Eveleigh

Shady dealings: The Eveleigh rail yards were robbed by Ernest Ryan and Samuel Freeman. Photo: State Records Authority of NSW

It was high noon 100 years ago when Australian criminal history was made in a drab grey getaway car.

Disguised in driving goggles and wearing masks made of handkerchiefs, two known criminals – Ernest "Shiner" Ryan and Samuel "Jewey" Freeman – used a getaway car for the first time in Australia to rob workers at Eveleigh Railway Workshops of their wages.

Brazenly pulling up at the busy site in the middle of the day on June 10, 1914, Freeman yelled "Bail up!" and ordered a railway worker – allegedly his inside man – to give him the box containing £3307, about $350,000 in today's dollars.

Ernest Ryan.

Ernest Ryan. Photo: State Records Authority of NSW

Speed cameras didn't exist then, but The Sydney Morning Herald reported the two armed men drove off in a Moleyn at great speed and a horse-drawn cab that pursued them was no match for the car's horsepower.

To mark the 100th anniversary of the case, the State Records Authority of NSW has used images and records from the archives to put together an online exhibition telling the story of the "heist that shocked the nation".

Rhonda Campbell, the acting manager of public access, said the exhibition used Supreme Court depositions, police and jail records, and photos to piece together the story. It also illustrated how the state archives could be used to research a historical event or trace a family tree.

Samuel Freeman.

Samuel Freeman. Photo: State Records Authority of NSW

"The more skeletons in the cupboard, the happier people are sometimes," Ms Campbell said of the family historians who used the archives.

The Eveleigh heist was a "classic crime", singled out by police as the most sensational that year, said Nerida Campbell, a curator at Sydney Living Museums.

The armed robbery with getaway car also established a formula used for nearly every heist since, on screen and off.

Kate Leigh.

Criminal heavyweight Kate Leigh, shown in this police file, assisted in the heist. Photo: State Records Authority of NSW

"They had an inside man, they had cased the joint, they were wearing disguises and they had a getaway car," she said.

Eveleigh also involved one of Sydney's most vicious female crime bosses. Kate Leigh, who was Tilly Devine's nemesis and competitor in crime, later married Freeman.

And four days before the Eveleigh heist, Leigh had provided Freeman with an alibi for another crime. Showing some of the ferocity and violence that would make her a feared gang boss, Leigh threatened to cut a man's "bloody head off" with a tomahawk to get him to provide Freeman with an alibi.

"[She then] chopped me on the right eye with the point of the tommyhawk [sic]," the man, Raymond Moore, said in a statement.

When Moore tried to stop Leigh, she broke his left arm in two places. Freeman and his partner Ryan were caught out by their own stupidity.

Ms Campbell said they showed "sophistication in planning, but stupidity in execution".

After all the planning, the organisation of the car, the inside man and the disguises, they "mucked" it up by splashing money around, the very thing that trips up most amateurs.

Rather than lying low, as is traditional, Ryan hit the town.

He bought his girlfriend two bangles and a diamond cluster ring, as well as a gold watch, and a diamond and ruby locket for himself.

He then splurged on a "new wardrobe, bottles of champagne, expensive dinners and upstairs tickets for the Theatre Royal", says the new display.

Freeman and Ryan were sentenced to 10 years in jail, while Leigh got five years for perjury for her attempt to cover up Freeman's earlier crime.