Lillian Armfield: How Australia’s First Female Detective Took on Tilly Devine and the Razor Gangs and Changed the Face of the Force

Written by Leigh Straw
Review by Marina Maxwell

In the 1920s, Sydney was in the midst of a brutal crime-wave known as “the Razor Wars”. Remarkably, the two principal rival players in this drama were women—Tilly Devine and Kate Leigh—and doing her best to keep them in check was another woman, Lillian Armfield, who was Australia’s first female detective.

The direct descendant of another Australian “first”—convict James Ruse, who arrived on the First Fleet in 1788 and “sowed the first grain”—Lillian blazed the trail for policewomen. Her appointment was initially met with disapproval from the staunchly male service, but with her impeccable dedication, she was finally accepted and even earned grudging respect from the criminals she arrested. Lillian believed there was always a chance at redemption, and she had a special interest in protecting naïve young runaway country girls who were prime targets for the city’s prostitution rackets.

Well-researched and written in an engaging manner, this is much more than a biography of an important pioneering woman as it is also the social history of the city. In places it even reads like a thriller, and it is astonishing that unlike her male companions Lillian went unarmed into many dangerous situations. She received shoddy treatment after her retirement as there was no provision for female police pensions at the time, but she was proud that she left Sydney a safer place than it had been.  This biography is a wonderful tribute to her.