Fremantle Stuff > Early Days: Journal and Proceedings of the Royal Western Australian Historical Society

Early Days, Volume 9, 1983-1988

Eliza Tracey: A woman with a grievance

Rica Erickson

(Read 15th June, 1983)

Erickson, Rica 1983, 'Eliza Tracey: A woman with a grievance', Early Days, vol. 9, part 1: 103-115.


When James Tracey married Eliza Kearns at Guildford on 12 January 1860 it is difficult to determine what inducement he could offer for her to become his wife. He was an illiterate, dissolute ex-convict, with few worldly goods, earning his living as a labourer and carter. He claimed to be Anglican and she was Catholic. He was also old enough to be her father, for he was thirty-seven years of age and she was only seventeen. He did not reveal that he had been married before in Ireland, and cared not whether his spouse was alive or dead.

Eliza Kearns had come from Ireland in search of a husband, along with about a hundred young women who landed at Fremantle from the West Australian in October of the previous year. Since her arrival she had been lodged at the immigrant depot and had seen many of her fellow voyagers placed in service, some of them with prospects of marriage looming large in their future. Eliza was unprepossessing in appearance and had a shrewish tongue. She could not afford to be choosey. So she accepted Tracey’s offer of marriage and went to Guildford where he persuaded Patrick and Ellen Goulding to be witnesses at the wedding ceremony.

Goulding was also an expiree. Unlike Tracey (who apparently had no communication with his wife in Ireland and never wished to see her again) Goulding sponsored his wife and family to come and join him in Western Australia. The Gouldings were Catholic like Eliza Kearns, but having witnessed her marriage they took no further part in the Traceys’ history.

Since James Tracey was listed in the convict records as being Catholic, one is tempted to believe that he chose to be wed by an Anglican rather than a Catholic Priest and face the obligatory confession, thus revealing his proposed entry into bigamous marriage.

Tracey had been transported in the Phoebe Dunbar in 1853 having been convicted of housebreaking at Wexford in Ireland in 1850. He gained his ticket-of-leave in August 1854 and his conditional pardon in May 1858. (1) He may have revealed these details of his convict past to Eliza, secure in the knowledge that people usually scorned sentences imposed by British law. Also he would have painted an attractive picture of their future as proprietors of a wayside inn somewhere along the road from Guildford to Toodyay. She envisaged herself as managress of a flourishing hostelry. In truth Tracey took her to a modest hut, strategically built at one of the resting-places favoured by carters who camped overnight by a watering hole.

Tracey was equal to any hardships that lay ahead of her. As she proudly wrote her name in a shaky scrawl on her wedding lines she saw that James, who


could sign only with a cross would be dependent upon her to manage such of their business as required knowledge of reading and writing. Her own education was limited, but she believed it was adequate, for she had learned her three Rs in Army barracks.

Eliza was born about 1842 in India, daughter of an Irish soldier (2) who was later posted to Ireland on garrison duty. The tough life of an army barracks sharpened her wits as well as her tongue, and gave her an aggressive self-reliance. Her sojourn in Ireland also gave her some insight into the cruelty of evictions imposed on poor crofters by unfeeling landlords. She knew the strength of an excited mob when desperate countrymen turned on the all-powerful bailiffs. Her early experiences were to shape the course of her extraodinary and pathetic history of which James Tracey laid the foundations, and upon which she built a very shady record.

Together James and Eliza Tracey established their place of refreshment for man and beast on the Toodyay-Guildford Road. A horse team took two or three days for the journey between these country towns, and a bullock team took much longer. Stabling facilities at a well-sited spot could be profitable.

Independent carters, as well as teamsters employed by the landholders of the Toodyay district, often carted fodder as far as Tracey’s establishment and off-loaded some of it there for use on the return journey. Most of these men were expirees and the Traceys could count on them for custom. While James looked after stabling and fodder for the animals, Eliza provided meals for men. Such places of accommodation might also offer sly grog. Complaints of drunken behaviour at wayside stops were frequent.

