This is no ordinary police story. Lillian Armfield was one of two women appointed to the Women’s Police in Sydney in July 1915. They were the first female Australian police officers. Lillian also became the nation’s first female detective and was Chief of the Women’s Police until her retirement in 1949.
Telling Lillian’s story meant looking into her family history, consulting police records and gazettes, checking penitentiary and prison files, and, as any researcher will tell you, stumbling across material when looking for something else. I spent time going through the collections at the NSW State Archives at Kingswood and was grateful for the online records available through the State Archives. Newspaper stories also provided details about Lillian’s career. Lillian started talking more to the press in the 1930s, once her work was widely known in terms of the major cases she was involved in. When she first joined the job she was told to keep in the background and not give away details about her work.
Early in my research, I was put in contact with Lillian’s nephew. I hadn’t expected this. Female officers were barred from marrying and when Lillian joined in 1915, they had to be single on entry. Only later were widows allowed to serve. Norm O’Brien is the son of Lillian’s beloved sister, Muriel. While Lillian was a trailblazing member of the NSW Police Force, Norm’s recollections and the private family photographs he gave me access to brought Lillian to life in a deeper more personal way. She was also a daughter, sister, cousin and aunt. Norm also revealed a story about Lillian that remains a bit of a mystery but could have a dramatic impact on what we know about Lillian’s life before joining the police and would have allowed her to emphasise more with the girls and women she policed.
Place is a key part of my research. I explored, walked and studied the streets Lillian policed and while being in those places – during the day and at night – I could imagine a little of what it was like for Lillian. That’s the beauty of Sydney; so many of the old terraces and haunts of Lillian’s decades of policing are still around. The alleyways and lanes might not be the crime-ridden places they used to be but, particularly at night, they still fuel the imagination. Historic Sydney remains in our present view.
My god-daughter, Maisey, knows Lillian Armfield’s story now. The tall, tough, kind and compassionate woman from country NSW who became our nation’s first female detective continues to inspire. Lillian set the standard for women in the police force. Her story reminds us that one person can really make a difference to the world around them. Change often comes from someone having the commitment and tenacity to lead by example.