No shining light

• Dr Straw in Kate Leigh’s former Sydney home, now a trendy cafe called The Sly.

• Dr Straw in Kate Leigh’s former Sydney home, now a trendy cafe called The Sly.

HISTORIAN Leigh Straw apparently has a fascination with life’s seamier side.

Fresh from tracking down her own family’s murderer and giving voice to Fremantle’s “fallen” women, she’s now working on a biography of a notorious Sydney underworld figure with a connection to Fremantle.

Kate Leigh was the sly grog queen of Sydney in the 1920s and a prominent figure in Sydney’s razor gang wars.

She’d earlier provided a false alibi for career criminal Ernest ‘Shiner’ Ryan, who staked his place in history by becoming the first Australian to use a car as a getaway vehicle during a payroll robbery in 1914.

Ryan later moved to Fremantle, where he married Leigh in 1950, although the marriage lasted just three years before she returned to Sydney.

There was such enmity between the pair that despite having amassed a significant fortune of her own, Leigh hit the impoverished Ryan up for maintenance of £3.

His surprise was captured by now-defunct Perth paper The Mirror, which’d tracked him down to jockeys’ quarters attached to a South Fremantle stable. “It’s really funny,” Shiner told the paper, apparently unaware of the court case.

“My only income is the old age pension of £3/7/6. So Kate wants three quid, does she? There’s a laugh for you. What am I going to do with the 7/6?”

Ryan, who once shot a police officer at point-blank range after being disturbed blowing a safe (the copper survived after his whistle deflected the bullet), continued to make battery whips for local horse trainers until his death in 1957.

Dr Straw’s book has already been picked up by a publisher, who’s keen for her to present it at next May’s Sydney Writers Festival.

“I used to live in Surry Hills and Darlinghurst so knew Kate’s story for years before having the idea to write a book on her, Dr Straw said.

“I would really like to speak to any locals who met Kate Leigh or knew Shiner Ryan.”

Anyone who can help can drop Dr Straw a line on 6304 6405 or


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