Lillian Armfield and Maude Rhodes were the first women to be appointed as police officers in NSW, and indeed Australia.
In 1915, after almost 35 years of lobbying by feminist organisations, the NSW Inspector-General of Police at last advertised for female officers.
It is reputed that there were over 400 applications. The criterion for joining were that the woman had to be over 5 feet 5 inches tall, aged between 25 and 30 years old, have a leaving certificate and be from a good family background. Lillian Armfield had been a mental health nurse at Callan Park Hospital for the Insane since 1907, while Maude Rhodes had been an inspector with the Child Welfare Department, a job she later returned to.
These two women were employed in the second year of the First World War, but they were not recruited to stem vacancies in the police force caused by men enlisting to fight. Feminist groups including the Women’s Progressive Association led by Annie Golding and the rival Woman’s Suffragist League, led by Rose Scott, were campaigning to get women on the police force to ensure that female officers would attend to the special problems of women and children.
It has also been suggested that the Inspector-General of Police, James Mitchell, was keen to employ female officers in order to save male officers the embarrassment of arresting unruly women.
When Armfield and Rhodes were hired in 1915, they had to sign a contract which specified that were not to be given a uniform. The contract also specified that did not get superannuation or long service leave, and were not entitled to compensation if they were injured in the line of duty. They were classed as ‘Special Constables’, which meant that promotion was slow and also that they were not ranked alongside their male colleagues.
Things did not change for female police officers until the mid 1960s, but even then, women still had to resign if they were married, a situation that didn’t change until the early 1980s, following the passage of the Anti-Discrimination Act 1977.
Female police officers such as Armfield and Rhodes were considered to be a type of moral guardian. It was said that their primary duties, in looking after the special problems of women and children, were to ‘prevent crime and to ensure moral rescue’. Their duties included looking out for truants, patrolling ports and railway stations to intercept female travellers who did not have anyone to meet them, to monitor houses of íll repute and to crack down on fortune tellers. Armfield later recalled that she worked from dawn till 11pm most days, which included dawn raids in the seedier areas of the city to rescue young women from opium dens and brothels.
By the mid 20th century, there were 36 female police officers in NSW, of whom 14 of were uniformed, responsible for directing traffic in front of schools. Many of these women had been trained by Lillian Armfield. When she retired in 1950 after 35 years of dedicated service, she did not receive a pension. For more about Armfield’s life and times, check out Vince Kelly’s Rugged Angel at your local library.