One of the leading settlers at Toodyay, James Drummond Jr., had a stabling agreement with Tracey for several years. His teamsters were often on the road carting wool, sandalwood and grain down to Guildford, returning with waggons loaded with stores. The Traceys bought stores from Drummond, these transactions being entered into a passbook by Drummond and checked by Eliza. Occasionally James Tracey supplied Drummond’s teamster with meat.

On one occasion there were complaints that the meat was bad, and Tracey agreed to work out the value (£4) in carting. Then in 1864 Drummond was dissatisfied with the service and ordered his men not to stay at Tracey’s any more. The Traceys continued to buy stores from Drummond, but were slow in paying their account. At length in 1870 he refused to extend their credit; thereby incurring Eliza’s wrath. On comparing accounts, Drummond claimed that they owed him £4 for the meat — which Tracey had not worked out. In retaliation Eliza sued Drummond for £118, which she claimed was due for stabling services since 1864, and which he denied having received.

Drummond was a well-respected settler, noted for his generous assistance to those in need, whether bond or free. He was also a Justice of the Peace. Eliza Tracey was known to be a quarrelsome person. It was to be expected that Drummond's evidence would be given more credence than hers. The Traceys lost the case.


did not pay their debt to Drummond and at length in March 1872 he obtained a judgment against James Tracey which empowered the sheriff to seize his horse. Tracey was fore-warned of this development and prior to the sheriff s visit he sold the horse to a friend who quickly disposed of it to a third party. (3)

Eliza was not content to let matters lie. She brooded over plans of reprisals. At the end of 1872 she brought a charge of perjury against Drummond, claiming that she had witnesses to swear that he had been present at their stables since 1864. Her case was heard at Newcastle (Toodyay) and during the hearing Eliza stayed at Newcastle with her friend Mrs Taunton, who was to be her key witness. As each of her witnesses was brought forward and cross-examined, their credibility was tested and queried. One had been in Tracey’s employment only recently, and could not have been present in 1864. Others were teamsters who could not be sure whether it was 1863 or 1864 that Drummond and his men had been at the stables. Others said they were present on the day quoted by Eliza but had not seen Drummond there. There was only Mrs Tracey’s word for it, backed by Mrs Taunton’s. When the latter faltered in the face of a lawyer’s searching questions, Eliza tried to prompt her from the floor of the court. Eliza’s lawyer, Stone, then had no option but to withdraw from the case, which was dismissed. (4) To Eliza’s reputation as a scold was added that of a liar. Drummond’s name was cleared. His ultimely death shortly afterwards removed him from further calumny by her, but lawyer Stone earned Eliza’s enmity and she was to haunt him in years to come.

Without credit and without his horse, James Tracey found himself in poor circumstances. He took to stealing an occasional sheep for meat. In October 1873 James and Eliza Tracey, with William Connery, another expiree, were arrested and charged with sheep stealing. The two men were sentenced to seven years gaol; Eliza, although implicated, was set free. She entered domestic service at Guildford, and during 1874 was employed first as a children’s nurse by Mrs Patton, next as a housekeeper by Mrs Broadhurst and then as a cook by Mrs Meagher. The following year she found the ideal position as housekeeper to a widower, Richard Edmunds. To understand the following events it is necessary to go into some detail of Edmunds' history.

Edmunds, who was in ill health and growing old, had been a hardworking man all his life. When in 1849 he married the widow Hewson at Guildford, he reared her children as his own. He cleared the Hewson properties of mortgages and saved enough money to buy a farm at Toodyay, known as ‘Woodendale’, which Hewson had formely leased and intended purchasing. Edmunds was illiterate, so he entrusted the business transactions to his wife. She took advantage of his inability to read and had the Toodyay farm registered in the name of her daughter Charlotte Hewson. the sole survivor of her children. Charlotte soon married William Ferguson, who then managed the farm. He assumed that the property was his wife’s and also that he (as her husband) had legal right to raise a mortgage on it. In 1868 during an epidemic of fever William Ferguson, his wife Charlotte and two of their four young children all died within a few days of each other. It was when the mortgagor made


a claim on the property that Edmunds discovered the trick which had been upon him and he brought an action to secure the titles to himself. (5)

