Razor gangs were criminal gangs that dominated the Sydney crime scene in the 1920s. With the passage of the Pistol Licensing Act (NSW) 1927, the New South Wales State Parliament imposed severe penalties for carrying concealed firearms and handguns. Sydney gangland figures then chose razors as preferred weapons, for their capacity to inflict disfiguring scars.
The upsurge in organised crime was caused by the prohibition of sale of cocaine by chemists (under the Dangerous Drugs (Amendment) Act 1927), the prohibition of street prostitution (under the Vagrancy Act NSW 1905), the criminalisation of off-course race track betting (under the Betting and Gaming Act 1906) and the introduction of six o'clock closing for public bars after passage of the Licensing Act 1916 (NSW).
By the early 1920s, almost sixty years had passed since German chemists Friedrich Gaedcke and Friedrich Wohler and Wohler's doctoral chemistry student Albert Niemann had isolated the first pure cocaine in 1855 and 1859, and since Italian doctor Paolo Mantegazza had discovered its euphoriant and stimulant effects as a recreational drug.
Initially, cocaine was incorporated into consumer products and beverages, until concern grew about its addictive properties. Manual working-class consumers used its stimulant effects to harden their physical prowess and work longer hours amidst the economic instability of the twenties and thirties. The United States was the first jurisdiction to enact cocaine prohibition legislation. In 1914, the United States Congress passed the Harrison Narcotics Tax Act, which imposed ten-year prison sentences for production, distribution or ownership of cocaine.
Illegal drug distribution became a serious social problem due to the existing concentration of addicts in Kings Cross, Darlinghurst and Woolloomooloo, estimated at five thousand. Marijuana, opium, morphine, heroin, paraldehyde and cocaine were all heavily consumed. Cocaine was particularly remunerative for criminal entrepreneurs like Kate Leigh and others, due to its ephemeral 'highs' and the need for recurrent supplies to users. As in Paris, Barcelona, Madrid, Brussels and Rome, Sydney sex workers were a sizeable market for the cocaine trade, which was supplied from corrupt chemists, doctors, dentists and sailors (given that Peru, Bolivia and Colombia were all accessible through transpacific merchant shipping routes).
After handguns were criminalised in New South Wales, razors became the weapon of choice amongst Sydney gangsters. Shortly after the Pistol Licensing Act 1927 was passed, a visiting sailor used a cutthroat razor to defend himself from attackers. As a result, razors became a default weapon due to its ease of purchase from barbers shops for a few pence, its ease of concealment (hidden inside a piece of cork), and its use as an instrument of intimidation and threatened or actual mutilation, physical impairment or murder against one's adversaries, prey or hostile spouses. It has been estimated that there were over five hundred slashings within Sydney during the heyday of intensive razor gang criminal activity Macquarie Street's Sydney Hospital and St Vincent's Hospital, Sydney in Darlinghurst treated many of these casualties of gangland hostilities.
Members of the New South Wales Police and several New South Wales politicians also had connections to the gangs. The two major razor gangs were associated with prominent madams, Kate Leigh (Queen of Surry Hills) and Tilly Devine; (Queen of Darlinghurst and Woolloomooloo). these two gangs began open warfare in 1929, culminating in two riots. One was known as the "Battle of Blood Alley" and was waged in Eaton Avenue, King's Cross. It occurred because drug distributors discovered that Phil Jeffs (1896–1945), another ganglord, was adulterating his cocaine supplies with boracic acid. It occurred on May 7, 1929. Later that year, on August 8, 1929, the Battle of Kellett Street was waged between rival gangs affiliated to Kate Leigh and Tilly Devine and occurred in Kellett Street, near King's Cross. Considerable amounts of bootleg alcohol and cocaine were consumed beforehand, leading to thrown bottles, physical assaults, firearm exchanges and razor attacks.
The gang violence was curtailed in the 1930s by the Vagrancy Amendment Act NSW 1929. It contained "criminal consorting" clauses which prevented known criminals from associating with one other and led to diminished gang violence. At the same time, the Crimes Amendment Act 1930 was also passed, leading to six-month imprisonment terms for anyone found possessing cutthroat razors without good reason.
In 1935, newly appointed Sydney Police Commissioner MacKay summoned the feuding Devine and Leigh to his office. While he would not vigorously enforce anti-bootleg and anti-prostitution laws, he announced that the new police powers granted to his constabulary would be used against both women and their criminal enterprises unless there was immediate mitigation of gang violence and cocaine distribution. They did so, which left the New South Wales State Police able to concentrate their attention on the illicit cocaine trade in 1938/39. Following intensive policing of overseas supply routes, the cocaine trade finally began to ebb.
With the onset of the Second World War, gang figures enlisted and went to fight in the European and Pacific theatres of that conflict. Even the arrival of US service personnel did not reinvigorate the Leigh and Devine criminal empires, which now faced competition. With these events, the "razor gang" era drew to a close.
The term razor gang has been subsequently used in Australian politics as a nickname for politicians charged with cutting government spending. It was first used in this sense in the early 1980s in association with the report by the Review of Commonwealth Functions led by Phillip Lynch for the Fraser government.
A TV dramatization of the Razor gang era, Underbelly: Razor, appeared on Australia's Nine Network in 2011.
As yet, there is no historical documentation that suggests any linkage between the Sydney razor gang era of the twenties and thirties and Glasgow razor gangs during the same era. The same modus operandi appears to have developed in different geographical locations and circumstances. While it is possible that Scottish or Glaswegian criminal immigrants might have been involved in Sydney criminal activity during this era, there seems to be no direct causal relationship discernible as yet.