Tilly Devine

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Tilly Devine
Tilly Devine 1925 (crop).jpg
Tilly Devine in 1925
Matilda Mary Twiss

(1900-09-08)8 September 1900
Camberwell, London
Died24 November 1970(1970-11-24) (aged 70)
Burial place Eastern Suburbs Memorial Park
Nationality English Australian
Other namesQueen of Woolloomooloo [1]
OccupationCrime boss
Years activec.1920s  1950s
Known forFamous Sydney folk figure of the interwar period [2]
Notable workInvolvement in Razor gangs, madam, sly-grog supply
Spouse(s)James Edward Joseph "Jim" Devine
(m. 1917; div. 1944)
Eric John Parsons
(m. 1945; d. 1958)
ChildrenFrederick Ralph Twiss
Parent(s)Edward Twiss
Alice Twiss (née Tubb)

Matilda Mary Devine (née Twiss, 8 September 1900 [2]  24 November 1970), known as Tilly Devine, was an English Australian organised crime boss. She was involved in a wide range of activities, including sly-grog, razor gangs, and prostitution, and became a famous folk figure in Sydney during the interwar years.


Early life

Devine was born the daughter of bricklayer Edward Twiss, and Alice Twiss (née Tubb) at 57 Hollington Street, Camberwell, London in the United Kingdom. [3] [4] At 16 she married an Australian serviceman, James (Jim) Edward Joseph Devine, (born Brunswick, Victoria, 1892, died Heidelberg, Victoria, 18 August 1966), on 12 April 1917 at the Church of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, Camberwell, London. [2] The couple had one son, Frederick Ralph Twiss, born in Camberwell, Southwark, London in 1919.

Her career in prostitution began when she was a teenager and continued after she was married. She and many English women were usually found soliciting on the wide footpaths on The Strand, at night. From 1915 onwards to 1919, she spent time at Bow Street Court and Lock Up for prostitution, theft and assault.

When Jim returned to Australia she followed him back on the bride ship Waimana, arriving in Sydney on 13 January 1920. Her son stayed in London and was brought up by her parents. [2] Both Tilly and Jim Devine rapidly became prominent illegal narcotics dealers, brothel owners and crime gangs members in the Sydney criminal milieu.

Criminal career

Tilly Devine, known as the ‘Queen of Woolloomooloo’ ran a string of brothels centred around Darlinghurst and the Cross, and in particular, Palmer Street. Kate Leigh, known as the ‘Queen of Surry Hills’, was a sly groger and fence for stolen property. [5]

By 1925 Tilly was well known to police. In five years she had accumulated a long list of convictions; the numerous offences ranged from common prostitute to indecent language, offensive behaviour and assault. The police report is a snapshot of the life that Tilly was leading up to 1925, a life that involved working the streets at night, clashes with Police and lots of parties and heavy drinking. [5]

Devine became infamous in Sydney, initially as a prostitute, then later as a brothel madam and organised crime entrepreneur. The NSW Vagrancy Act 1905 prohibited men from running brothels; it did nothing to stop women with criminal gangs' support and bribes to the police from running criminal enterprises. Historian Larry Writer has noted that the Devines ran diversified operations. Elite "call girls" were available for politicians, businessmen and overseas guests of significance, while "tenement girls" were young working-class women who resorted to casual prostitution to supplement their drug spending, clothing and meagre earnings during times of Australian criminal and narcotic culture, absence of a comprehensive welfare state and unemployment. Older female prostitutes, "boat girls", catered to itinerant sailors or working-class men. Devine does not seem to have run similar operations for the gay sex market during this time because she believed it was not right. [6]

Devine's wealth was legendary, although it was all earned from crime. She owned much real estate in Sydney, many luxury cars, looted gold and diamond jewellery and travelled by ship in first class staterooms. Much of her wealth was also used to pay bribes to the police sectors, and fines for her criminal convictions that spanned fifty years. Devine faced numerous court summons and was convicted on 204 occasions during her long criminal career, and served many gaol sentences in New South Wales gaols, mainly for prostitution, violent assault, affray and attempted murder. She was known to the police to be of a violent nature and was known to use firearms.

