The Camberwell Society

Society for those living, working or interested in Camberwell

Camberwell’s dark mistress of sin


Her name suggested an innocence and beauty but Matilda “Tilly” Twiss was no angel, as Mark Webb discovers

Camberwell has had its fair share of notorious gangsters, men like the Charlie and Eddie Richardson who ran their violent kingdom from Addington Square, but among them was a woman crime boss who ruled Sydney’s underworld with an iron fist and a cruel razor.

Matilda Mary Twiss was born in Camberwell in 1900 to bricklayer Edward and his wife Alice. They lived in what is now Comber Grove where “Tilly” grew up to be street tough, belying her waif-like physique with a temper and a reputation for scrapping tiger-like with nails and boots if cornered. She dropped out of school to work in a book binding factory that produced bibles, but decided instead that she wanted a life of sin.

Aged just 12, Tilly fell prostitution and plied her trade on the streets of Soho and Covent Garden where she was arrested 84 times for a variety of offences including theft and assault. Hers might have remained a sad life of exploitation if not for the chance meeting with an Australian soldier named Jim Devine who was in London on leave.

They fell for one another and were married in 1917 at the Church of Sacred Heart of Jesus in Knatchbull Road. A son named Freddie was born two years later but he would be left behind to be raised by his grandparents when, a few months later, Tilly followed her new husband to Australia.

Once in Sydney, Jim Devine’s true colours emerged. He had claimed to be a shearer and own a kangaroo farm but instead was a violent standover man who insisted that his bride work in an East Sydney brothel.

Tilly’s had no choice, but she wanted more in life. Her formidable reputation would be built on an incident in which she sought out a client who had not paid for her services. She found the man – a gangster - in a barber’s shop where she slashed his face with a razor. After a two-year stint in prison and a brief trip back to Camberwell, she set about building a Sydney bordello empire and by the mid 1930s she was “Queen of the Loo”, running a number of brothels and dozens of call girls in the harbourside suburb of Woolloomooloo.

In the meantime, Jim had been running protection but was also heavily involved in sly grog and cocaine. The money poured in, enabling Tilly, the former street girl from Camberwell, to buy properties across the city, hold lavish parties, be chauffeured in a blue limousine and live in a beachside villa. She loved to show off her wealth by wearing luscious furs and diamonds on every finger, and offset her infamy by giving generously to the war effort.

But along with the wealth came trouble with the law, arrested more than 200 times over the years and in seemingly constant feuds with rival gangs, including another notorious Sydney female crime boss named Kate Leigh which resulted in pitched street battles between their gangs and even punch-ups between the two women which made newspaper headlines and helped force the NSW Government to bring in consorting laws.

Behind the scenes, her marriage to Jim was as violent as their public lives, with tales of domestic fights involving razors and shotguns. Tilly eventually petitioned for divorce which was granted in 1943 on the grounds of domestic cruelty. Jim did not contest the case.

Tilly would marry a second time, to an ex-sailor named Eric Parsons, although the marriage got off to a bad start when she shot him in the leg after an argument. He forgave her and they were together for 13 years.

The law finally caught up with Tilly, not for her crimes but for non-payment of taxation. A female Al Capone, if you will. It almost bankrupted her and she was forced to sell off her businesses, one by one. But the bravado remained: “I am a lucky, lucky girl, “ she boasted to the media. “I have more diamonds that the Queen of England’s stowaways, and better ones too.”

Tilly sold her last brothel in 1968 and died two years later of cancer. Few attended her funeral. The only public eulogy was given by the then police commissioner Norm Allan who said: “She was a villain, but who am I to judge her?”

Tilly would turn in her grave if she knew that her great grand-daughter, Sharon Twiss, would become a police officer: “It’s like history trying to correct itself.”

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The Camberwell Society was formed in 1970 and is the recognised amenity society for those living, working or interested in Camberwell.

The Society’s objectives, as defined by our constitution, are: to stimulate public interest in Camberwell, to promote high standards of planning and architecture in Camberwell, and to secure the preservation, protection, development and improvement of features of historic or public interest in Camberwell.

We are a charity and raise money for local charities. In the past we have raised money for Southside Rehabilitation Association, St Giles Trust, Cambridge House, the CamberwellCommunity Choir, the HollingtonYouth Centre and the Camberwell Arts Festival