Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Matilda Mary (Tilly) Devine (1900–1970)

by Judith Allen and Baiba Irving

This article was published:

Matilda Mary (Tilly) Devine (1900-1970), madam, was born on 8 September 1900 at Camberwell, London, daughter of Edward Twiss, bricklayer, and his wife Alice, née Tubb(s). On 12 August 1917 at the Church of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, Camberwell, she married James Edward Joseph Devine, an Australian digger and ex-shearer. He returned to Australia in 1919; Tilly followed in the 'bride' ship, Waimana, reaching Sydney on 13 January 1920.

Jim Devine became a hire-car proprietor in Sydney and acted as protector, chauffeur and 'get-away' man when Tilly began to work as a prostitute, enabling her to operate independently of both the police and the underworld—at the cost of frequent arrests. From 18 June 1921 she had seventy-nine convictions on prostitution-related charges, such as offensive behaviour and indecent language, until May 1925, when she was imprisoned for two years for malicious wounding; she had walked into a barber's shop and slashed a man with a razor. She was referred to by the press as the 'Worst Woman in Sydney' and 'The Queen of the Night'. Colourful reports appeared about her court-room performances which were always witnessed by a packed gallery.

In the late 1920s Jim Devine became more deeply involved in underworld activity, then dominated by cocaine and 'sly grog' traffic and competing razor gangs, while Tilly emerged as a 'chaperone of magdalenes'. The base of their combined operations was their house at Maroubra.

Tilly's arrests in the 1930s were fewer, but were usually for the more serious charge of consorting with known prostitutes, and resulted in a year's 'voluntary absence' in England and several short prison sentences.

By the beginning of World War II Tilly Devine had a well-established business, comprising properties in Palmer Street, Woolloomooloo, and a staff which included 'bouncers' and bodyguards: she was excellently placed with her rival Kate Leigh to capitalize on the demand in wartime Sydney for brothel services. Now affectionately known as the 'Queen of the 'Loo' she held lavish parties, contributed generously to the war effort, dressed opulently, and became notorious for her array of diamond rings. No longer needing her husband's protection, and hindered by his increasing violence towards her, she divorced him in August 1943 on the grounds of cruelty. On 19 May 1945 at her home, 191 Palmer Street, she married, with Presbyterian forms, Eric Parsons, a seaman. In 1953 she visited London to see the Coronation procession. Nevertheless, during the war and post-war years she appeared in court periodically on assault and similar charges.

Tilly Devine continued to operate her Palmer Street brothel until 1968. However, in the 1950s and 1960s, the scale and prominence of her operations lessened. In 1955 she had to pay more than £20,000 in income tax and fines.

She had suffered from chronic bronchitis for twenty years when she died in Concord Repatriation General Hospital, Sydney, on 24 November 1970; she was cremated with Catholic rites. Her estate was valued for probate at $11,007. One of the beneficiaries was the son adopted during her second marriage. The two children of her first marriage had predeceased her. Since her death, Tilly Devine has attained almost legendary stature—incidents in her life inspired Peter Kenna's play, The Slaughter of St Teresa's Day (1973), and her exploits are often referred to and recounted in the communities in which she operated.

Select Bibliography

  • V. Kelly, Rugged Angel (Syd, 1961)
  • Daily Mirror (Sydney), 24 Nov 1970
  • Daily Telegraph (Sydney), 25 Nov 1970, Sydney Quarter Sessions—Clerk of the Peace, depositions and papers, 1 May 1925, 19/7289 (State Records New South Wales).

Additional Resources

Citation details

Judith Allen and Baiba Irving, 'Devine, Matilda Mary (Tilly) (1900–1970)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1981, accessed online 17 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 8, (Melbourne University Press), 1981

View the front pages for Volume 8

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Tilly Devine, 1925

Tilly Devine, 1925

NSW Justice & Police Museum, 35694

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Twiss, Matilda
  • Parsons, Matilda

8 September, 1900
London, Middlesex, England


24 November, 1970 (aged 70)
Concord, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

Cause of Death

cancer (not specified)

Cultural Heritage

Includes subject's nationality; their parents' nationality; the countries in which they spent a significant part of their childhood, and their self-identity.

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.