The wo surviving children, Christina and the baby John, were taken to Guildford where they were reared by their grandmother, Mrs Edmunds. Eliza Tracey struck up a friendship with Mrs Edmunds and when the latter died in October 1875, she offered her services as housekeeper to Richard Edmunds. He was no doubt very relieved to have his wife’s friend come to keep house and to manage for him. Eliza for her part was glad to assume control over a comfortable cottage with its fruit trees, vegetables garden and poultry, and the additional luxury of a horse and cart at her disposal.

Richard Edmunds also gave her control of his money. The Toodyay farm was rented to a worthy expiree named John Williams who paid £35 every six months. This was sufficient for a comfortable living for the Edmunds family at Guildford. The Ferguson children did not take to Eliza but were not old enough to question the manner in which she soon came to dominate old Edmunds.

James Tracey served his prison term but when he was granted ticket-to-leave, late in 1877, Eliza declined to join him. He had nothing to offer but a vagabond life. On leaving the gaol he turned to his old associates for support, and was given work by an expiree, Bartholemew Kelleher, who had come out on the Phoebe Dunbar with him. A year later he was working for C.W. Ferguson of ‘Houghton’ on the Swan. (6) It is possible that he saw Eliza occasionally, but she enjoyed the security as mistress of Edmunds’ house and affairs, and there is no evidence that James and Eliza Tracey ever again lived as man and wife.

Early in 1884, the tenant at the Toodyay farm died. This did not alter the rental arrangements, because his son, John Williams, assumed management of the property as well as the support of his widowed mother and her large family. But from that date Eliza Tracey schemed to secure Edmunds’ properties for herself. She judged that Richard Edmunds' time was near because he suffered from painful stomach ulcers. Her first step was to persuade him to make his will in her favour. She approached John Horgan, an Irish solicitor, and a newcomer to Perth, of venerable appearance, but of extremely radical views, who had won her confidence. She explained to him that she was to be the sole beneficiary and gave reasons why the two Ferguson children should be excluded from the will. On investigating their titles to the Toodyay farm Horgan was not satisfied with their validity and he filed an affidavit on Edmunds’ behalf to have them re-registered under the 1874 Torrens Regulations. This was withdrawn when Edmunds could not support his allegations of ownership with documentary evidence. However, he held titles to Guildford Lots 156,157 and 158 as well as the land on which his cottage was standing. It was the cottage which Eliza coveted most, although during the last few years she had managed to put aside sufficient money to buy for herself a small Guildford lot with a hut on it. The will read as follows:

‘Will of Richard Edmunds, freeholder of Guildford.
Whereas the estate of William Ferguson, deceased, late of ‘Woodendale'


is indebted to me £450 and interest since 1861 and since I expended £10 in clearing the grant occupied by Thomas Giran in Guildford and roofing the house, and £20 on shingling and erecting a verandah round the present residence, and spent £20 in fruit trees, and £50 in erecting out-offices [outbuildings], stabling, cart sheds, piggery and chaff house where I reside, formerly the estate of Hewson, and have paid taxes thereon to the amount of£50 and £20 in repairs, and supported Charlotte Ferguson the stepdaughter Charlotte Hewson up to the time of marriage, for sixteen years at a cost of £640, and her brother John Hewson for six years at expense of £180. and her sister Jane Hewson for five years at expense of £100. and whereas I expended in the support of Christina Ann Ferguson for 14 years £420. the latter persons being grandchildren of John Hewson, whose widow Anne Hewson I married — Now I leave and bequeath to Mrs Eliza Treacey to her separate use, all household furniture and property in my residence, with my mare, cart, and harness and also Guildford Town Lot 40 of 3 ft acres to her absolutely. After her death to William Edmunds my nephew of Newcastle. 16.9 1884. Richard Edmunds X his mark.’

