Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Lillian May Armfield (1884–1971)

by Hazel King

This article was published:

Lillian May Armfield (1884-1971), policewoman, was born on 3 December 1884 at Mittagong, New South Wales, daughter of George Armfield, labourer, and his wife Elizabeth, née Wright. Educated locally, she wrote a clear hand, could spell and cope with arithmetical problems. About 1907 she became a nurse at the Hospital for the Insane, Callan Park, Sydney, where she looked after female inmates. She left in 1915, favourably recommended by the medical superintendent for her competence and kindness to patients, to apply for a newly established post in the police force. When recruited as probationary special constable on 1 July 1915, she was 5 ft 7¾ ins (172 cm) tall, weighed 12 st. 10 lbs. (81 kg), and had light brown eyes, brown hair and a fair complexion. She was described by her interviewing-officer as 'very intelligent, tactful, shrewd, capable … Character undoubtedly good and a very suitable candidate'. Lillian Armfield was paid 7s. 6d. a day, no uniforms were provided and no overtime or expenses were allowed. After a year's probation she was enrolled as a special constable and was obliged to sign an agreement with James Mitchell, inspector-general of police, binding her to the same discipline as her male colleagues, but she was deprived of any right to compensation for injuries received in carrying out her duties and had to renounce all superannuation rights.

The experiment of Lillian Armfield's appointment was watched with interest overseas, for she was one of the first plain-clothes female detectives, exercising the same powers of arrest as male colleagues and working side by side with them. Although her work primarily concerned women and girls; it often led her into cases involving murder, rape, theft, drug-running, the white slave traffic—indeed the whole catalogue of crime. Often it led her into danger as when she disguised herself to gain admittance to suspected houses and, having done so, remained inside to open the door to the raiding police. Although brave she was also sensible and recognized that discretion could be the better part, as when she picked up her skirts and ran for her life from 'Botany Mary' (a cocaine-runner caught in the act), who came after her with a red hot flat-iron. Lillian Armfield was much concerned with the social aspects of her work. Much of it was preventative, such as tracing runaway girls and inducing them to return to their homes before they came to serious harm, or warning young women of the dangers of a bullet-wound or razor-slash through associating with known criminals.

Although the value of her work was officially recognized, promotion was slow. By 1 November 1923 Lillian Armfield had become a special sergeant, 3rd class, and by 1 January 1943 had risen to 1st class. In 1947 she was awarded the King's Police and Fire Service Medal for outstanding service and, after her retirement on 2 December 1949, aged 65, the Imperial Service Medal. She was presented with an illuminated address and £200 by the lord mayor of Sydney; the Police Department allowed her £455 6s. 5d. in lieu of extended leave of absence, but she received no superannuation. In 1965 she was granted a special allowance of £3 10s. a week by the government of New South Wales, and relinquished her 10s. a week old-age pension. During her latter years she lived at the Methodist Hostel, Leichhardt; she died on 26 August 1971 at Lewisham Hospital, and was cremated with Church of England rites.

Select Bibliography

  • V. Kelly, Rugged Angel (Syd, 1961)
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 23 Dec 1949, 16 July 1965, 27 Aug 1971
  • Daily Mirror (Sydney), 17 May 1950
  • L. M. Armfield file (Public Relations, Police Dept, Sydney).

Additional Resources

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Hazel King, 'Armfield, Lillian May (1884–1971)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1979, accessed online 15 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 7, (Melbourne University Press), 1979

View the front pages for Volume 7

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


3 December, 1884
Mittagong, New South Wales, Australia


26 August, 1971 (aged 86)
Lewisham, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

Religious Influence

Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.