Marriage to Jim Devine

Jim Devine in 1939 James Devine 1939.jpg
Jim Devine in 1939

James Edward Joseph (Jim) Devine was an WWI ex-serviceman and shearer, [7] who was a violent 'stand-over' man, a convicted thief, a pimp, drug dealer, vicious thug and gunman. He was also an alcoholic. Devine committed a number of high-profile murders in Sydney between 1929 and 1931: notably, the murder of criminal George Leonard "Gregory" Gaffney on 17 July 1929, [8] [9] [10] secondly, as an accessory to the murder of Barney Dalton [11] [12] on 9 November 1929 (with infamous Sydney gangster and assassin, Francis Donald "Frankie" Green) and, thirdly, the accidental shooting of taxi driver, Frederick Herbert Moffitt on 16 June 1931. [13] [14] Although he was charged with murder on more than one occasion, he was always acquitted, successfully arguing self defence. He shot and killed Gaffney and Moffitt outside his and Tilly's Maroubra residence. [15] [16]

Tilly and Jim Devine's marriage was marred by domestic violence. On 9 January 1931, Jim was charged at Central Police Court with the attempted murder of his wife after a heated argument at their Maroubra home. As Tilly ran out of the house, Jim fired a number of shots at her in a similar way to the murder of George Leonard Gaffney in 1929. Tilly escaped unscathed, the only damage being one of her brand new stilettos – the left one. Their terrified neighbours called the police resulting in Jim being arrested and charged over the incident. He was later acquitted, on 16 January 1931, because Tilly refused to testify. [17] The Devines separated in the early 1940s and were finally divorced in January 1944. [18] Shortly after Tilly separated from Jim, long time criminal associate, Donald Alexander Kenney (1906–1963), known as 'Skinny Kenney', became Tilly's lover and stand-over man. [19] [20]

Second marriage

Devine married for the second time on 19 May 1945 to ex-seaman and returned serviceman Eric John Parsons (born Melbourne 1901, died Sydney 1958). [21]

Tilly famously shot Parsons in the leg after an argument only months before they were married. This shooting occurred at her other Sydney residence: 191 Palmer Street, Darlinghurst. The house was almost opposite the notorious Tradesman's Arms Hotel. It was at this hotel that Devine met Eric Parsons. [22] She was arrested by police and charged with the shooting, [23] but was acquitted at trial on 31 March 1945. [24] They were happily married for 13 years until Eric Parsons died of cancer on 22 November 1958.

For over 30 years, Devine lived at 335 Malabar Road, Maroubra in Sydney's south-eastern suburbs. A number of homicides were committed at this residence. [25] [26] The property remained derelict from the 1950s onwards. It was sold in 2009 and the new owner built a new house on the lot. [27]

Decline and death

Although Devine had been one of Sydney's wealthiest women, by 1955 the Taxation Department ordered her to pay more than £20,000 in unpaid income tax and fines sending her close to bankruptcy. [28] In 1953 Devine boasted to the media, "I am a lucky, lucky girl. I have more diamonds than the Queen of England's stowaways – and better ones too!" [29] She sold off her last brothel in Palmer Street, Darlinghurst in 1968, and died two years later. [30]

Devine was famous for flamboyant acts of generosity, and also for her violent feud with criminal vice rival Kate Leigh. Devine was charged by the famous Sydney Detective Frank Farrell on many occasions, and their feud lasted for 30 years.[ citation needed ]

Devine had suffered from chronic bronchitis for 20 years, and died of cancer, aged 70 at the Concord Repatriation Hospital in Sydney on 24 November 1970. Her funeral service was held at the Sacred Heart Catholic Church, Darlinghurst. [1] She was cremated at Botany Crematorium, now known as Eastern Suburbs Memorial Park, on 26 November 1970 with Catholic rites by her married name, Matilda Mary Parsons. She was survived by her son Frederick Ralph (Devine) Twiss (1919–1978) and 2 grandchildren.[ citation needed ] Her funeral service was poorly attended and her death went virtually unnoticed by Sydney's media and population and it was said that very few people openly mourned her death. The only public eulogy offered to Devine was given by the then police commissioner Norman Allan who said: "She was a villain, but who am I to judge her?" [31]

Peter Kenna wrote a play called The Slaughter of St Teresa’s Day (1973 Currency Press), [32] where the lead character was based on Devine. [33]

The song "Miss Divine" from the 1990 Icehouse album Code Blue is about Devine.

A popular cafe-nightclub in Lyneham, Canberra is called Tilleys Devine Cafe Gallery. A wine bar in Darlinghurst, Sydney opened in 2011, named "Love Tilly Devine" in honour of Devine.

