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

Hachette Australia, 306 pp., ISBN: 9780733638107, p/bk, AUS$32.99

Leigh Straw, the author of The Worst Woman in Sydney: The Life and Crimes of Kate Leigh (2016), now gives us Lillian Armfield: How Australia’s First Female Detective Took on Tilly Devine and the Razor Gangs and Changed the Face of the Force (2018).

Straw receives a fabulous endorsement from Larry Writer. The man whose work Razor: A True Story of Slashers, Gangsters, Prostitutes and Sly Grog (2001) did so much to bring this period of Australia’s history and the characters that dominated it to a wider audience, enthusiastically claims the work to be: “An exhaustively researched and beautifully written true crime tour de force” (front cover). High praise. Richly deserved.

This is a biography that has been rigorously researched and carefully crafted. In addition to being a diligent researcher, Straw is a terrific storyteller. Armfield’s personal history unfolds at pace. There are stake outs, lost girls, hard women, bad men and the various crimes that compete for attention in a tough city.

Lillian Armfield, a descendant of thieves (p. 1), is certainly an extraordinary figure. There is an emphasis in the book on the “firsts” that Armfield achieved. For example, in 1915 Armfield was one of the first (of only two) women to be appointed as a police officer in Australia (p. xiv). In another impressive first, Armfield was carrying a revolver when female officers in New South Wales “were not officially given guns until the 1970s” (p. 182). Straw also elegantly captures and portrays the many faces of Australia’s first female detective. This was a woman you would address as “ma’am” in a situation requiring the assistance of police and a woman you would be proud to call “Lillian” in other circumstances.

Issues of gender are crucial to the text. Many readers will recognise the stories of being passed over, of being dismissed and of having credit for good work given to a male colleague. In an especially disgusting act of discrimination, when Armfield retired in December 1949 after nearly thirty-five years of distinguished service, she was denied a pension on the grounds that: “Lillian had joined the police six months older than the cut-off age, making her ineligible for membership in the Police Force Pensions Fund” (p. 232). In 1965, when Lillian was eighty, the New South Wales Government attempted, belatedly, to redress the issue and granted her a “special pension in recognition of her services” (without impacting upon her Commonwealth pension) (p. 233).

The book includes general notes for each chapter, rather than traditional endnotes or footnotes, but there is sufficient guidance given here for those who wish to follow up particular points or interest or learn more about specific events. There is, happily, a useful index. Images which show Armfield in several different settings and provide insight into some of the people that Armfield was up against are also reproduced.

Armfield is a vital figure, not just in the history of New South Wales policing, but in Australian women’s history. Vince Kelly’s earlier biography of Lillian Armfield, Rugged Angel: The Amazing Career of Policewoman Lillian Armfield, was published back in 1961 and this fresh look at her story was long overdue.

This book is great reading for anyone wanting to know more about Sydney in the early to mid-twentieth century, as well as those interested in issues of crime and crime control. It’s also a book for readers who are fascinated by pioneering women who have achieved great things, not just for themselves but for all of us.

 

Reviewed by Dr Rachel Franks, May 2018

For a preview of the book or to purchase online, visit the Hachette website here: https://www.hachette.com.au/book/lillian-armfield

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