With the upcoming Underbelly series, no doubt a number of Sydney’s gangsters are going to get the make-over, maybe even a glamorous touch up. 

We have looked at a few of them here on the blog in earlier days ourselves.  The stories of snapping dressed razor wielding gangs, Charleston dancing prostitutes and tough guy standover men look pretty good from a long distance with a bit of Vaseline on the lens, but plenty of these people were not the type you would necessarily invite round for dinner, let alone want to bump into in Little Riley Street in 1932.

One such character that might just get a mention is John “Chow” Hayes, a career criminal, tough guy and gunman.  

Hayes was born in western NSW in 1911, moving to Chippendale Sydney in 1914 when his father joined the Light Horse and went off to war.  He grew up in the inner city, an area he would come to lord over by the 1930s, and slipped into petty crime as a teenager, stealing and shoplifting around town.  His first time inside was a stint in Gosford Boys Home where he stayed until 17.

Returning to Sydney he was soon back to old habits.  By the time he turned 18 he had 14 charges to his name from riotous behaviour and not paying for drinks, to break and enter, demand money by menace and assault.  He soon gained a reputation as a tough street fighter and someone who wouldn’t back down.  At 28 he was an up-and-comer on the gangster scene, with enough of a reputation to be able to bash Frank Green, notorious razor man and known killer, and get away with it.

Chow Hayes mugshot 1930 HHT Collection

Eventually guns came into play for Chow.  If he was going to pursue a successful standover career it was an inevitable step.  His first line of gun work was as an enforcer for Thommo’s two up games.  Hayes and others would be ‘employed’ as security for the game, and would let potential trouble makers know that they were going to be much more trouble.  He worked a number of games, demanding money for his services, as he did with a variety of night clubs and sly grog shops, including a number run by Kate Leigh.

Of course there were a lot of tough guys around and trouble soon caught up to Chow.  In 1938 Chow was shot in the stomach by a jealous rival, ‘Knocker’ McGarry.  The problem was that Chow, by now married, was hitting on McGarry’s teenage girlfriend. 

Chow soon after upgraded his CV to include armed robbery and teamed up with William Joey Hollebone.  Hayes and Hollebone, described by some as the most cold blooded criminal in Sydney, worked together as the most feared organised pair in Sydney from the 1930s until the early 1950s.  Violence was part of their everyday business.

Inevitably Hayes was eventually involved in a number of murders.  The first was of a fellow crook, Eddie Weyman on New Year’s Eve 1945.  Weyman had been part of Hayes’ wider gang involved in what was called the cabbage leaf racket.  Basically this involved substituting dried and shredded cabbage for tobacco in fake cigarettes and then selling them around town to visiting troops in Sydney during the war. The gang was making up to £10,000 per week, in today’s money about half a million dollars! 

Weyman was skimming some off the top for himself and Hayes found out.  When confronted Weyman angrily denied it but to no avail.  Now both knew one would get the other, just who would get there first.  Hayes acted on NYE, slipping out of a party, shooting Weyman in his own bed 5 times and returning to the party before anyone noticed.  Hayes was charged but acquitted.

In early May 1951 Hayes’ nephew, Danny Simmons, was shot and killed in a case of mistaken identity.  Hayes had been the intended target.  The shooter was standover man Booby Lee, who had previously been beaten up by Hayes.  Hayes was tipped off on 29 May that Lee would be at the Ziegfeld Club in the city and so decided to confront him.  About 10.30pm Hayes and Hollebone, as well as their wives, arrived at the club in King Street and after a few drinks and a dance, confronted Lee.  Although they tried to convince Lee to step outside, he wasn’t that stupid and thought he was safer in the club surrounded by other patrons.  He wasn’t. 

Scene of Lee's murder. The Zeigfeld Club, HHT crime scene photo 1951

 Hayes shot and killed Lee in front of 80 witnesses, all of who later claimed to have seen nothing.  Three trials later and Hayes was found guilty and sentenced to hang, later commuted to life in prison.  It probably saved his life.

Released in 1967, Hayes was back in a few more times, his last in 1977.  He died, unrepentant in 1991. 

For more take a look at David Hickie’s biography Chow Hayes: Gunman.

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