In August 2011, Australia's Channel Nine commenced screening Underbelly: Razor , a true crime television drama series that deals with the Leigh/Devine Sydney gangland wars in the 1930s. The series was based on the Ned Kelly Award-winning book by Larry Writer. [30] Devine was portrayed by Chelsie Preston Crayford, who was nominated for a Logie Award for Most Popular New Female Talent.

Devine is a background character in Kerry Greenwood's Death Before Wicket, the tenth Phryne Fisher novel, which is set in Sydney in 1928.

See also

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  1. 1 2 "Devine, Matilda Mary (Tilly) (1900–1970): Obituary". The Sydney Morning Herald. 25 November 1970. p. 18. Retrieved 28 August 2011 via Obituaries Australia.
  2. 1 2 3 4 Allen, Judith; Irving, Baiba (2011). "Devine, Matilda Mary (Tilly) (1900–1970)". Devine, Matilda (Mary) (1900–1970). Australian National University. Retrieved 9 March 2008.{{cite book}}: |work= ignored (help)
  3. Writer 2001 , p. 23
  4. Census 1901, Camberwell, St George, District 5, page 12
  5. 1 2 Upton, Suzanne (24 February 2016). "Tilly Devine & the Razor Gang Wars, 1927–1931". State Archives and Records Authority of New South Wales . Retrieved 6 January 2022. Creative Commons by small.svg  This article incorporates text available under the CC BY 4.0 license.
  6. Writer 2009 , p. 200
  7. "Devine, James Edward (Jim) 1892–1966)".
  8. "Funeral Notice. George Leonard Gaffney". The Sydney Morning Herald. 20 July 1929. p. 13.
  9. Doyle 2009 , p. 237
  10. "GANG WAR. GUN DUEL AT MAROUBRA. Man Fatally Shot., Others Wounded". The Sydney Morning Herald. 19 July 1929. p. 13.
  11. Dalton, Barney (12 November 1929). "Death Notice". The Sydney Morning Herald. p. 10.
  12. "Man Shot Dead. Underworld Warfare". The Sydney Morning Herald. 11 November 1929. p. 11.
  13. "MAROUBRA MURDER. James Devine Charged. Counsel's Protest in Court". The Sydney Morning Herald. 19 June 1931. p. 14.
  14. "Funeral Notice. Frederick Herbert Moffitt". The Sydney Morning Herald. 18 June 1931. p. 7.
  15. Blaikie 1980
  16. "DEVINE Acquitted on murder charge. MAROUBRA SHOOTING". The Sydney Morning Herald. 14 September 1929. p. 14.
  17. "'HUSBAND CHARGED'. 'Alleged Attempted Murder". The Sydney Morning Herald. 10 January 1931. p. 8.
  18. "Devine divorce hearing". The Sydney Morning Herald. 31 March 1943. p. 11.
  19. "Skinny Kenny". The Wingham Chronicle And Manning River Observer. 5 October 1943.
  20. "Skinny Kenny". Truth. Sydney. 5 July 1942. p. 17.
  21. "Death Notice: Eric John Parsons". The Sydney Morning Herald. 24 November 1958.
  22. "Tilly Devine Charged. Shooting Alleged". The Sydney Morning Herald. 21 February 1945. p. 5.
  23. "Tilly Devine on Attempted Murder Charge in Sydney". The Canberra Times . National Library of Australia. 21 February 1945. p. 3. Retrieved 28 August 2011.
  24. "Tilly Devine Discharged". The Sydney Morning Herald. 30 March 1945. p. 4.
  25. "Guns Blazed in Sydney's Underworld!". 8 July 1950. p. 26. Retrieved 5 November 2017 via Trove.
  26. "Desperate Gun Duel. "Divine's Alleged Confession at Moffitt Inquest"". The Sydney Morning Herald. National Library of Australia. 11 July 1931. p. 11.
  27. Yeates, Clancy (18 July 2009). "Wrecker's ball for notorious brothel-keeper's home" . Retrieved 5 November 2017 via The Sydney Morning Herald.
  28. "Tilly in 'Ton of Trouble'". The Argus . Melbourne. 18 October 1955. p. 5.
  29. Blaikie 1980 , p. 124
  30. 1 2 Writer 2001
  31. Lipson & Barnao 1992 , p. 135
  32. "Fifty Australians – Tilly Devine". Australian War Memorial. Retrieved 9 March 2008.
  33. Vagg, Stephen (19 October 2020). "Forgotten Australian TV Plays – The Slaughter of St Teresa's Day". Filmink.

Further reading