Tilly Devine

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Tilly Devine
Tilly Devine 1925.jpg
Tilly Devine in 1925
Matilda Mary Twiss

(1900-09-30)30 September 1900
Died24 November 1970(1970-11-24) (aged 70)
Burial placeEastern Suburbs Memorial Park
NationalityEnglish Australian
Other namesQueen of Woolloomooloo[1]
Years activecirca 1920s – 1950s
Known forRazor gangs, madam, sly-grog supply
  • Jim Devine (m. 1917, div. 1944)
  • Eric Parsons (m. 1945, dec'd. 1958)

Matilda Mary Devine (née Twiss, 8 September 1900 – 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[edit]

Devine was born the daughter of bricklayer Edward Twiss, and Alice Twiss (née Tubb) at 57 Hollington Street, Camberwell, London in the United Kingdom.[2][3] In 1915, she and many English and Australian women were found working as prostitutes and thieves. At 16 she married an Australian serviceman, James (Jim) Edward Devine, (born Brunswick, Victoria, 1892, died Melbourne, 1966), on 12 April 1917 at the Sacred Heart Church, Camberwell, London. The couple had one son, born at Camberwell 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.[4] Both Tilly and Jim Devine rapidly became prominent illegal narcotics dealers, brothel owners and crime gangs members in the Sydney criminal milieu.

Criminal career[edit]

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 spendings, clothings 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.[5]

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 jail sentences in the New South Wales jail, 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[edit]

Jim Devine in 1939

Jim Devine was an ex-serviceman and shearer, 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,[6][7][8] secondly, as an accessory to the murder of Barney Dalton [9][10] 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.[11][12] 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.[13][14]

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.[15] The Devines separated in the early 1940s and were finally divorced in January 1944.[16] 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.[17][18]

Second marriage[edit]

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).[19]

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.[20] She was arrested by police and charged with the shooting,[21] but was acquitted at trial on 31 March 1945.[22] 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.[23][24] The property remained derelict from the 1950s onwards. It was sold in 2009 and the new owner built a new house on the lot.[25]

Decline and death[edit]

Although Devine was one of Sydney's wealthiest women in the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s, by 1955, the Taxation Department ordered her to pay more than £20,000 in unpaid income tax and fines sending her close to bankruptcy.[26] 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!"[27] She sold off her last brothel in Palmer Street, Darlinghurst in 1968, and died two years later.[28]

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?"[29]

In popular culture[edit]

Peter Kenna wrote a play called The Slaughter of St Teresa’s Day (1973 Currency Press),[30] based on Devine's life.

