Will the real Nellie Cameron please take a bath

Not the real Nellie Cameron

This blog had an unprecedented amount of traffic yesterday — sadly very little of it related to me or my novel The Half-Child, which has been shortlisted for Best Fiction in this year’s Ned Kelly Awards (just thought I’d mention it) — but because people were searching for photos of Tilly Devine, Nellie Cameron and Kate Leigh, the real-life figures fictionalised in last night’s television premier of Underbelly: Razor. ‘Nellie Cameron’ was the dominant search term — I suspect because the actress who plays her, Anna McGahan, is drop-dead gorgeous.

The real Nellie Cameron

I had photos of these notorious women on this site as a result of cross-posting a review by my partner Andrew Nette of Femme Fatale, an exhibition we both attended earlier this year. The exhibition contrasted the glamorous femme fatale of film noir and pulp fiction with archival material about female criminals from the NSW Justice and Police Museum. And in a shameless show of opportunism, I am posting some more.

Not the real Tilly Devine

Unsurprisingly, the real Nellie Cameron and Tilly Devine looked decidedly different from the gorgeous young actresses cast to play their roles. Jo Hilder notes in her blog post How to Make a TV Series About Two Real Middle-Aged Women Without Any Real Middle-Aged Women that in 1930 Kate Leigh would have been 49 and Tilly Devine 30 years old. Neither their clothes nor their teeth looked that good in real life.

The real Tilly Devine

In his book Razor on which the current series of Underbelly is (loosely) based, Larry Writer describes Nellie Cameron as “pretty in a wide-eyed, open-faced, toothy way…Sometimes a redhead, sometimes a blonde, she was noisy, laughed a lot, could fight like a dervish, was a cheap drunk and bathed infrequently.” As a prostitute Cameron “accommodated as many as ten customers a day, seven days a week”. But she bathed infrequently? — It doesn’t bear thinking about.

At the risk of being called un-Australian, I confess I’m not normally one for watching commercial television. But I had a go at Underbelly: Razor because 1) I was intrigued about these women after learning about them at the Femme Fatale exhibition; 2) I’m currently reading Razor, kindly sent to me by Larry Writer; 3) I felt too crappy to work on my own novel, which is what I’d normally be doing on a Sunday night.

The show is soap-opera with cut-throat razors. More entertaining was the commentary on Twitter. There were those jumping on the anachronisms (‘The Nips Are Getting Bigger’ in 1920s Sydney?), bemoaning the accents, coveting the fashions and admiring the eye-candy (take a bow Richard Brancatisano). Oh, and a boisterous group draining their glasses every time there were tits on the screen.

I’m sure the glamorous cast, if not the tits, will keep people watching. But I think I’ll go back to reading Razor instead. I like my crime stories as unsanitised as the real Nellie Cameron.

About Angela Savage

Angela Savage is a Melbourne writer, who has lived and travelled extensively in Asia. She won the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for an unpublished manuscript, and the Scarlet Stiletto Award short story award. Her latest novel is, Mother of Pearl, published by Transit Lounge. Angela holds a PhD in Creative Writing, is former CEO of Writers Victoria, and currently works as CEO of Public Libraries Victoria.
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17 Responses to Will the real Nellie Cameron please take a bath

  1. I will stick to the book too. I really, really wanted to like this show but it was so lightweight. I agree that the blonde actress was lovely to look at but terrible casting. I would have far preferred to see some more experienced and mature actresses tackle the parts. Far too quirky and not enough quality for me. I gave it half an hour and won’t bother watching anymore of it. It’s so sad that Australian films are so poor when there’s so much great talent in this country. I’ll stick to Midsomer Murders on Sunday night. They know how to give some depth to a show. xx


  2. Karen C says:

    Angela – we tried, we really really tried to watch that show. But beween Larry’s book which I’ve read and a more than mild obsession with Peter Doyle’s Crooks Like Us (can’t recommend that book highly enough for the emotional impact of those photos) and I couldn’t believe the look of the TV version either – and the combination of the Nips are Getting Bigger (WHY?????) and the first ad break and we abandoned ship.


  3. Pingback: A small slice of Underbelly Razor « Josephine Pennicott – Tale Peddler (mysteries, nostalgia, family, writing and Johnny Depp)

  4. I’m lasted ten minutes then I was out of there. Such promise, such disappointment.
    Congrats on your shortlisting Angela! Hope to see you on Sat?


