Reviewed by Anna Bober
Lillian Armfield: How Australia’s First Female Detective Took on Tilly Devine and the Razor Gangs and Changed the Face of the Force is the title of Leigh Straw’s latest foray into the Sydney’s criminal world of the 1920s and ‘30s.
As an avid reader of crime, and as someone who is fascinated with the history of Sydney crime in particular, I was excited to read this book. I had never heard of Lillian Armfield. Who was she? Was she truly the scourge of the criminal gangs in inner Sydney that the title suggests? Would this book live up to its’ promise to enlighten me?
In Straw’s prologue, we meet Lillian Armfield nearly 15 years after the formation of the Women’s Police. It is April 1928: Gangs and organised crime are on the rise, prostitution, drugs and illegal abortions become the target of police raids, and Special Sergeant Lillian Armfield, leads a team of male Drug Squad officers into an arrest of one “Botany May”, a known cocaine dealer. This thrusts Lillian Armfield into the public arena as never before.
After this promising start, a lengthy Chapter 1 introduces us to Lillian Armfield through her antecedents, including a familiar name in Australian history: her great-great-grandfather, James Ruse. Lillian then has some form in terms of a convict past. What follows is a confusing litany of begets and begats through many Georges and Elizabeths until one George, by then an Armfield through marriage, marries one Elizabeth Wright in 1882 and shortly thereafter moves to Mittagong, where Lillian May Armfield is born 3 December. She is the eldest of five surviving children, two boys and three girls. Phew, we got there!
Straw tells us that the 1880s is the era of the “first wave of feminism” (21), which is fortunate for Lillian, as her mother believes her daughters as well as her sons should be educated. Lillian develops a strong sense of confidence and self, enough indeed to ensure that she explores opportunities to live and work elsewhere, moving to Sydney where she takes a job as a nurse at the Callan Park Asylum in Lilyfield. The arduous work will stand her in good stead for her future career and place in policing history. Despite her move to Sydney, we are told the family remain close and continue to do so throughout their lives
The changing social forces at the beginning of the First World War, enable Lillian to seek a new professional challenge, and in 1915 she becomes Special Constable 65, one of two female officers in the newly designated Women’s Police. Their role is very clear: preventative measures only; ensuring the welfare of girls and women. They have no powers of arrest, nor do they carry arms. The first gun was given to a female police officer was in the 1970s (182). Here Anne Summers stereotype of God’s police, in her book, Damned Whores & God’s Police comes to mind. Lillian knows that she is basically “on trial” by both her fellow (male) officers and the public’s minds (36), and determinedly keeps a low profile, nevertheless doing her job of policing girls and women.
In Chapters 2 through to 6 (28 – 156) the book introduces us to the types of women whom Lillian cared for and policed: Fortune Tellers, Prostitutes and Runaway Girls, the latter of particular concern for Lillian, this being a period in time when many country girls fled to the city in search of both excitement and a better life, making them prey for prostitutes and criminal gangs led by the likes of Tilly Devine and Kate Leigh.
Years of working with the women on the streets give Lillian a finely tuned sense of the Sydney underground. As policing becomes more complex she is entrusted to infiltrate and take on complex disguises, thereby entrapping many an unsuspecting fraudster or drug dealer, leading to their arrest by male colleagues. She takes to surveillance work like a duck to water, and although many of the local criminals by the 1930s know her to be a police officer, through anecdotal evidence we learn that she is held in deep respect, being described as caring, strong and principled, particularly on wrong doers.
After a show-down with Kate Leigh, and with the Police Force in NSW realising it needed all the help it could get, Lillian’s strength of character and wits become central to assisting male officers in the breaking up of criminal gangs. She is finally rewarded for her dedication and work in bringing many criminals to justice, by her promotion in 1935 to Chief of the Women’s Police.
It is only here at the end of the book that I truly discover Lillian Armfield’s many achievements. This is because for a great deal of the book Lillian is a shadowy background figure, flitting in and out of doorways and rooming houses, much as was her role as Special Constable 65.
Straw opens our eyes to the injustices that faced many women at that time, not the least being Lillian. As the first female detective in Australia, during a time in history when women were perceived as having few rights and little choice of career, she has had a profound impact.
For me this was a challenging read. I am left with more questions than answers. I know with certainty that Lillian Armfield was a woman of her time, who took the opportunity to develop and take on a role that in those times was reserved for men. But of Lillian Armfield, the woman behind the policing mask – who was she? What drove her? Was she a first wave feminist? Did she resent having no visible power? Did she have a child out of wedlock as proposed by the author? I am little the wiser, with the majority of the book devoted to the major crime figures of the time, of which much has already written.
If you want a rollicking ride through the criminal history of Sydney in the 1920s and ‘30s, I recommend, Lillian Armfield, How Australia’s First Female Detective Took on Tilly Devine and the Razor Gangs and Changed the Face of the Force
Leigh Straw is the author of The Worst Woman in Sydney: the life and crimes of Kate Leigh.
By Leigh Straw