With the current fascination with the criminal underworld of Sydney’s 1930s as portrayed in the Underbelly Razor series, it might be worth taking a look at one of the business models that financed the whole thing-Prostitution.  It all looks very glamorous on the telly, but of course it was often far from it.

Surprisingly enough to many, prostitution has never been illegal in NSW, although there have been plenty of laws targeting associated activities of the sex trade that have made this type of employment illicit, underground and prone to corruption and criminal activity.

Whether or not it is the world’s oldest profession, it has had a long history in Australia.  As early as the 1820s it is thought there were at least 20 brothels operating in Sydney.  It is not hard to imagine, with a disproportionately large male population, many being single, ex-convicts with few prospects of finding a wife.  By 1859 a Select Committee into the Condition of the Working Classes, recorded with some alarm the highly visible nature of the industry on Sydney’s streets, girls were working from Hyde Park, the Domain and in Pitt Street.

There was little glamour about it, with many of them being young, some underage and almost all destitute or on the verges.  Prostitution is a dangerous business, especially for those women on the streets. Historically brothels offered some degree of protection, as indeed they still do.  By the late 19th century there was a conservative estimate of 2-3000 prostitutes working in the inner city suburbs.

Most women come into the industry for the money.  With this in mind, it is no wonder that in the first half of the 20th century, when the inner city areas of Darlinghurst, Woolloomooloo and Surry Hills were some of Sydney’s poorest suburbs they were also the red light district for the city. 

In 1904 it was estimated that 57 brothels were operating in Surry Hills alone, with a number of streets, such as Palmer, Riley and Albion Streets, Woods Lane and others gaining a reputation for their brothels.

Wood's Lane, Darlinghurst. Notorious for its brothels and working girls from the 1920s until the 1970s

 Police and law enforcers have employed a series of laws to try to control the industry: the 1908 Summary Offences Act made it illegal for men to earn a living from the earnings of prostitutes and brothel-keeping as well as outlawing soliciting.  It was the men part of the law that left it open for the likes of Kate Leigh, Tilly Devine and other enterprising women in the 1920s and 1930s to operate brothels and run the trade (as well as the underworld more generally).  The fines associated with the offence also drove small operators out of the business, concentrating the trade into the hands of larger operators like Devine et al and further into the criminal underworld for protection.  Later laws included consorting with criminals and keeping a disorderly house as offences to target the trade.

As per usual it was the working girl that took much of the brunt. While people like Tilly and Kate appear to be strong women in control, they gained that position through the same poor and brutal treatment of many of the women who worked for them.  Cocaine addiction was a prime motivator for keeping the working girls working. And as Kate and Tilly were the main suppliers of the drug, the girls stayed around whatever the conditions.  Plenty were bashed, razored, shot or murdered plying their trade.

Prostitution flourished through World War II and boomed in the Vietnam years, although since then it has been in a holding pattern.  While the Kings Cross area, Surry Hills and East Sydney are still the place people think about as Sydney’s red light hub, the trade is spread across the entire city with an increasing number of brothels and massage parlours in Sydney’s inner west and outer suburbs.