Another week, another bit of craziness. The world is out of control, we are out of control, everything is out of control. The problem is that I don’t know about you, but I don’t do out of control very well. Somewhere in my mind needs to be at least one peaceful space that I comfortable hang in. One well of inspiration, of loveliness, of strength.

This is why I have spent most of the last few months doing research into people who we can rightfully call role-models. The ones who lived by my new (stolen) motto: live with courage and in hope. Today, I will present four more. A copper, a singer, an astronomer and an activist. You’ll be amazed. And inspired, I hope.

‘The women police…one thinks of Amazons. But behind those penetrating brown eyes, beyond that kindly smile, you find the realist. A woman of great prudence, a student of human nature. And all day to study it’, the Sydney Sun wrote in the 1930s.

The Amazon in question was policewoman Lilian Armfield, as often in this little series of ours the first in her field. In 1915, Lillian Armfield was a nurse at Callan Park Asylum in Sydney when an opportunity presented itself that was too good to pass up.

The NSW Police Department was recruiting its first two policewomen. Armfield applied and got the job. She had to sign an indemnity form saying that her employer was not responsible for her safety. She was not allowed to carry a gun or any other weapon. There were no uniforms, if you married you were sacked, there was no compensation for injuries sustained on the beat and Armfield had no powers of arrest – only men could do that.

Despite this, she became the first female detective and boss of the Women’s Police. In 2011, Lillian Armfield was portrayed in Underbelly- Razor, that tells the story of her struggle against the Razor Gangs of Kate Leigh and Tilly Devine. If you’ve been in Sydney for a while, you undoubtedly know about Tilly Devine and probably also about Kate Leigh. They are interesting women in their own right. Both born in poor working-class families, they rose to criminal prominence in the 1920s. Devine as the Queen of Woolloomooloo, Leigh in charge of Surry Hills. Together, but very much in opposition, they ran the world of sly-grog, prostitution, cocaine trade, gambling and murder.


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During the Razor Wars, which lasted from 1927 to 1931, Sydney was often entertained by pitched battles between the gangs, while the ladies themselves regularly physically fought each other as well. To nab them was difficult, though, because both of them took good care of their neighbourhoods, supporting poor people, orphanages and even churches, especially during the Great Depression. And for men, in particular, there was much to like.

Call girls for the politicians and wealthy businessmen, tenement girls for the middle and lower classes and boat girls for the sailors. Armfield was in charge of the investigation into Devine and Leigh’s criminal organisations and she was one of the few who got results. That was understandable. One, because she was a very good copper. And two, because from the start of her career she had been tracking, finding and returning run-away girls, who usually hid in inner-city Sydney. So, by the time the Razor Wars started, Armfield knew the area and its people like the back of her hand. This meant that she was able to arrest both women on numerous occasions and send them to gaol. By now she was famous as the only woman allowed to carry a service revolver. In 1946, just before she retired, she was finally recognised with the King’s Police- and Fire Service Medal.  


Somebody who was as well-known as Armfield, but for a different reason was singer Anna Bishop. “Madame Anna Bishop sang with that delicate finish and that remarkable intonation…She was most enthusiastically called for on several occasions during the progress of the opera and loaded with the bouquets of her admiring audience”, wrote The Sydney Morning Herald on 28 January 1856.

At the time, Anna Bishop was on her first tour of Australia. Not with her husband (who used to be her music teacher), but with her lover, Nicholas Bochsa, who had been a harpist for Napoleon and was now wanted in France on a charge of forgery and bigamy. To be with Bochsa, Bishop had left her husband and three children; a major scandal that saw her banned from the theatres and opera stages in London. Undeterred, the couple organised themselves a tour that, literally, went everywhere. From New York to San Francisco during the Gold Rush, Mexico, Cuba, most of Latin America, Hong Kong, Singapore, India, Ceylon, New Zealand and Australia, hailed everywhere they went. Unfortunately, two weeks after the couple arrived in Sydney, Bochsa died and was buried in an enormous, over-the-top monument at Newtown cemetery. In front of the grave was a sculpture of La Bishop herself, weeping.

