TRUE CRIME: the woman who brought down the ra­zor gangs

She was Aus­tralia’s first fe­male de­tec­tive and fear­lessly took on Tilly Devine, the Ra­zor Gang and our most no­to­ri­ous gang­sters armed with just her hand­bag. Dr Leigh Straw re­veals the truth about Lil­lian Arm­field.

The Australian Women's Weekly - - Contents - Dr Leigh Straw, a Se­nior Lec­turer at The Uni­ver­sity of Notre Dame, is the au­thor of Lil­lian Arm­field, pub­lished by Ha­chette Aus­tralia, on sale March 27.

In a dark­ened city street in Syd­ney’s Surry Hills on a Fri­day evening in De­cem­ber 1931, a whis­tle and a cry goes out into the night. Feet scurry along the road, doors slam and the lights go out. Lil­lian Arm­field smiles and tells the news­pa­per re­porter the noise is a sig­nal. She’s been spot­ted. Back at Cen­tral Po­lice Sta­tion, the re­porter sees Lil­lian in­ter­act­ing with fe­male of­fend­ers. One young street­walker, Rene, hap­pily chats to Lil­lian while wait­ing to be charged with of­fend­ing the good or­der.

Spe­cial Sergeant Lil­lian Arm­field was both feared and revered. A year be­fore­hand, Lil­lian was re­spon­si­ble for no­to­ri­ous crime boss Kate Leigh be­ing sent down for co­caine pos­ses­sion. Lil­lian had nabbed Kate with co­caine she was try­ing to throw into an open fire. The risks were high. Kate had re­cently shot an­other crook dead and claimed self-de­fence. Kate Leigh was car­ried out of her house kick­ing and scream­ing.

Lil­lian Arm­field was one of the lead in­ves­ti­ga­tors into the no­to­ri­ous Ra­zor Wars from 1927 to 1931. Bat­tles raged in eastern Syd­ney be­tween ri­val gangs and the vi­o­lence es­ca­lated. The po­lice out­lawed guns so the crooks used ra­zors. There were dozens of deaths on the streets and many peo­ple dis­fig­ured by ra­zor slash­ing. The po­lice were also vul­ner­a­ble to at­tack. Lil­lian moved out to Bondi, leav­ing Surry Hills af­ter “one of the un­der­world threat­ened to run me down”. And yet, a decade later, Kate Leigh would march into Cen­tral Po­lice Sta­tion ask­ing for “Lil” as if they were old friends.

This is no or­di­nary po­lice story. Lil­lian Arm­field was the na­tion’s first fe­male de­tec­tive. Her brief was ex­ten­sive. She in­ves­ti­gated Aus­tralia’s most no­to­ri­ous gang­sters and pros­ti­tutes, run­aways and dodgy for­tune-tell­ers, drug deal­ers and rapists. This work was done with noth­ing more than her hand­bag to pro­tect her. Fe­male po­lice of­fi­cers were not al­lowed to wear a uni­form or carry a gun in NSW un­til the 1970s. Lil­lian was un­of­fi­cially given a gun in the late 1920s but she didn’t have full pow­ers of ar­rest.

It is a re­mark­able story which starts in Mit­tagong, NSW, on De­cem­ber 3, 1884.

Lil­lian May was the el­dest of five chil­dren to Ge­orge and El­iz­a­beth Arm­field. Aus­tralia’s first fe­male de­tec­tive was also the de­scen­dant of thieves. Lil­lian’s great-great-grand­fa­ther, James Ruse, was a con­vict on the First Fleet. He mar­ried a fe­male con­vict, El­iz­a­beth

Perry. She was the first fe­male con­vict to be eman­ci­pated. James was also the first con­vict given a land grant to farm. The Ruse fam­ily moved to the Hawkes­bury River re­gion and

the fam­ily story con­tin­ued into the South­ern High­lands through their daugh­ter, El­iz­a­beth, who mar­ried po­lice con­sta­ble Ed­ward Hob­day Arm­field.

In Mit­tagong, Lil­lian grew into a gen­tle, beau­ti­ful young woman with a tough side and wry sense of hu­mour. She was tall – al­most five feet, eight inches (172 cen­time­tres) – with light brown eyes, a fair com­plex­ion and brown hair. Lil­lian and her sis­ters, Muriel and Ruby, were home-schooled by their mother. It was a very in­ter­est­ing time for the sis­ters. From the 1880s, the first wave of fem­i­nism fo­cused on women’s suf­frage and civic rep­re­sen­ta­tion. But it wasn’t un­mit­i­gated free­dom. Vot­ing and run­ning for of­fice were one thing; be­ing ac­cepted into tra­di­tional male work­ing roles out­side of pol­i­tics was an­other thing en­tirely.

