First published on 2 Mar 2010. Updated on 19 Aug 2011.
There’s a new small bar opening in Surry Hills called Love, Tilly Devine – an incongruous title given ‘love’ rarely features beside Tilly’s name in dispatches. A 1970 obituary told instead of “a vicious, grasping, high-priestess of savagery, obscenity and whoredom... one of the most frightening creatures spewed up by the razor gangs, a wretched woman.”
Tilly is today entering new infamy. And why not? Her story is classic colourful Sydney: pretty and poor, cunning rather than scholarly, utterly tasteless yet wonderfully hungry, bereft of hope but forever dreaming.
She was born Matilda Mary Twiss in the vile shanties of Camberwell, London. Her father was a brickie, her mother a housewife, her future bleak. But Tilly had a twinkle. Her childhood was spent in the shadows cast by the bright lights of music halls and Victorian art and it filled her with a desire for a better life. So, like many of her era, she sold the only thing she had worth a damn – herself.
Blonde, bolshy, incandescent in a West End full of WWI servicemen in need of servicing, Tilly was grossing 20 quid a week when the average wage was under three. Then, a twist: she fell in love with an ANZAC with blue eyes, big fists and a gift for blarney. Aged 17, she married him. At war’s end they sailed for Sydney.
Tilly knew an easy mark by sight and her new home was a post-war party town ripe for sexploitation. The girls wore sawn-off skirts and twirled the Charleston. Men drank, used opium and lusted long into red-light nights. Into this nefarious knees-up strutted streetwalker Til, with “a deep, husky, fascinating voice” and “a complexion of milk and roses.” Oh, and a temper and ambition that, if challenged, sparked blasts of foul language, punches, kicks and, deadliest of all, the attentions of her husband and pimp, Big Jim.
Tilly worked all Sydney’s seediest streets: Palmer, Bourke, Forbes and Riley in Darlinghurst; Macleay and Kellett in the Cross; Crown and Cathedral Streets in Woolloomoolewd and William Street, the boulevard of broken dreams where only the toughest ‘inkwells’ ran hotbeds.
It didn’t go unnoticed. Between 1921–25, ‘Pretty Tilly’ was arrested 79 times. Languishing in the Long Bay cells on a two-year stretch for razor-slashing a client, she took stock. Hooking was a mug’s game; she had the scars to prove it. The filthiest lucre lay within the loophole of the Police Offences Act of 1908 that ordained it illegal for men to profiteer from ‘immoral earnings’ but not for a woman to do so.
So on release, Tilly re-launched herself as a brothel madam. Using the bankroll she’d salted away from ten years on her back, she bought a rundown cottage in Palmer Street and put a red light in the window. Her girls were cosseted – she gave them food, finery, lodging and, via hired goons, protection. In return, they filled Til’s till with half their earnings. Big Jim, meanwhile, sold them cocaine, which ensured addiction and servitude.
Money rolled in. By the late 20s Tilly had 18 thriving bordellos, a thriving sideline in sly grog and drug-peddling, and was Queen Bee in Sydney’s humming hive of vice. As a hurricane of violence tore the city apart, she sat in its eye: dressed in furs, festooned by jewels, biting off the fingers of enemies, setting coppers on fire, cackling at chaos.
But the bad times couldn’t last. The era when Tilly and her deadly rival Kate Leigh could feud in the headlines
while their thug armies warred in the streets was at an end. New consorting laws had choked the underworld and the angels of death fluttered off to WWII, leaving Tilly to battle a new rival: the taxman.
Tilly held out through the 50s until younger, crueller crims forced her (via firebomb) to wink out the last red light in 1968. For 50 years, hard men had been her employers and enforcers, but never her masters. Tilly retired to anonymity, living out her days in a bullet-riddled Maroubra home on a war widow’s pension until cancer clawed her down in 1970. It’s said a toast to ‘dear Til!’ went up on her passing – but no one drank. Angus Fontaine
1900 Matilda Twiss born 8 Sep in London
1914 Goes on the game, first of 204 arrests
1917 Marries sapper and pimp Jim Devine
1920 Hits Sydney, soon a notorious ‘inkwell’
1926 Buys first brothel in Palmer St, Darlo
1929 Battle of Kellett Street
1936 Read riot act by NSW police. Truce
1944 Divorces Big Jim, weds Eric Parsons
1955 $20,000 tax bill puts Tilly on skids
1968 Loophole closes, ‘Queen Tilly’ retires
1970 Matilda Devine dies 24 Nov, age 70
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