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

Leigh Straw

Hachette 2018


 

Leigh Straw’s striking biography about Australia’s first policewoman, Lillian Armstrong, provides an insight into the life of the trailblazer that paved the way for Australian women in the police force. Detailing her life and career, Armstrong is brought to life though the infamous cases she worked; some of which have become ingrained in mythos of Australia. A rich landscape of Australia’s post first-wave feminist era is examined through the life of one courageous, paradigm defying woman, who rose to the rank of Chief of the Women’s Police.

By exposing the dark and dingy crevices of Australian history, Straw paints a gripping and occasionally graphic portrayal of a working-class Sydney – which is often forgotten in the national narrative. Her wry humour assists in highlighting the restrictive paradigms of early 20th century living and working for women, with the first female police women expected to protect women and children without being given the means or resources to protect herself. While providing a flattering account of a policewoman, Straw does not fall into the trap of glorifying or justifying the pitfalls of the early 20th century police forces in their treatment of women and Indigenous Australians.

Lillian Armfield has been largely forgotten by history despite her contributions to the force. The middle-aged woman, who had a habit of wearing pearls on her patrols, managed to win over the people ignored by the greater society. While exposing how difficult it was to live as a woman in the early decades of the 20th century, Straw further probes into the dangers of living as a woman generally and the failed measures taken by a patriarchal authority to protect them.

It is clear that Straw has an immense adoration and respect for her subject which she actively portrays through her writing. Her extensive research has paid off in creating a riveting homage to a woman who revolutionised women’s role in society.

While written superbly, Straw occasionally becomes so involved in the relaying Armstrong’s life, the reader is left behind if they do not have an extensive knowledge of underground Sydney crime. Although the stories and cases highlighted do make for fascinating reading regardless.

Lillian Armfield is a beacon of hope for women today, providing a shining example of a woman who defied social norms. Her impact on the police force is undeniable and despite history ignoring her in our national story, Armfield deserves the recognition which Straw has given her.

Overall this is a must read for true crime lovers and fans of strong, influential women who shaped our society.

4/5 Stars

 


Words by Georgina Banfield

Photo from Hachette: https://www.hachette.com.au/book/lillian-armfield

Miss Marryat’s Circle

Miss Marryat’s Circle

Cheryl Williss

Wakefield Press


Miss Marryat’s Circle is a comprehensive and well-researched exploration of the role of women in South Australian history. Focusing on the influential Marryat family, Williss chronologically details the contributions of the Marryats from their 1836 arrival to Miss Mabel Marryat’s death in 1949.

 

Williss attempts to tell the story of the first 110 years of South Australian women’s history in one 300-page non-fiction book, under the guise of focusing on one woman. Walking through the buildings of North Terrace and the rest of the city, the reader is entreated to the history of such landmarks as Trinity Church, Adelaide University, and West Terrace Cemetery, explaining their creation and their role in influential Adelaide women’s legacies. Further highlighting the role of the Marryats, Williss has selected newspaper clippings, letters, and diaries of South Australians to recreate the atmosphere of a small settlement trying to find its feet and bloom into a functioning society.

 

Miss Mabel Marryat’s role during both World War I and II revolutionised South Australian women’s role in society, with their collective aim to provide support to Australian troops overseas. Her involvement in the Red Cross, at Keswick Hospital, and League of Loyal Women in various leadership roles, cemented her position in history as a pioneer and social philanthropist, only for her to then be denigrated as someone who simply partook in “home duties” on her death certificate.

 

It is important to record women’s role in our history as it has been dismissed in our national narrative. However, Williss seems to have bitten off more than she could chew in writing this supposed biography. It read like a history textbook with dates and names thrown at the reader with no explanation of why they were important to the life story of Miss Marryat and her dedication to her “diggers”.

 

In order to set the scene, it took Williss 100 pages to introduce and focus on the titular woman. She recounted a brief and superficial history of Adelaide, rather than providing the reader with a deep, focused biography on the aptly named “fairy godmother” of Australian soldiers. It often took paragraphs – if not chapters – of trawling through dates, names and quotes to reach the point that Williss wanted to make, resulting in a book that drags along slowly.

 

Overall, Williss has provided an extensive history of South Australia and some of the women who have been forgotten, allowing them a play a role in our state and national narrative. However, to do Miss Marryat justice, a more focused study should have undertaken to truly tell her story.

2/5 Stars

Miss Marryat’s Circle is available for purchase through Wakefield Press here.


Words by Georgina Banfield

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Georgina Banfield is currently studying a Bachelor of Arts majoring in English at Flinders University. When she’s not reading, writing or listening to podcasts she can be found looking at conspiracy theories and true crime. She loves anything to do with history, literature and unsolved mysteries.