A codicil gave '1/3 shares to nephews John Edmunds of ‘Culham’ and George of North America. This was revoked, and in another codicil shortly before his death in 1886 he bequeathed to Mrs Tracey for her absolute use, all debts and rents due to then, or at his decease. (7) On the fatal day Eliza prepared an egg for his breakfast and coaxed him to eat it, despite his protests about the taste. He died some hours after in agony. Christina Ferguson was of the firm belief that he had been poisoned. His death certificate, signed by Eliza Tracey, the informant, on 10th September 1886, gave the cause as chronic intestinal ulcers.

Probate was granted in January of the next year. Eliza’s ambition, to be the owner of her own home, was fulfilled and she may well have continued in occupancy all her life but for her quarrelsome and greedy nature. In fact she was to lose everything within two years. (8)

The tenant in Eliza’s smaller cottage was an itinerant tinker, named Thomas Francis who paid her six shillings a week in rent. His de facto wife and her child were the butt of Eliza’s remarks, for she considered the family to be of the basest sort. In retaliation Francis was very insolent to Eliza. They quarrelled. She sued him for using abusive language and he was fined one shilling. In her opinion this was an insultingly paltry sum, but bystanders agreed that her own language was almost as bad as his.

This was the beginning of Eliza Tracey’s troubles, because after that, Francis neglected to pay the rent, even though she gave him three formal notices. Eliza watched the occupants of the cottage, and biding her time for when all were away from it, she went in and moved Francis’ few belongings out on to the street. When the tinker returned there was another violently abusive quarrel which ended in him charging her with trespass.


The case was heard at Guildford in August 1887, before the Stipendiary Magistrate George Walpole Leake. Francis engaged the solicitor Richard S. Haynes, another newcomer to Western Australia. Eliza placed her affairs in the hands of John Horgan. On the day of the hearing Horgan was involved in Court proceedings at Perth and he engaged another solicitor, R.B. Burnside, to defend Eliza, giving him very hurried instructions and no warning about her character. The upshot was that the judge found Eliza guilty of a very serious charge of trespass and awarded damages of £30 to Francis. Eliza roundly abused both Francis and Burnside, and did not spare the judge, scoffing at the idea of paying even a single penny and defying him to force to her to do so.

The proceedings attracted some attention. The editor of Possum interviewed Eliza, who readily told her story, giving free rein to her imagination, inventing one or two snatches of conversation which she said had taken place (9) between Leake and Burnside regarding the poor character of Francis.

Under the mistaken idea that a fine had been imposed (which could not be enforced) instead of the actual penalty of an award for damages against her (which could entail a prison sentence for non compliance) Burnside told Eliza that she could hold out against payment, so she went home in some triumph.

At the time Horgan was in serious financial difficulties because of an action for libel which he had lost. He had political aspirations, espousing the cause of the lower classes who gave him strong vocal support although many of their number were ineligible to vote. (10) He had indulged in acrimonious critism of the ruling families of the Swan River whom he described as the ‘Six Hungry Families,’ hungry for land, money and power. George Walpole Leake took offence when Horgan called him a buffoon. He won a libel suit; Horgan was fined £100 and Leake was awarded £400 damages. Horgan found it impossible to raise £500, for he had a large family to support. He mentioned his difficulties to Eliza Tracey and she offered him the titles to her properties on which to raise a mortgage. She claimed later that she had done this out of sympathy, but others saw ulterior motives in her offer. It is possible that she hoped to place him under obligation to her.

Horgan saw that with the titles in his hands he would have the means of extracting payment for his professional services. She already owed him £21.17.10 for advice and the drawing up of Edmunds’ will. He saw also that her quarrelsome nature could involve her in a number of litigations from which he might benefit. Although he declined her offer at first, he soon suggested that, as a matter of form, conveyance of the property to himself should be drawn up. This was done and a statement was included later to the effect that £100 had been paid by him as purchase money although no cash changed hands.