Lil­lian’s first pro­fes­sional job was work­ing as a nurse at Cal­lan Park Asy­lum in Syd­ney. She was 23 when she left Mit­tagong in 1907. Cal­lan Park, for­mally opened in 1878, was a for­mi­da­ble place with large pris­on­like sand­stone build­ings. Lil­lian was ap­pointed to look af­ter fe­male pa­tients. She had to ob­serve, su­per­vise and con­trol the city’s “way­ward girls”, which in­cluded run­aways, pros­ti­tutes and un­mar­ried preg­nant women. It was a step to­wards the job that would change her life.

With the sup­port of the state gov­ern­ment, two po­si­tions were ad­ver­tised in the newly formed Women’s Po­lice in June 1915, the first of its kind in the coun­try. This was 50 years af­ter the pro­fes­sion­al­i­sa­tion of the NSW Po­lice Force. The guide­lines were clear. Women had to be sin­gle or wid­owed, aged un­der 30, with a “fair ed­u­ca­tion” and “of good char­ac­ter and ad­dress”. Nurses and asy­lum work­ers were pre­ferred. More than 400 women ap­plied for the two po­si­tions. They came from across NSW, South Aus­tralia, Vic­to­ria and New Zealand.

From this cast of many, two women were ap­pointed in July 1915. Maude Rhodes, Spe­cial Con­sta­ble 64, brought with her an im­pres­sive re­sume as an in­spec­tor for the State Chil­dren Re­lief Depart­ment (Maude would later leave the Women’s Po­lice in 1920). Lil­lian Arm­field was Spe­cial Con­sta­ble 65. The con­di­tions were far from equal. Lil­lian and Maude signed an in­dem­nity agree­ing that the po­lice depart­ment was not re­spon­si­ble for their safety and wel­fare. There was no com­pen­sa­tion for in­juries sus­tained on the job. They had to wear civil­ian cloth­ing, which they paid for them­selves, and were un­armed and had no pow­ers of ar­rest. Yet they were ex­pected to po­lice girls and women in the most dan­ger­ous ar­eas of Syd­ney.

It was a con­sid­er­able job with du­ties in­clud­ing: keep­ing chil­dren off the streets; work­ing with schools to pre­vent tru­ancy; pre­vent­ing girls from be­ing de­coyed into pros­ti­tu­tion; pa­trolling the rail­way sta­tions and wharves look­ing for run­away or lost girls, as well as pa­trols of slum neigh­bour­hoods look­ing for drunken women and ne­glected chil­dren.

Lil­lian es­tab­lished a “Dawn Pa­trol” which com­bined reg­u­lar foot pa­trols with close sur­veil­lance of life on the in­ner-city streets of Syd­ney. Every morn­ing at 5 o’clock, she went on pa­trol look­ing for run­away girls. Each year she lo­cated hun­dreds of them. The cases deeply af­fect­ing

Lil­lian in­volved preg­nant run­aways. Dur­ing her hos­pi­tal vis­its look­ing for run­aways, she found girls re­cov­er­ing from botched abor­tions. She would sit with the girls for hours, hold­ing their hand, and com­fort­ing them. “I al­ways felt that most of them had a chance at redemp­tion and I tried to see that they got that chance,” she said.

There were few jobs more dif­fi­cult for women at the time. From Devon­shire, Kip­pax, Foveaux, Al­bion, Crown and Ri­ley Streets to Ox­ford,

Palmer, Bourke and Wil­liam Streets and around the main streets of

Kings Cross, to houses and laneways, shops, mar­ket stalls, and the wharves – ar­eas rid­den with crime. It was a vast land­scape to po­lice.

The Ra­zor Wars were her great­est test. By the late 1920s, Syd­ney’s or­gan­ised crime scene of drugs, pros­ti­tu­tion, gam­bling, and sly-grog sell­ing was dom­i­nated by two for­mi­da­ble women. One of them was Kate Leigh. The other was a for­mer Lon­don street­walker,

Matilda “Tilly” Devine. She could be ex­tremely vi­o­lent. In 1925 she slashed a man across the face with a ra­zor, and her gang mem­bers slashed and shot their ri­vals in the streets around Wool­loomooloo, Dar­linghurst and Surry Hills.

