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’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.
Words by Georgina Banfield
Photo from Hachette: https://www.hachette.com.au/book/lillian-armfield