On Horgan's advice Eliza Tracey soon became involved in legal actions that she should never have defended. These concerned her rights to the rents of the Toodyay farm. After Edmunds’ death young John Williams consulted Horgan as to whom should receive the rents and he was told to give them to Eliza as before. However, young John Ferguson, who was nineteen years of age, claimed the money and


he accepted the services of the solicitor S.H. Parker, who brought a suit for their recovery. The case was brought to court in October 1887. (11)

Parker argued that the farm belonged to Ferguson and that Edmunds had acted merely as the children’s guardian. He won the case but Eliza refused to re-imburse John Williams the rent he paid her. That unfortunate young man was faced with the prospect of paying the rents twice over but was willing to make a settlement. However Horgan dissuaded him from meeting Parker for this purpose, and encouraged him instead to join with Eliza in defending another suit for the titles to the farm. (12) Horgan knew that having lost the first case there was little prospect of winning the second. Parker won this action in November and a fine of £168 was imposed as well. Eliza refused to pay this, and John Williams was ruined. Parker followed these actions with another law suit which secured Guildford Lots 156, 157 and 158 for his client. (By an oversight one of these blocks was left out of the judgement, but he retrieved it later). Parker warned Eliza that if she did not pay the fine of £168 he would take action to recover it from her remaining properties Lots 40 and 91.

Some lawyers suggested to Parker that the money might be obtained by suing James Tracey, since a husband was liable for his wife’s debts, but it was pointed out that Tracey had no property and such action would be useless. Eliza’s motive for offering her titles to Horgan may well have been to place them beyond the reach of these judgements against her.

In that same month of November 1887, Eliza received the summons to pay the £30 damages to Francis within seven days or she would be committed to Perth gaol for thirty days for defying the law. Contrary to her expectations, she was arrested. For about a fortnight or so she created such scenes in the prison that the warder was at a loss how to deal with her. She yelled abuse unceasingly, disturbing the other prisoners and working herself into such frenzies that at length he persuaded the medical officer that she was really ill and he was happy to see her transferred to the Colonial Hospital. There she carried on the same tactics, complaining of bugs in the bed, of filthy linen and flyblown food. She quarrelled with the matron and orderlies, and made such demands on the doctors’s attention that finally in anger and exasperation he ordered her out, as cured. She promptly dressed and discharged herself, before a warder could come to escort her back to prison. Her return to Guildford was ignored by both prison and hospital authorities.

Horgan must have visited Eliza in prison because he took Burnside there to witness signatures relating to her title deeds, but Eliza later accused him of deserting her during her ordeal. She had grown uneasy about the titles being out of her hands and asked for an acknowledgement in writing that the conveyance was one of accommodation only, or in plainer language, was a sham'. When she asked for the titles to be returned to her Horgan replied that by this time she owed him £200 and he gave her only a copy of the conveyance. Matters stood thus for a few months. During this time Horgan again contested the seat of Perth in the


Legislative Council at a by-election, after the member, Parker was obliged to resign on account of the liquidation of a company in which he was a director.

To qualify as a candidate it was necessary for Horgan to make a declaration of his property and assets, among which he listed the titles to Lot 91. Horgan, the radical, was opposed by Septimus Burt, the conservative, who stood for the established order and the ‘Six Hungry Families’. Unexpectedly Horgan won by three votes.

His excited supporters hailed him as ‘Honest John Horgan’, little knowing how dubious his claim to that title could be. Eliza Tracey was in two minds, whether to bask in the reflection of his glory, claiming that it was her land that put him into Parliament, or whether to upbraid him for the mishandling of her affairs, for she was fast losing confidence in him, and regretted her imprudent transactions. She was considering placing her affairs in the hands of another lawyer, named Percy J. Harvey, a very young man recently admitted to the bar, and who had just withdrawn from a brief partnership with R.S. Haynes, although this she did not know.

At the same time, for safe keeping, she gave her copy of the conveyance of her titles to an old crony while she was in the throes of deciding which lawyer to trust. Her faith in the old woman was quite misplaced; for her sympathies lay with the Ferguson children and she took the document to S.H. Parker. He read it with interest and made a copy for himself before handing it back with the advice that it should be returned to Eliza. Eliza then gave it into Harvey’s care.

