Tilly Devine in 1925
Matilda Mary Twiss
30 September 1900
|Died||24 November 1970 (aged 70)|
Concord Repatriation Hospital, Sydney
|Burial place||Eastern Suburbs Memorial Park|
|Other names||Queen of Woolloomooloo|
|Years active||circa 1920s – 1950s|
|Known for||Razor gangs, madam, sly-grog supply|
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.
Devine was born the daughter of bricklayer Edward Twiss, and Alice Twiss (née Tubb) at 57 Hollington Street, Camberwell, London in the United Kingdom. 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. Both Tilly and Jim Devine rapidly became prominent illegal narcotics dealers, brothel owners and crime gangs members in the Sydney criminal milieu.
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.
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
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, secondly, as an accessory to the murder of Barney Dalton  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. 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.
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. The Devines separated in the early 1940s and were finally divorced in January 1944. 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.
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. She was arrested by police and charged with the shooting, but was acquitted at trial on 31 March 1945. 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. The property remained derelict from the 1950s onwards. It was sold in 2009 and the new owner built a new house on the lot.
Decline and death
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. 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!" She sold off her last brothel in Palmer Street, Darlinghurst in 1968, and died two years later.
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.
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. 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. 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?"
In popular culture
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. Devine was portrayed by Chelsie Preston Crayford, who was nominated for a Logie Award for Most Popular New Female Talent.
- Kate Leigh, Devine's bitter rival
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- Writer 2001, p. 23
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- "Funeral Notice. George Leonard Gaffney". Sydney Morning Herald. 20 July 1929. p. 13.
- Doyle 2009, p. 237
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- "Funeral Notice. Frederick Herbert Moffitt". Sydney Morning Herald. 18 June 1931. p. 7.
- Blaikie 1980
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- 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.
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