The Story Of Tilly Devine's Australian Criminal Empire

Matilda Mary "Tilly" Devine once had it all — wealth, power, and looks — and loved to flaunt it even when the cops dragged her into court, which happened a lot, beginning in 1920 after she arrived in Sydney, Australia, from London with little more than a dream and a ruthless tenacity. In court, she'd wear the latest fashions and dripped with diamonds, according to The Sydney Morning Herald, and seemed unstoppable until she came up against a pioneering police officer as tenacious as Tilly.

When Tilly Devine landed in Australia in 1920, she and her husband, Jim Devine, embraced Sydney's underworld. "Big Jim," as he was known, became a drug dealer and a get-away driver for other criminals while Tilly took to the streets as a sex worker, according to The Dictionary of Sydney. The couple eventually moved up to the big time, but with more power came more problems, and soon a war between rival gangs that preferred using razors to settle their differences turned the streets of Sydney red with blood.

The Devines join the Sydney underworld

Before Tilly Twiss married James Devine (above), an Australian soldier who fought in World War I, she was a low-paid factory worker in one of London's poorest neighborhoods and then a sex worker, according to The Dictionary of Sydney. After arriving in Sydney, Tilly racked up 79 arrests between 1921 and 1925 with little jail time until a two-year prison sentence for slashing a man's face with a razor, per The Dictionary of Sydney. The victim, a candy store owner named Sidney Cork, needed 17 stitches after the attack, per The West Australian.

By the mid-1920s the local press was already calling her "the worst woman in Sydney," per The Dictionary of Sydney. Tilly Devine eventually moved up from prostitution to running her own brothel, which was legal at the time because of a loophole in the law that forbade men from profiting off prostitution, but not women, per The Dictionary of Sydney. She saw her chance and took it.

Tilly Devine rises to the top of Sydney's criminal underworld 

By the end of the 1920s, Tilly Devine had a string of brothels and was prospering financially, so much so she could afford to hire a bunch of ruthless thugs to protect her and the sex workers she had working for her. Her employees considered Tilly a "benevolent despot" who took care of those who were loyal, but wouldn't hesitate to slash anyone who cheated her out of what she considered hers, whether or not rightfully, according to The Dictionary of Sydney.

Tilly also had a softer side, or at least a PR savvy side. At Christmas time, she'd put up a massive Christmas tree under which she'd stack presents for all the neighborhood children, per the book "Pictorial History South Sydney." But her charity only extended so far. When Kate Leigh, a rival madam, cocaine dealer, and sly grog operator (the equivalent of a bootlegger in the U.S. during Prohibition) made a play for Tilly's territory, she and her gang took to the streets to do battle, per the State Archives & Records for New South Wales.

The Razor Wars

In what was unusual for the time, two women headed up rival razor gangs and controlled large swaths of Sydney's underworld. In 1927, the government passed a law giving automatic jail time to anyone caught with an unlicensed firearm, so gangs relied on straight razors as their weapon of choice, per the State Archives & Records for New South Wales. Between 1927 and 1931, in what would become known as the Razor Wars, Tilly Devine, Kate Leigh (above), and their gangs battled it out over who would control the rackets, leaving a trail of dead and maimed in their wake, per the State Archives & Records for New South Wales.

In 1931, a new police commissioner, William MacKay, came up with an unusual plan to end the war between the women. The police would mostly ignore Tilly and Leigh's illegal activities if the two agreed to a ceasefire, according to the book "Devine Justice: Matriarch of Crime." The women were to run their illicit businesses quietly and without violence and to inform for the police, per the book. After that, Sydney's streets grew much more calm.

Tilly Devine's law enforcement nemesis was also a woman

Lillian May Armfield, like the female crime bosses she spent her time trying to take down, was relentless. Armfield, born in 1884, was one of two women police officers hired in 1915 by the New South Wales Police Force, the first women in Australia to become cops, according to The Sydney Morning Herald and Obituaries Australia. Armfield not only faced ruthless criminals, but gender discrimination as well. She didn't receive a uniform, got no overtime, nor a weapon of any kind, per The Sydney Morning Herald. Armfield persevered thanks to her wits and steely resolve. In one instance, Armfield fought off an attacker with nothing more than her purse, according to History Collection. Armfield eventually worked her way up to detective, per the Australian Dictionary of Biography.

Armfield slowly chipped away at Devine's and Leigh's criminal empires by starving them of what they needed to run their brothels. Armfield and her team of female officers helped rescue women in desperate circumstances who could easily fall prey to the likes of Devine, per History Collection. "We work with womanly sympathy rather than with toughness," Armfield told The Sydney Morning Herald in 1947. "But sometimes we have to be tough." And Armfield was. She finally got Leigh on drug charges that stuck, sending Leigh to prison, per History Collection. Devine's fortunes also sank thanks to Armfield's work.

Tilly Devine dies broke

When Tilly Devine died in 1970, she was broke and nearly forgotten. Between Lillian May Armfield's dogged policing, new gangs who stripped Tilly of her power, and a huge tax bill the government levied on her in 1955, her days as queen of the Sydney underworld were over by the 1960s, per The Sydney Morning Herald and The Dictionary of Sydney. She was even robbed of her jewelry collection that she once boasted was larger than Queen Elizabeth's (and better), per The Sydney Morning Herald and Obituaries Australia.

Devine had finally divorced her abusive first husband, Big Jim, in 1944, and later married a second time, per Obituaries Australia. She married Eric Parsons just a month after being charged with attempted murder for shooting him (the charge didn't stick), but it was cancer, not Tilly, that finally brought Parsons down, per The Dictionary of Sydney. She, too, died of cancer, and not even the patrons of her favorite Sydney haunts cared enough to raise a toast in her honor, per The Sydney Morning Herald. Armfield died in 1971, a year after her criminal nemesis, following a long and distinguished police career, per Obituaries Australia.

If you or someone you know is dealing with domestic abuse, you can call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1−800−799−7233. You can also find more information, resources, and support at their website.