Sharp As A Razor: Sidney Patrick Kelly Becomes A Poster Boy For Gangster Chic


Siddy Kelly mug shot 1924 (courtesy Police and Justice Museum, Sydney)

Even by the standards of Sydney crime figures of the first half of the 20th century, Sidney Patrick Kelly was particularly vicious. A member of the so-called “razor gangs” that terrorised the inner suburbs of Australia’s largest city, Siddy (as he was known), slashed, shot and bashed his way through his many enemies and, occasionally, even his friends. And that was just the men. For women who fell victim to his short, volcanic temper, he arranged even harsher retribution.

Readers of Larry Writer’s Razor volume may vaguely recall him although he was, at best, a peripheral character. So, too, within the highly-romanticised mini-series that inevitably resulted, screening as Underbelly: Razor in 2011.

Siddy Kelly was an associate of Kate Leigh, Tilly Devine, Nellie Cameron, Guido Calletti, and even infamous Melbourne gangster, Squizzy Taylor.

Standing just 160cm, he always had something to prove and even much bigger men moved, and spoke, carefully in his presence. Early in his career, he was a cocaine dealer and police informer; gradually, he gained a fearsome reputation as an enforcer.

NSW Police of the period

What he lacked in stature, he compensated for with a mercurial unpredictability. Siddy ran with a bunch of equally tough, though much larger, friends. Amongst them was his elder brother, Tom.

They were a fine pair, the Kelly brothers though Siddy seemed to have a slight edge on Tom in the cruelty stakes. The gang muscled their way through the Sydney underworld, restraining Siddy’s targets while he ceremoniously unfolded his straight razor and deeply sliced a face or, if negotiations had progressed beyond all resolve, a throat.

As a boy, he worked as a jockey and remained fascinated by horseracing throughout his life. He owned racehorses but was caught out with batteries under the saddles of some of his mounts and banned from the sport. Later, he operated illegal baccarat dens.

At the peak of his activities during the 1940s, his share of the profits amounted to around £1,000 a night (about $72,000 in today’s dollars) In comparison, the average weekly wage in 1946 was £6/9/11 (6 pounds, 9 shillings and 11 pence – somewhere around $470 in current terms).

Likely lads at Central Police Station, Sydney

In 1947, Kelly and his wife, Theller Omega, known as Poppy, moved to grander surroundings. A two-storey mansion at 2 Martin Road, Centennial Park, adjacent to the parklands and within sight of the Sydney Showgrounds, was purchased for £8,500 (about $615,000 in today’s dollars).

Located on a 1948 square metre block and including extensive gardens, the house had been built around 1919 in the then-fashionable Inter War Free Classical style. It was designed by the prestigious Sydney architectural firm of Burcham Clamp and Mackellar.

At the time of Kelly’s purchase, the mansion was known as Babington. Later, and perhaps as a result of its notoriety, it was renamed Stanton Hall.

A gangster moving into the silvertail suburb of Centennial Park was notable enough to attract significant press coverage. Kelly didn’t shy away from the limelight. One newspaper quoted him as saying: “I have had a pretty busy life. I figured it was about time my wife and I had a slice of reasonable comfort in a home where we will not be cramped.

Melbourne gangster Squizzy Taylor

“I have always wanted a place where I could put up my friends and guests, and I have always wanted gardens, lawns and fishponds,” he continued. “The place is a good investment, and I have always said that nothing is too good for the Kellys.”

He continued to make money hand over clenched fist, primarily via his baccarat operations or gambling on horse races. Yet, a huge fortune and glamourous home could not inoculate Kelly from the vagaries of fate.

On the evening of Wednesday 1 September 1948, Siddy Kelly complained of not feeling well. The next morning, brother Tom went to his room to check on him but found him dead. An attending doctor listed his cause of death as heart failure. He was just 49 years old.

Dozens of journalists camped outside his home. One newspaper dryly noted he was “a well known figure among the exotic elements of Kings Cross”.

Journalists gather outside Babington during Siddy Kelly’s funeral

His funeral was held at Botany Cemetery. It was a private ceremony, attended by no more than 50 mourners including Poppy. Press coverage mentioned the floral tributes, estimated at £300, that adorned the casket as it made its way from his Centennial Park home.

