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Leigh Straw, The Worst Woman in Sydney: The Life and Crimes of Kate Leigh


NewSouth_Kate_Leigh_9781742234793_smlrLeigh Straw, The Worst Woman in Sydney: The Life and Crimes of Kate Leigh

(NewSouth Books, July 2016, pp1-266 RRP $29.99)

Many Sydneysiders will have heard of Kate Leigh; sly grog seller, drug peddler, madam and a leading underworld criminal entrepreneur in the 1920s and 1930s, and indeed beyond.  During her long life she received 107 criminal convictions, served thirteen gaol terms and was rarely out of the newspaper headlines. Despite this notable criminal record, Leigh’s reputation oscillated between being labelled ‘the worst woman in Sydney’ to a perception of her as a benevolent sly-grog seller and for many in East Sydney, a community hero and matriarch. Her notoriety has been popularised in Larry Writer’s book Razor and has loomed large in TV’s highly acclaimed Underbelly series. Today, café Sly at her former residence at 212 Devonshire Street in Darlinghurst pays a lasting tribute to this notorious Sydney woman. In The Worst Woman in Sydney: The Life and Crimes of Kate Leigh, the historian and author Leigh Straw has written the first biography of Kate Leigh. It is a fascinating read and in my opinion, utterly unputdownable - I read the entire book one rainy Saturday afternoon. Straw tells Leigh’s full and fascinating story – from her early wayward life in Dubbo to the confines of the Parramatta Industrial School for Girls and how she subsequently became a leading underworld figure on the mean streets of East Sydney. This is the ‘warts and all’ story of a seedy, sinful Sydney where sly grog, prostitution, cocaine, violent razor gang wars, police corruption, and grinding poverty characterised the lives of many people in the early twentieth century. It is also the tale of a poor girl made extremely rich through enterprising audacity and cunning, however ruthless, cruel and criminal she had to be to earn the dubious title of ‘the worst woman in Sydney’.  And yet, Kate herself resented this reputation and in her own community, she was deemed to be ‘the matriarch of Surry Hills’. Many saw her as providing a valuable community service by selling sly grog to the still thirsty after public houses were closed at 6pm.  She was also held in high esteem for paying fines for people who could not afford to, warning youths about ‘the folly’ of crime and prostitution, whilst her annual Christmas parties for the children of the local area were legendary for their lavish generosity. It is a complex, colourful and somewhat discombobulating life story. By the end the reader is left with a somewhat ambivalent impression. Was Kate Leigh a success story – the quintessential ‘Aussie battler done good’? Was she a generous and benevolent community member? Or was she merely a ruthless vicious woman who broke the law and ran an extensive criminal enterprise with standover men and an iron will? (She was herself handy with her fists and not afraid to use a loaded shotgun on more than one occasion.) Between each chapter Straw has skilfully woven ‘interludes’ into the book; scenes from Kate’s life, told from Kate’s perspective. In utilising this narrative technique, the author admits that she wanted to bring Kate to life for the readers and to show her as more than just a sensationalised underworld crook. Rather, we get to know her motivations and her perspective of her life together with her own sense of place within the East Sydney community. It is a technique which clearly works well, (and hence the aforementioned discombobulation.) At times the book repeats information and reiterates similar phrases and themes. There are notes at the end rather than footnotes/endnotes throughout the book which some more academic minded readers might find displeasing.  However, overall it is meticulously researched, engaging, lively and highly readable. The Worst Woman in Sydney will appeal to a wide ranging audience and especially to readers interested in popular crime, female crime, and the dirty, nitty gritty history of Sydney’s underbelly in the twentieth century. Dr Catie Gilchrist April 2016
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