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History ian 3/21/2014

Who was Surry Hills’ Snow Queen?

Kate Leigh Surry HillsKate Leigh lived in Surry Hills for 80 of her 83 years… at the peak of her infamy she would have certainly been the richest and most dangerous lass on the block.

Kate was at the heart of the 2011 TV miniseries Underbelly: Razor where she was played by actress Danielle Cormack. To Cormack it was a joy to be given such a complex character to play – according to the actress, Leigh was “hearty, fearless, formidable, ruthless, menacing and loving”.

In a nutshell, Kate was a non-drinker and a non-smoker and was known as a ‘good sort’. Her main business was running sly grog shops but she also dabbled in cocaine, brothels, gambling and killing people. She was placed in a girls’ home at age 12, had a child out of wedlock aged 19 and was twice divorced by age 24.

Kate Leigh Surry HillsKate was dubbed the ‘most evil woman in Sydney’ but those close to her would say she had a soft side and a ‘heart of gold’. Her nick names were ‘Mum’ and the ‘Snow Queen’.  Her criminal record is pretty light on compared to what she actually got away with – 107 convictions with 13 spells in prison for perjury, stealing, assault, illegal liquor sale and manslaughter. Whenever she had to appear in court she liked to show off her wealth and would wear flowing boas, furs and diamonds on every finger.

There are a few Surry Hills addresses linked to Kate Leigh. She lived at 104 Riley Street for many years and this is where she shot and killed gangster, Snowy Prendergast, in 1930. Kate also owned a few other houses. Nos 25, 27 and 31 Kippax Street, for example, were properties renowned for drugging and mugging passing victims. Those houses have now gone but the photo right shows Riley and Goulburn Streets in 1938. Kate lived at No 2 Lansdowne Street from 1933 until the house was demolished in 1950 – this was her main sly-grog shop and was known by the nickname The Lansdowne Hotel.

Kate Leigh Surry HillsKate then moved to 212 Devonshire Street (right), which became the new sly-grog shop and her residence until her death in 1964. Her funeral was held at St Peter’s Catholic Church, also in Devonshire Street, where 700 mourners attended. At the funeral they glossed over some of the criminal history and recalled her WW2 patriotism and for her many generous charitable acts supporting the unemployed.

These days Kate resides at Eastern Suburbs Memorial Park (formerly Botany Ceremony) in the Roman Catholic Section 29K, Grave 896 under the name, Kathleen Ryan (Ryan was her third and last husband – the marriage lasted six months, in 1950).

Kate made her initial fortune thanks to a World War One piece of legislation that made drinking establishments close at 6:00pm sharp. This is where two famous sayings originated – the yell of “Time gentlemen please!” from behind the bar and the “six o’clock swill”, which was the last minute rush to buy drinks before the establishment closed. During daylight hours Kate would stock up on booze, then flog it off after hours with a hefty mark up from the sly-grog premises. She had about 20 outlets at one stage and, along with the grog, patrons could also access gambling, prostitution and cocaine.

Ahhh… it would be a boring old world if we were all the same!