Kate Leigh (1881 to 1964) was one of Sydney’s most notorious criminals in the first part of the 20th century. Brought to life once more by cabaret performer Vashti Hughes, Kate Leigh will be a part of this year’s Surry Hills Festival.
Kate Leigh is going home this year, more than 50 years after her death. The matriarch of the Sydney sly grog scene and the rival to fellow crime Queen Tilley Devine during the battles between the “razor gangs”, Kate Leigh’s house in Riley Street will be the venue for performances during the Surry Hills Festival with Vashti Hughes reprising her role as Kate.
“A couple have bought Kate’s old place in Surry Hills and they want to turn it into a bar and café,” explains Hughes. “So I’ll be wandering the streets of Surry Hills during the Festival and taking groups back to Kate’s place and doing a few songs.”
With partner and musical collaborator Rob Johnston, Hughes will take groups of about 20 into Kate’s former home and then wander up to the Shakespeare Hotel on Devonshire Street. There, Johnstone will swap his bango for the piano and they’ll continue to sing some songs, taken from the longrunning cabaret show Mum’s In, which was performed regularly at the Kings Cross Hotel in the earlier part of this decade.
“People at the Shakespeare seem to know about Kate,” says Hughes. “Some of the younger people don’t know about her so much, so I’ll hang around after the show and have a few drinks and talk about her.
“I think it’s good to do it because it reminds people about who she was, and it keeps her alive in a way.” Kate Leigh’s life is a reminder of a completely different epoch in Surry Hills history. It was a time of grinding poverty, unemployment and a period which pushed people to desperate measures in order to get by.
The Kate Leigh story is also interesting in that she was part of an unparalleled scenario in Sydney crime, a time when the two main criminal protagonists and rivals in the city’s underworld were women.
Kate and Tilley Devine fought each other in a violent feud which lasted more than two decades, and their respective gangs staged what were almost pitched battles in Kellet Street, Kings Cross, in 1929.
In addition to her activities in sly grog, prostitution, and illegal betting, Kate Leigh was also known as an importer and dealer of cocaine, a supply which was only stopped by the advent of World War 2.
So, given all this and her longstanding role as Kate, what does Vashti Hughes think of the character she has recreated? “She certainly came from very rough beginnings and then became one of the most powerful people in Sydney, only to die in poverty because the taxman caught up with her,” says Hughes.
“She is fascinating because while she was definitely tough, and she had to be to run a gang of criminals, she was also a leader and someone who cared about her community and considered herself part of it.
“She’d have Christmas Party’s at her home and give all the kids lollies, and she’d lend money to people who needed it, so as well being a criminal she was very much a part of the community in Surry Hills.”