The White House, the Palms and the Queen of the Underworld
Sounds like the title of a book and not just a blog post, but it’s actually three titles – or three brothels which have appeared in some form in my Turbulence and Triumph series. Oh yes – the White House was a brothel.
Queen of the Underworld
Actually, the Queen of the Underworld and the Queen of the Night were both madams, not brothels, due to a peculiar law in New South Wales in the 1920s. In an effort to ban prostitution in Sydney, a law was passed that prohibited any man from owning or operating a brothel. There was no law against a woman doing so, though, so that’s precisely what at least two women did.
The Queen of the Underworld was Kathleen Mary (Kate) Leigh. She lived in Surry Hills in the 1920s and ran a whole range of underworld businesses including illegal alcohol, prostitution, illegal gambling and cocaine. She had a network of male gangsters to assist her in her businesses, but she was a mean shot with a rifle and shot two rival gangsters, Snowy Prendergast and Joseph McNamara, in 1930 and 1931, respectively.
The Queen of the Night was Matilda Mary (Tilly) Devine. She lived in Maroubra and ran illegal alcohol, gambling, drug and prostitution services with her husband, but she was Kate Leigh’s main rival for brothel services. Tilly’s weapon of choice was a blade – and she was arrested in 1925 for attacking a man with a razor in a barber’s shop.
The Palms was a brothel on the corner of Bannister Street and Pakenham Street in Fremantle, Western Australia, where Bannister Street Car Park No 7 now stands. In 1925, it had a white picket fence, doorbell and veranda out the front.
Bannister Street had several brothels from as early as 1902 and likely much earlier. Originally owned by Mary Ann Coates, The Palms was sold to Marion Rowlands in 1918, while Mrs Coates retained ownership of the property.
The White House
The White House was the Christmas Island brothel. While the date of construction is unknown, the brothel was definitely operational in 1902, when it had thirteen prostitutes working there. Numbers varied, though there were never more than twenty girls there in total. Situated beside the port in Flying Fish Cove, there were rarely enough staff in the brothel to serve their mining clientele of over 1500 men, so the phosphate miners gambled for the privilege of spending time with the prostitutes.
The girls were predominantly Chinese and Japanese and employed by a Chinese businessman who ran most of the businesses on the island.
There were actually two brothels called the White House. The first was constructed of timber with an atap (coconut thatch) roof, which was replaced by galvanised iron in 1909 (the picture above was taken during the roof replacement in 1909). In 1913, a bigger building was constructed on the other end of Isabel Beach – roughly where the tourist office now stands. This one had 23 bedrooms, a kitchen and bathroom – the prostitutes both lived and worked in the White House.
The new building had gaming tables running down the centre of it, where the miners gambled for time with one of the girls. There were cubicles along both sides, which was where the girls entertained their lucky guests. Many of the girls eventually married Chinese miners on Christmas Island.