Coming up in September (5-13th) is History Week, the annual history festival of the History Council of NSW. This year the theme is Scandals, Crime and Corruption, and I think we all know that there is enough of that in Sydney’s history to go around.
One of the favourite pastimes of Sydney’s good and bad in the years 1910 until 1976 was to visit Thommo’s two-up school and have a fling. Thommo’s became Sydney’s most famous secret institutions, visited by rich and famous, crooked and straight, toughs and not-so toughs. But not by women; it was a boys club, no women allowed (women only got inside twice in its entire history, one time being the singing Andrews Sisters during WWII).
Thommo’s at its peak had four venues, two in Wentworth Avenue, one in Commonwealth Street and one in Reservoir Street. To enter you had to know where to go, often going through back lanes and false doors, passageways or other buildings to get to it. This allowed quick pack ups if the place was ever raided, although it rarely was.
Thommo was in fact ex-boxer George Joseph Guest, who boxed as Joe Thomas. He ran a strict house: after a big win no-one was allowed to leave for up to 20 minutes after the winner, and really big winners were given an armed escort from the premises. When Guest died in 1954 the game was taken over by his long term friend Joe Taylor who kept the game going until his own death in 1976. Taylor’s funeral was attended by 1000 mourners including politicians, police, gangsters, racing identities and normal folk. As one of the wreaths said, Dearly loved and Never Forgotten.
Some characters at the time were less salubrious then Thommo or Taylor. Sydney was awash with illegal drugs, sly-grog, prostitutes and illegal gambling. These businesses attracted all sorts, those to run the stuff, protect the stuff and control the stuff.
Two such men amongst a cast of hundreds were the razor slasher and gunman Guido Calletti and Phil ‘The Jew’ Jeffs.
Calletti and Jeffs prowled Sydney’s inner city, through Darlinghurst, Surry Hills and Kings Cross in the 1920s and 1930s.
Calletti was feared as an expert shot (he could reputedly shoot the ash from a cigarette), knife thrower and was handy with a razor. Attributed with killing at least four men and surviving being shot on five occasions, he was never charged with murder. He was the husband of Nellie Cameron, lover to Dulcie Markham, sometime employee of Kate Leigh, rival to Frank ‘the little gunman’ Green and occasional fruit seller.
Like most though, Calletti overstepped the mark. In 1939 he attended a party at the house of his arch rivals, a gang in Brougham Street. He said he came in peace but words were exchange, a light went out, two shots were fired and Calletti ended up mortally wounded. His funeral attracted 5000 mourners, maybe some to make sure he was dead.
Jeffs was same–same but different. A razor man in the 1920s, he rose through the ranks of the cocaine dealers and pimps in the early 1920s. He also specialised in running prostitutes and extorting money.
In 1929 Jeffs hit the headlines when he was accused by rivals of substituting boracic acid for cocaine and selling it on the streets. People don’t like it when you do that and he was confronted in Eaton Avenue in the Cross in May. In the ensuing brawl, two were bashed unconscious but Jeffs escaped, at least till the next morning when unidentified gunmen kicked his door in and shot him twice. He survived.
Changing tack, Jeffs next opened some of Sydney’s best known sly grog houses and clubs, the 50-50 Club and the 400 Club. Both ran into the 1940s, despite police raids, rival gang raids, all in brawls, gun fights and razor attacks. Jeffs retired to the Central Coast in 1942 where he continued to run his business until he dropped dead in 1949, probably a result of the bullet still in him from 1929.
If you need more I suggest you hunt down a copy of David Hickie’s The Prince and the Premier, or Larry Writer’s Razor, both excellent books and which should provide more then enough details of Sydneys razorgang underworld.
And don’t forget History Week where all this and more will be revealed…