a crime boss in an underworld dominated by men. She holds a unique place in Australian crime history, along with her rival Tilly Devine.

Yet there is more to this story than razors, rivals and revenge in Sydney’s underworld. Kate Leigh was an intelligent crime boss who recognised her business relied on the goodwill of the local community. The people of eastern Sydney could disown her but if she were to be successful she needed to engage them and create a favourable local identity. This is the image she crafted for the newspapers because she knew it would resonate with the locals.

Despite her diamonds, flash cars and wealth, Kate Leigh was accepted in the working-class communities of eastern Sydney. In these streets in the first half of the twentieth century, locals were more hostile to the police and outsiders than they were to criminals, so long as they were charitable community members. From this tradition a popular image of Kate Leigh emerged: she was a local crook who championed the battlers of eastern Sydney, never forgetting that she was once in the very same position. 

How Kate Leigh did this shows her intelligent approach to constructing a popular public image. She portrayed herself in the courts and to newspaper reporters – some of whom were handpicked – as a benevolent sly-grog seller who was merely providing the locals with access to alcohol. A culture of resentment against liquor restrictions in eastern Sydney allowed Leigh to endear herself to locals as a sly-grogger. Downplaying her role in prostitution and cocaine trafficking, she told the authorities sly-grogging wasn’t really a crime but more like a community service.

(Newcastle Morning Herald, 30 December 1952. Image: Trove.) 

Leigh also closely monitored what the newspapers wrote about her. She was a frequent visitor to the various newspaper offices across Sydney and when a story didn’t suit her, she made sure the staff knew. In one sensational example in the 1950s, which Leigh later shared with the editor of the Mirror newspaper in Perth, she stormed into the press offices of a magazine that had published an article on the fatal shooting of underworld figure ‘Snowy’ Prendergast back in 1930. One reporter lost a clump of hair and was given a swift back-hander from Leigh as he fled. Leigh had killed Prendergast  but what the media continued to speculate about were Leigh’s claims of self-defence when she killed the young crook. Why did it matter to Leigh? She had featured on the front pages of newspapers for much of her younger years and was a well-known underworld figure – but by 1950, Kate Leigh had something greater to protect.

Leigh’s continued resonance within the inner city communities of Darlinghurst and Surry Hills rested on accepted crimes and a favourable public image. She worked hard to portray herself as a Hills matriarch and distributed some of her wealth to the impoverished locals. She organised lavish street Christmas parties for the kids of Surry Hills and offered charity to the very poor around her area. She rented ponies for the kids to ride in vacant blocks and gave money to the local Boys’ Home.

Despite a long criminal career in which she made a fortune, Kate Leigh portrayed herself as a woman of the people. In her an interview with People magazine in 1950, she said the Surry Hills people had been good to her when she had nothing and she had never forgot that. Leigh was remembering her days as a single mother when she was only starting out in crime in eastern Sydney.

Kate Leigh created her own quintessentially Australian story. She was a battler from the country who made a fortune in the city through crime but retained a certain level of ordinariness. She achieved this by giving back to the community that had sustained her and in doing so created an enduring matriarchal image. It’s still present in Surry Hills today. Kate Leigh looks out at customers from the framed oil pastel drawing of her on the wall of Sly cafe. She would be pleased with the crafty way in which she turned herself into a Surry Hills celebrity.

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Leigh Straw’s book The Worst Woman in Sydney was published by NewSouth on 1 July 2016.