New biography throws spotlight on Australia’s first female detective
Drugs, prostitution, gambling, dodgy fortune-tellers and sly-grog selling characterised Sydney’s organised crime landscape during the 1920s. Gang violence was also a common sight with bloodied bodies strewn across the streets as the infamous ‘Razor Wars’ raged.
Against this backdrop, ‘Special Constable’ Lillian Armfield – Australia’s first female detective – was charged with patrolling the mean streets of Sydney’s eastern suburbs.
Despite having no weapon, formal uniform or full powers of arrest – restrictions only imposed on women – she broke the gangs, cracked the drug businesses and gained a reputation as being one of the most intimidating officers on the police force.
These incredible tales of adversity and success are documented in a new biography of Lillian’s life by Dr Leigh Straw, Senior Lecturer in History at Notre Dame University, to be launched at Fremantle’s National Hotel on Tuesday 27 March.
Born in 1884, Lillian was exposed to the darker side of Sydney’s city life early in her career as a nurse at the Callan Park Asylum. She then applied for a job with the newly-formed Women’s Police Force in 1915, the first of its kind in Australia, with ‘nurses and asylum workers’ preferred for the role.
Assuming her duty as Senior Constable, Lillian was one of the lead investigators into the ‘Razor Wars’ – brutal turf battles between rival gangs using razors – and was responsible for the arrest of the Wars’ orchestrator Kate Leigh for drug possession and sly-grog dealing in 1930.
“Incredibly, one of Lillian’s first acts as a NSW detective was to sign an indemnity agreeing that the police department was not responsible for her safety and welfare – even though she was tracking down Australia’s most wanted criminals with nothing more than a handbag,” Dr Straw said.
“Lillian also displayed incredible compassion – keeping children off the streets, looking for ‘lost girls’ and comforting girls who were on the streets recovering from botched abortions. She was truly an inspiration to her colleagues and within the Sydney community.”
In 1947, Lillian was awarded the King’s Police and Fire Service Medal for distinguished conduct – the first time this honour had been presented to a woman in any Commonwealth country.
“This is one of the great female stories of Australia’s true crime history that needed to be brought to life. Lillian Armfield was a trailblazing police officer who set the standard for women in the police force,” Dr Straw said.
“Lillian’s life and achievements against adversity were extraordinary and her story reminds us that one person can really make a difference to the world around them.”
To purchase a copy of Dr Leigh Straw’s book, please visit – www.hachette.com.au/book/lillian-armfield