Image from the excellent OzLit blog Matilda.
There is a good online collection of Slessor’s poems on Old Poetry, including “Snowdrops”. Reading Larry Writer’s Razor (Pan Macmillan 2001) as I have been lately I can now make sense of the poem, itself a document of the Darlinghurst and Surry Hills of Tilly Devine and Kate Leigh. “Snowdrops” = “cocaine”.
The Snowdrop Girl in fields of snowdrops walks,
Whiter than foam, deeper than waters flowing,
Flakes of wild milk gone blowing,
Snowing on cloudy stalks.
The Snowdrop Girl goes picking flowers of snow,
Blossoms of darkness bubbling into dreams,
In a strange country, by the shadowy streams
Where the cruel petals of the Coke-tree grow.
From the smoke and the fume of the backyard room,
Where poverty sits and gloats,
On runaway feet from a dirty street
To a field of snow she floats;
And tickets to Hell have a curious smell
And a dangerous crystal whiff,
Where men hawk Death in a snowdrops’s breath
At a couple of shillings a sniff.
Kate Leigh’s final residence and former sly grog shop in Devonshire Street (1) may well sell snowdrops today, as it is a flower shop of the more literal kind. When I was a kid at SBHS walking down Devonshire Street almost every school day, Kate Leigh, now past her prime as a Queen of Crime, would have still been resident above the shop.
I took a walk last night around the area. I live towards the bottom of that map, looking out on Belvoir Street which, as you will see, becomes Lansdowne Street where you may find the large terrace from whose balcony Kate was wont to distribute Christmas gifts to the local kiddies.
From the early 1920s until the ’40s, Kate Leigh, as Sydney’s leading sly-grogger and with her income protected by her own combative nature and a team of bashers and gunmen, was one of the wealthiest, and most flamboyant, Sydneysiders. Larger than life, greedy, funny when she felt like it and vicious when she needed to be, Kate was like a twentieth-century Long John Silver, a pirate captain aboard the jolly brig Surry Hills. Aside from running the groggeries, she was a standover merchant, a dealer in drugs (for a while she was known as ‘the Snow Queen’), a fence for stolen property and, more for sport than anything else, a deft shoplifter. By the mid ’20s, the newspapers would be calling her the ‘Most Evil Woman in Sydney’. (Map and text from “Razorhurst”, linked to Kate Leigh’s name above.)