Gang vi­o­lence un­der Tilly’s lead­er­ship es­ca­lated to the point where Syd­ney earned the rep­u­ta­tion as the “Chicago of the South”. The year 1929 proved to be one of the city’s most vi­o­lent years. It in­cluded the “Bat­tle of Blood Al­ley” in Kings

Cross, a fren­zied late evening brawl in May, fol­lowed a cou­ple of months later by the “Bat­tle of Kel­lett Street”, where more than 40 gang­sters took to one an­other with guns and ra­zors.

Lil­lian’s boss, the in­tim­i­dat­ing

Bill MacKay, recog­nised her worth when he be­came De­tec­tive In­spec­tor of the Crim­i­nal In­ves­ti­ga­tion Branch in 1927. Lil­lian’s suc­cess­ful un­der­cover work break­ing the

Chi­nese opium dens and in­fil­trat­ing dodgy for­tune-telling busi­nesses was renowned. She was the first woman to do un­der­cover work in the Aus­tralian po­lice forces and

D.I. MacKay wanted her in on tak­ing down Leigh and Devine.

Lil­lian learned never to ap­pre­hend Tilly Devine alone. Tilly loathed the Women’s Po­lice which, in the late 1920s, was headed by Lil­lian and half a dozen fe­male con­sta­bles. Tilly would hiss “I hate you” at the spe­cial con­sta­bles as they walked near her on the street. It didn’t de­ter Lil­lian.

She had Tilly put away for a num­ber of con­sort­ing charges and closely watched her broth­els.

The po­lice cracked the drug busi­ness and broke the gangs with the con­sort­ing laws. Tilly and Kate were forced to rely on their main­stays of pros­ti­tu­tion and sly grog, which could be closely con­trolled by the po­lice.

Lil­lian Arm­field was in charge of the Women’s Po­lice for more than 30 years. It was a long and pres­ti­gious ca­reer. In 1947, she was awarded the King’s Po­lice and Fire Ser­vice Medal for dis­tin­guished con­duct. It was the first time the award was pre­sented to a woman any­where in the Com­mon­wealth.

Two years later, Lil­lian re­tired. De­spite all that she had fought for, she was not el­i­gi­ble for su­per­an­nu­a­tion, nor a po­lice pen­sion. Fif­teen years later, in 1965, the NSW gov­ern­ment granted a “spe­cial pen­sion in recog­ni­tion of her ser­vices”. There were now 50 women in the NSW Po­lice Force and they were al­lowed to stay in the job when they mar­ried.

Lil­lian Arm­field died at Lewisham Dis­trict Hos­pi­tal on Au­gust 26, 1971. She was 86 years old. Later that evening, Po­lice Com­mis­sioner

Norm Al­lan told the press: “Her death has closed an era. She was a pi­o­neer, a pathfinder for the present­day po­lice­woman.” To­day, more than one-quar­ter of the Aus­tralian po­lice are women, but they con­tinue to fight for rep­re­sen­ta­tion in more se­nior po­si­tions.

Lil­lian Arm­field was a trail­blaz­ing po­lice officer who set the stan­dard for women in the po­lice force. Her story re­minds us that one per­son can re­ally make a dif­fer­ence to the world around them. Change of­ten comes from some­one hav­ing the com­mit­ment and tenac­ity to lead by ex­am­ple. AWW

Above: Ter­races on Foveaux Street, Surry Hills, an area pa­trolled by Lil­lian in an at­tempt to stamp out pros­ti­tu­tion, tru­ancy and ne­glected chil­dren. Left: Tilly Devine in a po­lice mugshot from 1925.

→ Op­po­site, clock­wise from top left: Lil­lian Arm­field; me­dia in­ter­est in her work; Kate Leigh in a po­lice shot; William Street, Kings Cross, one of Lil­lian’s beats; Matilda “Tilly” Devine with her hus­band James, circa 1930.

Above: Lil­lian, seated at rear with other fe­male of­fi­cers, is cred­ited with pav­ing the way for women in to­day’s po­lice force. Right: Lil­lian at the wheel of her car in an un­dated photo.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Australia

© PressReader. All rights reserved.