Imagine Sydney’s inner-city suburbs – Kings Cross, Darlinghurst, Woolloomooloo – in the 1920s and 1930s and the term “razor gangs” probably springs to mind.
But at the same time, one woman was breaking the mould and forging her own path in the opposite direction. Lillian Armfield, Australia’s first female detective, worked the same streets, saving countless young women from becoming victims of Sydney’s notorious underworld wars.
Before the force
Born in Mittagong in 1884, Lillian Armfield grew up in the Southern Highlands before moving to Sydney.
In 1907 she began working as a nurse at Callan Park in Rozelle, then known as the “Hospital for the Insane”. In an interview later in life, she called Callan Park an “excellent place to study human nature”, something she would draw on in years to come.
It was while at Callum Park that Lillian and fellow nurse Maude Rhodes learnt NSW Police wanted to recruit the very first female officers. Both of them applied and, in 1915, became the first women employed for policing in the Commonwealth.
The NSW Women Police
Lillian began her career as a Probationary Special Constable, undertaking a year’s intensive training. And while she was subject to the same disciplinary measures as her male counterparts, she earned less than them, was unable to make any compensation claims against injury on the job, and would not be eligible for superannuation.
Lillian and Maude were the first of the NSW Women Police, as they were then known. In Lillian’s words, the department was “established to search women under arrest and for interrogating women and children in cases where they would feel more at ease if a policeman were not present.”
They were not issued with uniforms, so simply wore civilian clothes.
Saving good women from bad: the razor gangs
In 1919, in recognition of her skill, Lillian was promoted to Special Constable First Class. But it was in the 1920s that her work would bring her into the circle of Sydney’s feared razor gangs.
From the late 1920s, Lillian spent much of her time tracking down young runaway women, often as young as 14, before they fell prey to the likes of Tilly Devine, the so-called “Queen of Woolloomooloo” who ran brothels throughout Kings Cross and Darlinghurst. The young women would be returned to their families or housed at an appropriate shelter.
A strong believer in rehabilitation, Lillian once stated, “I felt a profound sympathy for many of the young offenders who came into my hands”. Having worked on thousands of cases by the 1940s, she remarked that, “No girl is too bad to be reformed. Each has a streak of goodness, and it needs only a heart-to-heart talk and a little persuasion to bring the goodness to the fore.” She even wrote a feature article for Women’s Day on the subject, titled “Give her another chance”.
Lillian often worked undercover and was instrumental in bringing charges of cocaine possession against Sydney’s other leading underworld figure, Kate Leigh, when she conducted a raid on a home in Riley Street, East Sydney.
Recognition and retirement
In 1947, Lillian, then Special Sergeant (First Class), was awarded the Kings Police and Fire Service Medal for distinguished service. She was the first woman in the British Empire to be granted the award.
She retired two years later, having served the inner-city community for more than 33 years, and received the Imperial Service Medal.
But as she’d known from the beginning of her career, no pension would be forthcoming despite her years of service. So Sydney’s Lord Mayor, Ernest O’Dea, ran a public campaign to raise funds for her, presenting the first cheque to her at a ceremony at Sydney Town Hall.
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Photo credit: NSW Police Force Facebook post