Tilly Devine stares out from this image taken upon her entry to gaol. She was an incredibly successful villain who, along with her nemesis Kate Leigh, ruled the inner city vice trade for almost 20 years. Tilly began her criminal career as a teenage prostitute on the streets of London. She toughened up quickly in order to survive on the brutal streets of the metropolis. During the First World War she met an Australian soldier, James ‘Big Jim’ Devine, and they married. She arrived in Sydney on a war bride ship in 1920 and began working as a prostitute immediately.
Tilly had an entrepreneurial streak and worked her way up to owning a string of brothels in East Sydney. She defended her turf with razor, knife and colourful language and was know for her short temper and fast hands. She was a complex character who was happy to sit in the gutter and drink from a bottle with her ‘girls’ but upon returning to her marital home in Maroubra insisted on sipping from the finest crystal. Her home life was marred by incidents of domestic violence and she eventually divorced ‘Big Jim’ and married a sailor, Eric Parsons.
She often appeared before the courts and her criminal record reveals convictions for consorting, malicious wounding, indecent language, vagrancy, assault and soliciting. She vigorously defended all charges and was suspected of intimidating witnesses who chose to give evidence against her.
The photograph was taken after her arrest for slashing a man with a razor as he sat in a barber’s shop on Crown Street, Surry Hills. The events leading up to the attack are disputed but what isn’t is that Tilly used a razor to punish a man she felt hadn’t shown her enough respect. It is interesting that although she had a tall, well built and violent husband who was her ‘protector’ she chose to deal with the victim herself.