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Kathleen Mary (Kate) Leigh (1881–1964)

by Judith Allen

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Kate Leigh, 1930

Kate Leigh, 1930

NSW Justice and Police Museum

Kathleen Mary Josephine (Kate) Leigh (1881-1964), crime entrepreneur, was born on 10 March 1881 at Dubbo, New South Wales, eighth child of native-born parents Timothy Beahan, bootmaker, and his wife Charlotte, née Smith. Reputedly she was neglected and at 12 was incarcerated in Parramatta Industrial School for Girls. In Sydney from 18 she soon 'got into trouble'. On 2 May 1902 Kate married James Lee (Leigh), whom police described as an illegal bookmaker and petty criminal. He was imprisoned in 1905 for assaulting and robbing their Glebe landlord with his wife's assistance. Upon his release from gaol, their separation continued.

Her relationship with Samuel 'Jewey' Freeman, brought her wider contacts with the criminal underworld. He and Ernest 'Shiner' Ryan were convicted for the armed robbery of the payroll for the Eveleigh railway workshop on 18 June 1914—reputedly the first armed robbers to use a getaway car in the history of Australian crime. Leigh tried to give Freeman an alibi but was again sentenced to five years imprisonment for perjury early in 1915. Although police recorded only thirteen minor convictions (mostly prostitution-related, despite her later denials that she ever worked as a prostitute), they noted that she often provided bail and alibis for gangsters and racketeers.

In 1919-55 Leigh's main enterprise was the lucrative 'sly-grog' trade, induced by six o'clock closing. In Sydney on 26 September 1922 she married Edward Joseph Barry (d.1948), dealer. From her Surry Hills home she became an organized crime entrepreneur, supplying at extortionate prices the fullest available range of illicit goods and services, including after-hours drinking venues, sly-grog, prostitution, illegal betting, gambling and, from the mid-1920s, cocaine. Acquiring the title 'Queen of the Underworld', Leigh obtained loyalty and protection from a male network of gangsters, but often had to protect them and was adept with a rifle. Rival gangs eroded her profits from the cocaine trade by standing over and slashing decoys (often working prostitutes) with razors. In March 1930 she shot and killed 'Snowy' Prendergast when he and other gangsters broke into her home. She was not indicted for the killing, or for shooting Joseph McNamara on 19 December 1931.

Perhaps feeling the pinch of competition, her rival Tilly Devine publicly denounced Leigh as a 'white slaver' and 'dope-pusher', who enjoyed immunity from prosecution by means of unnamed Labor contacts in municipal politics. In 1930 Kate Leigh was charged with possessing cocaine and with consorting; sentenced to two years imprisonment, she was allowed to pay a £250 fine in lieu of serving the second year. During the Depression she also processed stolen goods for resale: in 1933 she and two men were convicted of receiving hosiery; however a young policeman secured suspension of her sentence on condition she returned to her family at Dubbo for two years.

Despite frequent police raids and numerous minor convictions, Leigh's sly-grog trade continued throughout the 1930s and 1940s. Her wealth was legendary. At times described as corpulent, 'flowsy' and leathery-skinned she was noted for her court-room appearances in silver fox furs and large-brimmed hats, her fingers cluttered with diamond rings. In January 1950 she flew to Western Australia and married 'Shiner' Ryan (d.1957) on 18 January at Fremantle. They lived together in Sydney for six months, Kate continuing business as usual. After disputes about domicile he returned to Fremantle. In 1954 she was declared bankrupt for failing to pay some £6191 in arrears of taxes. Continuing to live at Surry Hills, she died on 4 February 1964 and was buried in Botany cemetery with Catholic rites. Her daughter survived her.

Much of the press, ignoring her connection with organized crime, treated her as the kindly provider of a social service in a repressive era, against whom no real 'wrong-doing' was convincingly proved, and pointed to her wartime patriotism and generosity to the unemployed.

Select Bibliography

  • V. G. Kelly, Rugged Angel (Syd, 1961)
  • A. McCoy, Drug Traffic (Syd, 1980)
  • New South Wales Clerk of the Peace, Depositions, R v Kate Leigh, Central Criminal Court, 20 Nov 1905 (9/7085), 29 Mar 1915 (9/7195) (State Records New South Wales)
  • New South Wales Court Reporting Branch, Transcript, R v Kathleen Barry, Sydney Quarter Sessions, 15 Apr 1933 (6/1175) (State Records New South Wales)
  • Colonial Secretary, special bundle, Police Offences (Drugs) Act, (3/2376 2) (State Records New South Wales).

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Citation details

Judith Allen, 'Leigh, Kathleen Mary (Kate) (1881–1964)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1986, accessed online 18 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 10, (Melbourne University Press), 1986

View the front pages for Volume 10

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Kate Leigh, 1930

Kate Leigh, 1930

NSW Justice and Police Museum

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Lee, Kathleen
  • Beahan, Kathleen
  • Barry, Kathleen
  • Ryan, Kathleen

10 March, 1881
Dubbo, New South Wales, Australia


4 February, 1964 (aged 82)
Surry Hills, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

Religious Influence

Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.