Review: Lillian Armfield by Leigh Straw

Leigh Straw, who has previously written about infamous Razor Gang crime boss Kate Leigh, has picked up the threads of the first female detective, Lillian Armfield, who played a significant role in policing the 1920s ‘Razor Wars’ between Leigh and Tilly Devine, in Lillian Armfield.

There was a lot more to Lillian Armfield’s trailblazing policing work than those infamous and bloody battles in Sydney, and Straw has set to unfolding Armfield’s life in the police from the earliest days, when she and Maude Rhodes were recruited in 1915 as the only two members of the Women’s Police.

Straw has pulled together a comprehensive view of Lillian Armfield’s professional life, and a some of her closely guarded private life, by working from a variety of sources – including contemporaneous newspaper reports, articles from the Police Gazette and other periodicals, published histories of the events (including Rugged Angel, Vince Kelly’s 1961 biography of Armfield based on interviews with her and witnesses of the events and times) and interviews with surviving family and Sydney locals.

After a glimpse of her work helping to apprehend cocaine dealer “Botany May” Smith in 1928, Straw backtracks to examine Armfield’s family history, with its First Fleet convict connections and Hawkesbury River settlers through to Lillian’s early life in Mittagong.

What follows is a detailed study of Lillian Armfield’s life and work, first in an asylum and then as a police woman who worked for 35 years, until her retirement in 1949. The quality of her dedication, compassion, toughness and skill becomes clear very early on, particularly as it served as a beacon to others. She was even respected (if not actually liked) by her arch-enemy, Kate Leigh.

Straw takes the time, throughout the book and particularly at the end, to look at Lillian Armfield’s legacy; the way she argued for more women to join the force, for their work to be taken more seriously, and the success of the Women’s Police which led to police services around Australia eventually recruiting women to active roles in detection and policing.

I particularly liked both the Epilogue, highlighting some of the women who have followed “In Her Shoes”, and the Afterword, which looks at an unsolved mystery in the public understanding of Armfield’s private life which may suggest a key in understanding the attitude she took with her into working with women, children and communities on the often mean and sometimes bloody streets of Sydney in the first half of the 20th century.

Lillian Armfield is an excellent study of how one determined and gifted woman changed the shape of Australia’s early policing and women’s roles within it.