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Devine, Matilda Mary (Tilly) (1900–1970)

by Ron Saw

from Daily Telegraph (Sydney)

Two months ago Tilly Devine was dying a wretched death: old, ugly, feeble, friendless, shattered by cancer. Norman Allan heard about it and called in his Vice Squad chief, Det-Sgt. Vic Green.

"Vic," said the Commissioner, "dear old Tilly’s very ill out there in a hospital at Petersham. She’s all on her own. See if there’s anything we can do for her."

It was remarkable order from a remarkable man: a kind man.

There wasn’t much anyone could say to Tilly. She was too close to death to understand much. But her evil old face lit up briefly when she heard the coppers were still interested in her and for a little while she must have enjoyed a happiness she’d had no right to expect.

She died on Monday night, and still she could have expected no kindness from a society she defiled.

"Well," said Norman Allan yesterday. "She was a villain. But who was I to judge her? Judge! I used to prosecute her, and she gave me hell. But when I sent Vic out to see her she was just a sick and lonely old woman."

Few people could have felt so generously about Tilly. For all the Commissioner’s kindness, for all the platitudes and forgiveness that will wash over her grave, she was a vicious, grasping, high-priestess of savagery, venery, obscenity and whoredom.

She will be remembered with Kate Leigh as a "Queen of the Underworld" and the memory will be unfair to Kate. Tilly made Kate seem like a Christmas fairy.

Kate made her money from sly grog, and though she was a scapegrace she was also a kindly and generous old trot with many friends.

Tilly Devine made a fortune from prostitution, safe in the knowledge — until 1968 — that no woman could be charged with living off immoral earnings. She lived high off the whore’s back, she gave away nothing that couldn’t be prised from her with a knife, and if she had friends they were cowed, and unwholesome low-lifers.

She began life as Matilda Mary Twiss, the daughter of a bricklayer, in London’s East End. In 1917, when, she said, she was 15 — the records say she was 21 — she met and married an Australian soldier named Jim Devine.

They arrived in Australia in 1919, and by 1921 Tilly was well-known to the cops. By 1930 she had become one of the most frightening creatures ever spewed up by the razor gangs. She was pushed out of the country, but she came back and got at it again.

She was charged with everything from consorting to malicious wounding, from indecent language to attempted murder. But above all she was a brothelkeeper.

Inevitably Tilly will be described as a bit of a character, a bit of a dag, possibly even as "a bad girl who really had a heart of gold." Consider then a typical case of Tilly’s.

At a party in Palmer Street she had a fight with a girlfriend. And to a couple of males she screeched: "Hold her while I cut her — guts out. Put the — in there while I get my — out. I’ll put a — bullet in her guts." Lovable.

About that time she divorced Jim Devine and met a sailor named Eric Parsons. Two years later lovable Till shot Parsons. She was charged with attempted murder, but he didn’t turn up to give evidence against her. And three months later she married him.

By then she was making a fortune from brothels: making a fortune and wearing it, glittering and gaudy, on her fingers, and her back. In a Sydney grey with wartime austerity she wore diamonds and furs and enjoyed the richest and most tasteless wines and food.

She travelled the world — Tilly in England to see her dear old dad, Tilly in London for the coronation, Tilly relaxing in Paris — claiming all the way that she made her money by backing Melbourne Cup winners.

To make that much money she’d have had to back every Cup winner since Carbine. She was making her money from brothels and everybody knew it, but there was nothing anyone could do about it because she couldn’t be charged.

Almost to the end — even when she was telling people she’d reformed and was making fatuous remarks about being a "good girl now" — she was in the brothel business. In 1967 she still owned and operated a brothel in Palmer Street.

The last charge laid against her was one involving another stabbing. But she never came to court. By then she was too ill.

And in 1968 when the government finally gave the law the power to close the brothels and to charge women with living off the earnings of prostitution, she sold her house and moved out of Palmer Street.

She died friendless and alone, and for that she must be pitied. But if they hold a wake for her the sorrow will be slobber and crocodile tears.

She was a wretched woman.

Original publication

  • Daily Telegraph (Sydney), 25 November 1970, p 6

Other Obituaries for Matilda Mary (Tilly) Devine

Additional Resources

Citation details

Ron Saw, 'Devine, Matilda Mary (Tilly) (1900–1970)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 8 February 2016.

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