Jennifer (JC-S)'s Reviews > Lillian Armfield: How Australia's first female detective took on Tilly Devine and the Razor Gangs and changed the face of the force

Lillian Armfield by Leigh Straw
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Lillian Armfield: How Australia's first female detective took on Tilly Devine and the Razor Gangs and changed the face of the force by Leigh Straw

‘There will never be another Australian police officer like Lillian Armfield.’

From Lillian Armfield’s obituary in the Sydney Morning Herald, 27 August 1971:
‘Australia's first policewoman, Lillian Armfield, died yesterday, aged 86.
"Her death has closed an era", the NSW Police Commissioner, Mr N. T. W. Allan, said last night.
"She was a pioneer, a pathfinder for the present-day policewoman.”
He said Miss Armfield had played an important part in solving numerous criminal cases, but she would also be remembered for the help she gave so many young people.
"She did such a wonderful job on her own for so long," he said. "She was a gallant and very lovely woman."
Miss Armfield who came from Mittagong, NSW, was appointed as a special constable on July 1, 1915.’

Lillian Armfield and Maude Rhodes were the first two women to join what was then called the Women’s Police Force in Sydney. They had no uniforms, had no weaponry and no powers of arrest. They had to remain single. If they married, they had to leave. They were paid 7s. 6d. a day, and no overtime or expenses were allowed. After a year’s probation, they were enrolled as special constables. While Lillian Armfield and Maude Rhodes were bound to the same discipline as their male colleagues, they had no entitlement to compensation for injuries received in the course of their duties and had no superannuation rights. Their work was primarily with women and girls. Maude Rhodes left in 1919, but Lillian Armfield stayed in the police force until 1949.

‘Timing is everything and, just as Lillian was setting her sights on detective work, Sydney’s crime scene was experiencing a dramatic change.’

Ms Straw writes a fascinating account of the conditions in which Lillian Armfield worked, and some of the policing challenges she faced. Part of her role was to find runaway girls, trying to help them from ‘getting into trouble’. She also worked undercover to expose fraudulent fortune-tellers. Lillian Armfield became one of the first female plain-clothes detectives and had a role in the Sydney of Razor Gang fame, where prostitution, drug dealing, and sly grog shops were part of the landscape of Sydney’s eastern suburbs. She once had to run from a confrontation with ‘Botany May’ Smith, a cocaine dealer who went after her with a red hot flat-iron. She also had dealings with Kate Leigh, Tilly Devine, Nellie Cameron and ‘Pretty Dulcie’ Markham.

When Lillian Armfield retired on 2 December 1949 (the day before her 65th birthday), she had no superannuation and was not eligible for a police pension. In 1965 she was granted a special allowance of £3 10s. a week by the government of New South Wales and relinquished her 10s. a week old-age pension.

I found this account of Lillian Armfield’s life fascinating and would recommend it to anyone interested in either (or both) the history of policing in Australia or the role of a pioneering woman.

Lillian May Armfield (3/12/1884 to 26/8/1971).

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

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Reading Progress

January 3, 2019 – Started Reading
January 3, 2019 – Shelved
January 3, 2019 – Shelved as: to-read
January 3, 2019 – Shelved as: australian-womens-writers-challenge
January 3, 2019 – Shelved as: librarybooks
January 3, 2019 –
page 46
13.69%
January 4, 2019 – Finished Reading

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