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.
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.