The Queen of Surry Hills
Kate Leigh and the Suburb’s Sordid History
Australia has had its fair share of brushes with royalty – be it state visits from The British Royal Family or our home-grown Danish Princess Mary – one monarch stands out from the rest – Kate Leigh, the infamous Queen of Surry Hills.
Kate’s early life was plagued by trouble, perhaps setting the tone for her criminal affairs. Born in Dubbo in 1881, Kate experienced severe childhood neglect, resulting in her confinement to Sydney’s Parramatta Industrial School for Girls at only twelve years old and, in her late teens, took up sex work. At the age of nineteen, an unmarried Kate Beahan gave birth to her daughter Eileen in 1900. While Eileen’s parentage is debated, Kate married James Lee in 1902, with Eileen adopting the surname until her own marriage in 1920.
While she had many names throughout her life – Katherine Barry, Kathleen Ryan, Kathleen Beahan – none stuck so well as Kate Leigh. Leigh, the surname of her first husband, James Lee (she later anglicised the surname after their separation), was the one she returned to in-between multiple marriages and de-facto relationships.
Kate and Crime
The sly-grog trade sprung up in Sydney in response to the forced closure of pubs and hotels at 6 pm, beginning in 1916. Kate's introduction to sly-grog dealing came with her second husband, Edward Barry. While their marriage was brief, the skills Kate developed during their time together would go on to define decades of crime in Surry Hills. Kate would continue to be a sly grog trader for over 35 years.
Kate’s sly-grog dealing became so popular that her Lansdowne Street home, from which she operated, became known, unofficially, as the Lansdowne Hotel – not to be confused with its legal namesake operating in Chippendale. Kate’s Hotel didn’t only offer illegal alcohol but was also a brothel and the space from which she dealt drugs such as cocaine and opium.
Her dealings became so popular that Kate expanded her business and, at the height of her success, amassed a large collection of buildings around Surry Hills from which to conduct her dealings. These locations were affectionately and covertly referred to as “Mum’s” so that customers could discreetly mention that they were “off to Mum’s for the evening”. Interestingly, the hardened madam, drug dealer, gang leader and sly-grog trader never drank alcohol or used drugs – likely a credit to her success.
However, it was not only Kate’s vice offerings that made her so popular. Kate was also recognised as a charitable figure in her community – she routinely gave money to the homeless in her area as well as donating to the local Boy’s Home and purchasing pony rides for downcast children.
Being a leading figure in Sydney’s underworld, Kate was not without run-ins with police or other criminals. Her biggest rival came in the form of Tilly Devine – the Queen of Wolloomooloo.
Kate and Tilly had many similarities. Both were madams, sly-grog traders, and drug dealers. Both had worked as sex workers in their teens. Both accumulated large fortunes and notoriety. This is perhaps what led to their ferocious feud.
In an attempt to maintain their power and claim in their respective areas of Sydney, Kate and Tilly’s animosity often turned violent, with the women and their respective “razor” gangs turning Sydney’s streets into battlefields. Their war lasted almost twenty years.
Unfortunately for Kate, the Taxation Office caught up with her in 1954, sending her into bankruptcy. This, coupled with the abolishment of 6 pm closing hours in 1955, largely called for the end of the sly-grog trade. This spelled the end for Kate’s lavish wealth and lifestyle.
In her later life, she lived with her nephew in her remaining Surry Hills property and was dependent on him for income and support. On February 4th of 1964, Kate Leigh suffered a stroke and died at St Vincent’s Hospital in Darlinghurst. Her funeral was attended by over 700 mourners – a clear example of her enduring legacy as The Queen of Surry Hills.