  5. Mikey Cawley says:

    Yeah, I lasted about 10 minutes and I was so excited to see this series of Underbelly.


  6. em says:

    The actress who plays kate liegh has done an awesome job (so she is not as ugly as her she cant help that lol. her acting is amazing!


  7. Jacqui Carter (nfp) says:

    As the publicity for Underbelly Razor started permeating my extra-curricular winter TV viewing, I went into deep shock at remembering the forgotten story my estranged grandfather told me.

    In 1985 I went to England and tracked down my grandfather, retired psychiatrist Barry Mulvany, through the Salvation Army Family Tracing service. Some 72 years old, he was in ‘The Old Rectory Nursing Home’ tended by nuns as he had suffered from and been medicated for mental illness for the previous 30 years. Barry told me a story about my maternal grandmother, of whom I knew nothing.

    “She was very charming and very beautiful, and Barry married her (said with a mixture of anger and ruefullness) and they had my mother. [Some time after the birth] she took the child up to Sydney, and moved in with a porter from the Sydney train station who was a gangster. She was a gangsters’ moll who changed her name several times and committed bigamy 3 times. She subsequently (bigamously?) married a man who was very rich, passing off the child as his.”

    “As a Catholic he felt a duty to the child, and while in Sydney got the taxi to drive down the street where he knew this woman and their daughter lived. It was an act of God – the child was walking down the street with the nanny – Barry stopped the taxi, opened the door, and the child got into the taxi with him. Barry got the taxi to drive straight to the Sydney train station, and directly caught the overnight ‘milk’ train to Melbourne, where he hid the child in a doctor friends’ house in rural Portland. Barry was wanted for kidnapping and it was in all the papers.”

    “When the gangster mother realised her child had been taken, she and several? of her male gangster friends travelled to Victoria to try to steal the child (my mother) back. The gangsters were not successful as the police caught the gagsters in the garden of the Portland doctors’ house.”
    (Mother has told my brother she remembers the kidnapping attempt when she was around 7 years old, but that it took place at uncle Judge Joseph Mulvanys’ Mansion in Kew, not in rural Portland).

    “When the gangster mother realised she wasn’t going to get the child back, she returned ti Sydney where she lived completely without morals in high society for a year. ?? She then charmed her way out of the mental asylum – she was very charming you know – and went to her first [Sydney train station porter] husbands’ house and left a note, then to the third [wealthy/north shore?] husbands’ house and suicided by sticking her head in a gas oven.”
    “Barry was the first man in Victoria/Australia? to gain legal custody of the child”

    My paternal grandmother, Constance Brain, confirmed the ‘bad girl’ status of my maternal grandmother when I visited her on a trip to Sydney in the 80’s. In a harsh and disparaging tone, Consie told me my mothers’ mother was “…a good-time girl…[who] used to hang around with judges and the like…”. Who was she?

    They are the stories I was told. Barry placed my then 6-7 year old mother in Sacre Coeur Convent, Melbourne, for the next 11 years. A year before she was due to finish school Barry returned to England, telling me he “…missed the green fields.” My mother failed her last school year and continued dysfunctional family patterns. Mulvany family stories cite Barrys ‘hopeless’ romantic entanglements which made the ’Sunday scandal sheets’

    I have the marriage certificate for Barry Mulvany and “Cynthia Cavendish” in Melbournes’ St Patricks Cathedral on May 27 1936, having at age 21 travelled from her birthplace of Sussex England, ‘one child of former marriage, divorced’, of ‘private means’, ‘currently’ residing 56 Garton St Carlton but ‘usually’ of no fixed address. It was not a ‘society’ wedding. I have never found any record of this woman nor her claimed family details.

    ‘Cynthia’ gave birth to my mother “Cynthia Mary’ ten months later on March 31 1937, the birth not registered until 19 July 1937. By then Barry, still a medical student, was no longer living at Newman College Carlton but 40 Clendon Road Toorak. I have no specific information but I don’t think my grandmother was around for much time either before the wedding or after the birth.

    I would really like to know who my maternal grandmother was. From what I understand there were thousands of gangster-moll prostitutes, many of whom may have ended their lives by suiciding in a gas oven.

