Two women from completely different worlds and yet geography brought them close together in an unlikely partnership.
Eva Janet Holland was born into a missionary family, being the daughter of the Reverend Edward Holland who it was believed shared a room with the well-known missionary David Livingstone. Both were ordained by the London Missionary Society in 1840 as foreign missionaries. Mr Livingstone headed to Africa while Mr Holland headed for Jamaica. He eventually arrived in Australia, working in various parishes in rural NSW.
Memorial to Eva Janet Holland. Courtesy South Sydney Herald, Andrew Collis
Eva was born in 1859 in Port Macquarie and soon became entrenched in the Presbyterian church. In 1905 when the NSW General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church approved a scheme for the establishment of a 'settlement' in Woolloomooloo, Eva was appointed to run the Palmer Street church as the first deaconess.
Eva had a heart for the women of the area which prompted her to join the ministry. She lived and worked in St Andrew’s House and was a pastor to the women she worked with. She established sewing clubs for the women which helped to equip them with basic home-making skills. Eva also established after-school clubs for the school-age children.
It was while Eva was running these children's clubs that she came into contact with the queen of Sydney's underworld, Tilly Devine. Matilda Mary Twiss was born in the UK in 1900. By 16 years old she had married Australian Jim Devine. Her career in prostitution began when she was a teenager and continued after she was married and was often locked up for this, as well as theft and assault.
Tilly followed Jim to Australia in 1920 and the couple became well known for running illegal drugs, brothels and crime gangs. She became known as the 'Queen of Wolloomoolo' running a string of brothels centred around Darlinghurst and the Cross, and in particular, Palmer Street. During the Depression one day, Tilly wandered into the Palmer Street church while Eva was running a children's club.
Tilly Devine in 1925. By State Reformatory NSW
Tilly was so impressed by the purpose of the children's club to keep the young ones safe, she donated the large amount of £25. Eva used the money to take the children on an outing to Centennial Park for a picnic when some of them had never experienced playing on grass before. Sometime later Tilly revisited the church and asked what had been done with the money. Eva told her about the picnic. Tilly replied, “Yes, I know. I had the boys check it out. I’ve come to tell you that you and your girls will be safe in the area. I’ve sent out a message to the boys to look after you.”
Eva went on to work in the area for 35 years, being recognised for her work in 1939 as a guest of honour at St Stephen's Church in Macquarie Street where she was presented with cheques for her work. She retired in 1940 and eventually died in 1954 after a long illness. Even in the 1980s people within the Woolloomooloo community remembered Eva and spoke of her social welfare work,
Tilly suffered from chronic bronchitis for 20 years, and died of cancer, aged 70 in Sydney on 24 November 1970. Her funeral service was poorly attended and her death went virtually unnoticed by Sydney's media and population.
'Thirty two years as a deaconness', The Daily Telegraph, Saturday, 8 July 1939, Page 10
'St Andrews Women's Guild - An appreciation', Dungog Chronicle: Durham and Gloucester Chronicle, Tuesday 20 June, 1933, Page 1
'Story of state's first deaconesses', by Lyn Turnbull, South Sydney Herald, accessed 14th May, 2022, Story of state’s first deaconess - South Sydney Herald
'The Late Rev Edward Holland', The Dubbo Liberal and Macquarie Advocate, Wednesday 24 July, 1895, Page 3
'Tilly Devine', Wikipedia, accessed on 16th May, 2022, Tilly Devine - Wikipedia