Nevertheless, she was back at work a week later. In 1866, still, on tour, her ship was wrecked en route to China. The soprano’s jewellery, music and costumes were lost, as well as the captain and half the crew. The people who survived, including Anna, kept themselves alive eating seabirds and fish on an atoll for a few weeks, before they rowed 1400 miles to Guam. It didn’t deter Bishop in the slightest. Despite the dangers of travel, she came back to Sydney twice, in 1868 and 1875, still singing.

Less in the public eye, but maybe even more inspirational and important was Cinderella (Ella) Jane Simon. She was born in a tent on the outskirts of Taree in 1902, the result of the rape of her Aboriginal mother by her white employer.

Whenever the police came to take children away, her mother would blacken her face to make her look darker, less ‘mixed’. But when Ella was three, her protector died of typhoid and tuberculosis and Ella was sent to live with her maternal grandparents on the Purfleet Aboriginal Mission. Until she was twelve, she didn’t know anything about her parentage. But in a way she was lucky, because her grandmother was Kundaibark, a traditional healer and a rape survivor.

On the Mission, she nursed sick people, acted as a midwife and taught her granddaughter not only those medical skills, but also Biripi stories and culture, and the right way to tell them. And she made sure Ella felt proud of her heritage, proud of her colour too. At twelve, her grandmother became ill herself and Ella was sent to work as a domestic, forced to bolt her room shut at night wherever she went. Confronted with other Aboriginal girls in the same situation, Ella began to speak up and soon she was branded a troublemaker.

Early in the 1930s, she married Joe Simon, a guitarist and singer and together they travelled the country, as evangelists and activists. After the war, Joe and Ella founded a self-governing Indigenous church and asked for a Certificate of Exemption, a piece of paper Aboriginal people needed at the time so they could leave the reserve. ‘A passport in my own land, to give me rights to be a citizen of Australia – my own country. The manager said that the Aboriginal was really nobody – not a human being in the land which should have been his own by right of birth’. It was granted ten years later, enough time to solidify Ella Simon into an activist for life. 

In the 1960s, houses on the reserve still lacked electricity and even stoves, so that was Simon’s first focus when she founded an Aboriginal section of the Country Women’s Association of NSW. When that was achieved, she set up a shop, investing the profits into the education of local children. Soon, the place turned into a local Indigenous hub, with a baby health centre, a preschool and a nurse. In her 1978 book Through my eyes, Ella Simon held up a mirror to both the white and the Aboriginal community. Being seen as ‘half-caste’, she had trouble being accepted by either side, which led her to the conclusion that colour was a fairly stupid measure of differentiating between people. Weren’t we, she wrote, all ‘strands in the new mat’ of humanity? Well then. End of. Also not particularly recognised by her peers was Ruby Payne-Scott. We all know Fred Watson as a man of moderate sentiments, but in his latest book Cosmic Chronicles he got definitely gushing on behalf of the world’s first female radio astronomer, Ruby Payne-Scott. This is what he wrote: ‘Ruby’s story is one of extraordinary courage in the face of unjust sexual discrimination in science. Born and raised in NSW, she was educated at Sydney University, where she had a distinguished academic career. Her wartime work at the Radiophysics Laboratory led to significant post-war contributions in the new science of radio astronomy, together with the design of innovative new instrumentation and techniques. Forced to resign from CSIRO in 1951 because there was no such thing as maternity leave, she raised her family and then returned to school-teaching. Were she alive today, Ruby would be one of the megastars of STEM’. 


What is also worthy of note, though, was that Payne-Scott was a feminist, a communist and an atheist and therefore the proud ‘owner’ of a massive ASIO-file. She also regularly fought with CSIRO, especially when the organisation halved her salary and took away her pension rights after it found out she had gotten herself married. Look, I am a bit too much of an alpha-brain to really understand the importance of Payne-Scott’s work, but a few terms jump out. She did research into solar noise and sunspots, as well as extra-terrestrial radio signals. And she was part of the first radio astronomy experiment in the southern hemisphere. Look up the rest, you’re in (partial, lifting?) lockdown anyway.


For this story I have used the following sources:

Fred Watson Cosmic Chronicles Sydney, NewSouth, 2018


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