Of all the mysteries associated with Siddy Kelly (principally, how a man with so many enemies had managed to stay alive so long), one final mystery was about to kick into high gear.

On his death, Kelly was said to have squirrelled away between £50,000 and £100,000 ($3.5 – $7 million in today’s dollars). Keep in mind, Kelly’s five-bedroom mansion on the best street in the suburb had cost less than £10,000. A police source was quoted as saying: “He was a man who never gave money away.”

On rumours that some of the money had been buried in Centennial Park, gangs of crims armed with shovels and flashlights spent weeks digging indiscriminately throughout the extensive parklands, all to no avail.

The real Nellie Cameron

Sensing a windfall, the Taxation Office descended but were perplexed to find that the gross value of the estate barely grazed £8,800 ($637,000 today). Net worth was just £2,768 (just north of $200,000 today). It didn’t help that Siddy’s long-time solicitor, Harold Joseph Price, had earlier in 1948 been sentenced to 12 years in jail for misappropriating clients’ funds.

Although Price had stolen some £34,000 ($2.5 million today) from a number of accounts under his care, the general consensus – in the underworld and elsewhere – was that he wouldn’t have been so stupid as to steal from Kelly himself. The money was out there, it was felt, but nobody knew just where. And it was never found, despite the best efforts of the police, the tax office and Sydney’s criminal elite.

Babington, later known as Stanton Hall, today remains largely in its original state, though undoubted refurbished many times since. It was last traded in 1976 for $90,000 and is today estimated to be worth in excess of $10 million.

What happened to Siddy Kelly’s fortune will probably never be known. As to Poppy Kelly, that is also somewhat of a mystery although just a few years later she was briefly listed as living in much humbler surroundings in nearby Randwick. There is only one mention I’ve found so far on an electoral roll for Poppy. That’s not to say there’s aren’t others; I just haven’t found them yet.

The glamourous Nellie Cameron of Underbelly: Razor

However, if Siddie had stashed away a substantial amount of money, maybe – for whatever reason – he hadn’t got around to telling his wife about it. How long she remained in Babington remains a mystery as well.

But a visit to Kelly’s grave deepens the mystery somewhat. What was formerly known as Botany Cemetery is now the Eastern Suburbs Memorial Gardens. Close to the shores of Botany Bay and today encompassed by heavy industry and maritime and port facilities, it opened in 1888. The area was traditionally sandhills which, even today proves challenging to excavating graves.

I was hoping to find that Poppy shared her husband’s grave (by which I could then confirm her name) but that wasn’t the case. Kelly’s grave was in an older part of the Roman Catholic section and, unusually, the burials along this particular row occurred by date, beginning in early September 1948 and running until late in the month. It was the only row I could find where this occurred.

The headstone was also of interest. Probate was granted on Siddy’s estate in the first week of November 1948, by which time the word had well and truly circulated about the dire state of his finances. It was just eight weeks after his funeral and probably about the time a headstone was ready to adorn his grave.

Siddy Kelly’s headstone at Eastern Suburbs Memorial Park, Sydney

Yet the granite headstone misspells Kelly’s name. It reads Sydney Patrick Kelly. Could this have been Poppy extracting an enduring revenge for her husband’s failure to provide for her?

Maybe another clue lies in the Biblical quote included on the headstone.

“God forgive them for they know not what they do.”

I was first drawn to the story of Sidney Patrick Kelly back in early 1989. At that time, I was working away at the Mitchell Library, Sydney, most likely researching one of my books; from the date, it was Sand On The Gumshoe: A Century Of Australian Crime Writing, published later that year.

Jim Devine, husband of Tilly Devine

All the books I worked on during that decade (and into the next) necessitated extensive research at the Mitchell Library so it was very much a home away from home. In fact, I’d been a regular there since 1979, when I started writing for various encyclopedias published for Rupert Murdoch.

Before the universal prolificity of computers and the internet, historical research was libraries and card catalogues. In the process of looking for one thing, I often found something else equally or even more interesting. In this case, it was an article on Siddy Kelly published in People, an Australian news and general interest magazine from 1955.