    I’ve started by trying to exclude Nellie Cameron; so far comparing marriage certificate signatures has not excluded her (Do you know any forensic handwriting experts?).
    NC’s oft cited criminal record is apparently only available in Bound Annual Police indexes located in the NSW State Records premises in Kingswood. I live in Perth and unable to get there. If I can locate NC somewhere other than Melbourne between 27 May 1936 and 31 March 1937 then I can exclude her as my grandmother. Any Ideas???

    My last effort was yesterday (12/10) to ring Kate @ Screentime to see if I could find the answer to the criminal record question from their research info – Kate said she would check whether the IP belonged to them or a researcher.

    It would answer so many questions. I have a horrible feeling it could be NC as the family behavioral patterns fit and there is a visual resemblance. I have one distant relative I could ask, but would want to check what facts I can first.

    I enjoyed your website, and thank you for your passion!!!


    • Judy says:

      Re: Cynthia Mary, born 31st March, 1937. Her mother was a beautiful model who did marry several times illegally and had lots of name changes. However her name was not Cynthia Cavendish as recorded on the illegal marriage certificate to Barry Mulvany.
      Her maternal grandmother’s name was Nellie but there is no mention of the surname Cameron anywhere.
      Her mother’s legal husband was not a gangster but a railway porter and a wonderful man.
      There was a court case concerning who was the real father of Cynthia Mary.
      E-mail for further information. Judy


  8. Judy says:

    Jacqui, e-mail Judy for more information re the above


  9. Jacqui says:

    Dear Judy,
    I forgot to include informationof a 1953 wedding photo in the Melbourne Age of my then 16-year-old mother Cynthia Mary (always known as ‘Mary’)as a bridesmaid at her father Barrys’ second (first legal) marriage to newly graduated nurse Paula Conry – she may only have been a few years older than Mary; Barry 40 years old at the time.

    The below link should take you to the newspaper article, or I go to ‘google archives’ website first, then google ‘Barry Mulvany’.

    Hope this is interesting for you,



  10. Judy says:

    You need to e-mail me with your e-mail address for me to send you further information, if you haven’t yet found out your grandmother’s name as I know who she was.
    We could be related as I have done the family history?


    • Jacqui says:

      Hi Judy,
      apologies for not passing my email directly but I don’t know how websites work and I want my personal email contact for you alone; not on Angela Savages’ website where we have amazingly met.

      My first comment to you has not appeared on the website so I’m hoping there is a moderator through whom the posts are vetoed.

      I would welcome you to contact me at: jadeglintgreen@iinet.net.au

      I can’t tell you what it would mean to me to know my family history.
      Jacqui Carter


  11. angelasavage says:

    Hi Jacqui & Judy,
    What an intriguing exchange. Have you discovered the identity of the mysterious Cynthia Cavendish yet? And are you, in fact, related? What a great story is emerging…
    At the Police & Justice Museum’s Femme Fatale exhibition where I first came across characters like Nellie Cameron & Tilly Devine, I was struck by the number of women – gangsters’ molls, brothel madams – who frequently changed names & used aliases. This creates headaches for family historians but rich material for us writers of fiction. It’s fair to say many of these women were great works of fiction themselves.
    Good luck with your research and please keep me posted.


  12. I’m a, if not *THE*, real Nellie Cameron and I can’t tell you how surprised I was to come across this headline. I’ve been a Cameron for five years now, since I married Mr. Cameron over here, and, like the other Nellie, my proper first name is Ellen. I’m from Lambeth however, not Australia and I take regular baths. I’d never heard of my name-sister until I ran across her picture on Pinterest just now, but I find it very interesting. I suppose I shouldn’t be surprise, as my maiden name, Ellen Donworth, is that of a murdered 1890s prostitute. Perhaps I’m in the wrong career.

    Liked by 1 person

    • What great story, Nellie Cameron. How funny that you should go from sharing a name with one famous prostitute to another — maybe you have missed your calling 😉

      The Australian Nellie Cameron continues to inspire literary works, the most recent being the fictional novel ‘Razorhurst’ by Justine Larbalestier. Your name-sharing story would make a great plot line, too!

      Thanks so much for dropping by.


  13. Angela says:

    wow i came here to read about nellie cameron and came across you ladies talking i think its amazing that you know your heritage, i wouldnt even know where to begin looking and Angela i think you writing is great but i have to say Razor is my favourite in the Underbelly series 🙂


  14. I am not an Underbelly fan but I recently started watching Razor because I like Anna McGahan,
    Ms Savage is absolutely right Anna is drop dead gorgeous.

    Liked by 1 person

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