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.[28] Devine was portrayed by Chelsie Preston Crayford, who was nominated for a Logie Award for Most Popular New Female Talent.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b "Devine, Matilda Mary (Tilly) (1900–1970): Obituary". The Sydney Morning Herald. 25 November 1970. p. 18. Retrieved 28 August 2011 – via Obituaries Australia http://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/devine-matilda-mary-tilly-5970/text24395.
  2. ^ Writer 2001, p. 23
  3. ^ Census 1901, Camberwell, St George, District 5, page 12
  4. ^ Allen, Judith; Irving, Baiba (2011). "Devine, Matilda Mary (Tilly) (1900–1970)". Devine, Matilda (Mary) (1900 - 1970). Australian Dictionary of Biography. Australian National University. Retrieved 9 March 2008.
  5. ^ Writer 2009, p. 200
  6. ^ "Funeral Notice. George Leonard Gaffney". Sydney Morning Herald. 20 July 1929. p. 13.
  7. ^ Doyle 2009, p. 237
  8. ^ "GANG WAR. GUN DUEL AT MAROUBRA. Man Fatally Shot., Others Wounded". Sydney Morning Herald. 19 July 1929. p. 13.
  9. ^ Dalton, Barney (12 November 1929). "Death Notice". Sydney Morning Herald. p. 10.
  10. ^ "Man Shot Dead. Underworld Warfare". Sydney Morning Herald. 11 November 1929. p. 11.
  11. ^ "MAROUBRA MURDER. James Devine Charged. Counsel's Protest in Court". Sydney Morning Herald. 19 June 1931. p. 14.
  12. ^ "Funeral Notice. Frederick Herbert Moffitt". Sydney Morning Herald. 18 June 1931. p. 7.
  13. ^ Blaikie 1980
  14. ^ "DEVINE Acquitted on murder charge. MAROUBRA SHOOTING". Sydney Morning Herald. 14 September 1929. p. 14.
  15. ^ "'HUSBAND CHARGED'. 'Alleged Attempted Murder". Sydney Morning Herald. 10 January 1931. p. 8.
  16. ^ "Devine divorce hearing". Sydney Morning Herald. 31 March 1943. p. 11.
  17. ^ "Skinny Kenny". The Wingham Chronicle And Manning River Observer. 5 October 1943.
  18. ^ "Skinny Kenny". Truth. Sydney. 5 July 1942. p. 17.
  19. ^ "Death Notice: Eric John Parsons". Sydney Morning Herald. 24 November 1958.
  20. ^ "Tilly Devine Charged. Shooting Alleged". Sydney Morning Herald. 21 February 1945. p. 5.
  21. ^ "Tilly Devine On Attempted Murder Charge in Sydney". The Canberra Times. National Library of Australia. 21 February 1945. p. 3. Retrieved 28 August 2011.
  22. ^ "Tilly Devine Discharged". Sydney Morning Herald. 30 March 1945. p. 4.
  23. ^ "Guns Blazed in Sydney's Underworld!". 8 July 1950. p. 26. Retrieved 5 November 2017 – via Trove.
  24. ^ "Desperate Gun Duel. "Divine's Alleged Confession at Moffitt Inquest"". Sydney Morning Herald. National Library of Australia. 11 July 1931. p. 11.
  25. ^ Yeates, Clancy (18 July 2009). "Wrecker's ball for notorious brothel-keeper's home". Retrieved 5 November 2017 – via The Sydney Morning Herald.
  26. ^ "Tilly in 'Ton of Trouble'". The Argus. Melbourne. 18 October 1955. p. 5.
  27. ^ Blaikie 1980, p. 124
  28. ^ a b Writer 2001
  29. ^ Lipson & Barnao 1992, p. 135
  30. ^ "Fifty Australians - Tilly Devine". Australian War Memorial. Retrieved 9 March 2008.

Further reading[edit]

  • Blaikie, George (1980). Wild Women Of Sydney. Australia: Rigby Publishers. ISBN 978-0-7270-1394-1.
  • Butel, E; Thompson, T (1984). Kings Cross Album. Australia: ATRAND Publishers. ISBN 978-0-908272-06-8.
  • Doyle, Peter (2009). Crooks Like Us. Australia: Historic Houses Trust. ISBN 978-1-876991-34-0.
  • Hickie, David (1990). Chow Hayes - Gunman. Australia: Collins/Angus & Robertson Publishers. ISBN 978-0-207-16012-7.
  • Kelly, Vince (1961). Rugged Angel. The Amazing Career of Policewoman Lillian Armfield. Australia: Angus & Robertson.
  • Kings Cross. 1936-1946. Sydney, Australia: Kings Cross Community Aid & Information Service. 1981. ISBN 0 9594116 0 7.
  • Lipson, N; Barnao, T (1992). As Crime Goes By. Australia: Ironbark Press. ISBN 978-1-875471-14-0.
  • Morton, J; Lobez, S (2007). Gangland Australia. Australia: Melbourne University Press. ISBN 978-0-522-85273-8.
  • Writer, Larry (2001). Razor: A true story of slashers, gangsters, prostitutes and sly grog. Australia: Pan Macmillan. ISBN 0 7329 1074 9.
  • Writer, Larry (2009). Razor: Tilly Devine, Kate Leigh and the razor gangs (New ed.). Macmillan Australia. ISBN 978-1-4050-3951-2.
  • Writer, Larry (2011). Bumper: the life & times of Frank 'Bumper' Farrell. Australia: Hachette Australia. ISBN 978-0-7336-2489-6.

External links[edit]