I have no idea what I was initially searching for. It may have been something about Arthur Upfield, creator of Bony, the indigenous Australian detective. Or Carter Brown, the pen name of Alan Geoffrey Yates, credited with almost 300 pulp crime novels and novellas from the mid-1950s on. Or maybe even Berkeley Mather, English-born but Australian-educated, a now-almost-forgotten creator of eloquent spy thrillers who also co-wrote the script to Dr No, the first official James Bond movie, and did uncredited rewrites on From Russia With Love and Goldfinger.

Difficult to know but somehow I stumbled across this People article on Sidney Patrick Kelly and thought it’d be interesting to follow up at a later date. So, risking a hernia, I lugged the bound quarto volume of People magazines to the Mitchell Library’s copying department (self-service photocopy machines being some years in the future).

Sydney crime scene photo of the 1920s (courtesy Sydney Living Museums)

At a later date, I received from the copying service photographic negatives of the relevant three pages (can’t recall why it would have been photographed and not photocopied), which went into my desk drawer, survived several home relocations and various major and minor life changes, until I dug the negs out last week and determined it was about time I did something about the article.

Only took 33 years. Pretty good, considering.

However, there is a coda to Siddy Kelly’s story. The opening photograph of Sidney Patrick Kelly, with his blue-steel gaze and snappy attire, comes from the collection of the Justice and Police Museum in Sydney. It is part of an archive encompassing more than 100,000 mug shots, crime scene and related photographs from the NSW Police Department.

Included are some 2,5000 “special photographs” taken of prisoners at Central Police Station, Sydney, between 1910-25. These photos are remarkable, shot on large-format glass negatives. The subjects were allowed to pose as they wished in quite informal settings, totally unlike traditional institutionalised mug shots.

The mean streets of midnight Sydney

This photograph of Kelly was taken on 25 June 1924 and appeared in the NSW Police Gazette. It was captioned “Illicit drug trader. Drives his own car, and dresses well. Associates with criminal and prostitutes.”

Museum curator Peter Doyle (a crime writer of note, although he arrived too late on the scene to be included in Sand On The Gumshoe), collated some of these highly atmospheric photos for publications under the titles City Of Shadows: Sydney Police Photographs 1912-1948 (2005) and Crooks Like Us (2009).

The books were an outstanding success in Australia, deservedly so, although their influence extended even further. In 2011, the Justice and Police Museum was approached by the corporate head office of Ralph Lauren in New York. They wanted to licence images from the collection, notably the “special photographs”, to be enlarged to wall-size murals for display in their New York City and London flagship stores.

Crime is never as glamourous as it appears on television

The Siddy Kelly photo at the beginning of this blog was one of the photographs selected. It’s interesting that a man as essentially evil as Sidney Patrick Kelly would continue to exert an influence on popular culture so long after his death.

Befitting the modern era, Kelly had become a commodity. A sharp dresser with the promise of danger in his level gaze, he was now the personification of edgy fashion. Perhaps it would have amused him. Certainly his acquaintances would have had a laugh.

Sydney’s Forgotten Glory – The Garden Palace Burns!


NOTE: This is Part II of the Garden Palace article.

When the Sydney International Exhibition closed in April 1880, thoughts turned to how best to utilise such a magnificent building. The newspapers of the period weighed in with a range of fanciful possibilities including turning the basement area, under the towering statue of Queen Victoria, into the world’s largest aquarium.

Public sentiment seemed to lean towards a museum. It was announced, not too long after the Exhibition, that the Garden Palace would house the South Kensington Museum of New South Wales. Whether this was an official arrangement with the London museum founded in 1852 and drawing upon exhibits purchased from the Great Exhibition at the Crystal Palace (and which was renamed the Victoria & Albert Museum in the 1980s) or merely a nod towards the Mother Country, is not known as the plan never reached fulfillment.

However, another museum did occupy some of the space with the Technological and Sanitary Museum taking up space around the ground floor area of the west nave. In the end, political practicality took over. The machinery of colonial government required enormous space and the vast interior of the Garden Palace was perfect for such uses.

The Mines Department, the Harbours and Rivers Department and the Trial Survey Branch were just a few of the many government departments and instrumentalities that set up supplementary offices, storerooms or archives within the Garden Palace.

The Sydney International Exhibition eventually faded into memory and the Garden Palace became an accepted part of the Sydney skyline. Nobody gave much thought to how long the locals would be able to enjoy such a beautiful building. The answer, regrettably, was not that long.

On the morning of 22 September 1882, night watchman F. Kirchen of the Insurance Brigade made his rounds as usual and found nothing of consequence. He met up with the police patrol that regularly visited the building at 5.30am and then walked to the Domain entrance to greet the day watchman, J. McKnight. They chatted for a few minutes as dawn started to seep across the harbour.

Turning their attention to the Garden Palace, they were horrified to notice smoke curling from under the dome. Kirchen and McKnight rushed to the building. It was already too late. They entered the building and saw, through the choking dark smoke, enormous tongues of flame rushing up from the basement area, engulfing the statue of Queen Victoria, and being propelled with increasing speed along the dry wooden beams and supports towards the massive dome.

They had enough time to reach a telephone and alert the Fire Brigade before they fled the scorching heat. After a moment’s hesitation, there was barely time to rescue a pet dog, trapped and barking in panic.

By the time they’d reached a safe distance, the Garden Palace was a roaring ball of flame. As the Sydney Morning Herald later commented, “To describe the progress of the fire is to analyse the events of a few minutes”.

Fire brigades started to arrive from all parts of the city, as did horrified local residents. They could do nothing but watch in stunned disbelief. A few minutes after 6am, the windows of houses fronting Macquarie Street started to crack.

Strong winds fanned the fire which burst in a multitude of colours – dark ruby, green, yellow and blue, tinged by the chemicals and paint treating the wood and the contents of the building –  higher skyward. When the dome collapsed, the rush of expelled supercharged heat sent ash, debris and burning cinders as far afield as Darling Point. The roof of a house in Potts Point was set alight while furnace-twisted sheets of corrugated iron rained down on the grounds of Elizabeth Bay House.

The Illustrated Sydney News reported: “A dull roaring sound, and a crackling like the discharge of fire-arms. An immense flame leapt into the sky, volumes of black smoke rolled up, and with a crash like a peal of thunder the mighty dome fell in”.

By 9am, the spectacle was over. The Garden Palace, which for three years, was the first sight of the city skyline seen by ships entering Sydney Heads, was no more. All that remained were a few tottering fragments of the entrance towers, the charred brick foundations and a smouldering pile of rubble that took days to extinguish.

Just about everything within the building was destroyed including hundreds of paintings gathered for the Art Society of New South Wales’ annual exhibition, all documents relating to the 1881 census as well as other important census records going back decades, and land and water calculations that required vast sections of the colony to be re-surveyed.

Attempts to find a cause of the fire proved fruitless. One suggestion was that thieves set the fire while attempting to break into a Mines Department safe. Another was that one of the Macquarie Street landowners had been desperate enough to regain his harbour views that he had resorted to arson.

The sad truth is that fires were a regular occurrence in Victorian times and the haste with which the Garden Palace was constructed, with the Government taking control of the Exhibition’s organisation just eight months before the projected opening, necessitating the use of wood rather than brick and stone, played its part.

It was just one of those things and it robbed Sydney of the most beautiful building that had ever graced its shores.

Today, there’s very little to remind visitors that it ever existed. The Garden Palace Gates, erected in 1889 opposite the State Library (what is now the Mitchell Library), were later relocated to their present site fronting Macquarie Street. The Pioneers’ Memorial Garden was built in 1938 on the spot where Queen Victoria’s statue stood. A small brass plaque commemorates the Garden Palace.

One lasting tribute, although even that is generally known only by trivia buffs, is that the Technological and Sanitary Museum survived the fire despite losing all its exhibits, found safer lodgings and was later renamed the Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences. Later still, it became the Powerhouse Museum and can now be found in Ultimo adjoining Darling Harbour.

Words © David Latta

Photos © State Records NSW

 

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