Eliza always blamed Harvey for revealing its contents to Haynes, his former partner, but in fact it was Parker who told Haynes that Eliza’s interest in her property was practically nil, since Horgan, who held the titles, also had large claims against the value of the property. Parker saw that it was futile to take proceedings against her for the recovery of £168 fine. Haynes had already made the initial moves to recover the £30 due to Francis, by having her case transferred from the Local Court to the Supreme Court where a writ could be granted for a Sheriff's sale. Parker’s news about the weakness of Eliza’s tenure in her property did not deter Haynes, for he was quick to see how he could profit from it.

Soon after Parker’s disclosure, in November 1888, Haynes approached Chief Justice Leake for a writ for a Sheriff's sale by auction of Eliza Tracey’s land, Lots 40,91 and 156 for the recovery of the £30 damages. The auction took place at Perth only two days after the advertisement, despite receipt of a letter from Horgan claiming that the land was his. The contents of this letter were made public. Haynes also gave instructions for the auctioneer to announce that he was selling only the life interest of James and Eliza Tracey (James, as the husband, had legal right to her property as well as her debts).

As Haynes rightly judged, the news of doubtful titles drastically reduced the value of the property. Since no one in his right mind would bid for a disputed title, no bids were offered, until a stranger unexpectedly bid £16 for Lot 40 and £1


for Lot 91. The auctioneer’s hammmer fell without protest from Eliza. The successful bidder was later identified as Standbury, a clerk employed by Haynes, and who was acting under instructions sent by telegram. As Haynes rode home in the train that evening he boasted of having acquired property worth £600 to £800 for the sum of £17.

The reason for Eliza’s silence at the auction was revealed much later. She believed that if the buyer thought he was buying only the life interest, and she could later prove that she held full title, then the sale would be null and void. In fact she wrote a note to Horgan to this effect, saying that they could let the sale proceed without protest and that she and Horgan ‘would have the laugh at them over their blunder.’ It was she who made the blunder. In any case Horgan was not admitting that she had right to the title. He protested about the validity of the sale and resale was ordered.

During these months of uncertainty Eliza remained in occupation of her home, determined to have her say at the second auction. On this occasion the sale was held at Guildford on the understanding that money would not change hands until clear title to the land was given.

Haynes’ clerk was instructed to offer Eliza £60 to give up her claims, but she denounced all lawyers as ‘a lot of daylight robbers' and proceeded to call upon Irishmen in the crowd to remember how bailiffs in Ireland were treated when they came to evict a poor widow from her home. Eliza was not a widow, for James Tracey was still alive, but she had grown accustomed, during her eleven years with Edmunds, to thinking of herself as his wife, and indeed answered as readily to that name as to Tracey. The sale proceeded despite her disruptive protests. Parker was present to explain that Lot 156 legally belonged to John Ferguson and that any purchaser would be buying a lawsuit. So no one bid for it. Parker was offered Lot 156 for £5 and bought it on behalf of his client, commenting that this was a less costly transaction than an expensive lawsuit. Lot 40 brought the good price of £647.

When Horgan refused to give up the titles Haynes took him to Court. An attempt by Horgan to have Eliza Tracey joined in the action as third party failed when the Chief Justice refused permission. Ultimately Horgan agreed to exchange the titles for the sum of £250, which represented a big increase on his original estimates of services rendered and included 10% interest charges. When chided for this he protested that Eliza’s own unprincipled actions in not handing back the rents to John Williams had bred a dislike of her and he felt justified in making high charges for his services. Horgan’s fortunes were at a low ebb. After little more than six months in Parliament he lost his seat to Burt in January 1889, and by October he was declared bankrupt, paying only two shillings in the pound. (13)

The new owners of Eliza Tracey’s property announced that as soon as the titles were in their hands they would evict her, even if they had to pull the house down around her ears. She was not beaten however. She approached her Member of Parliament, H.C. Rason, for redress, and he advised her to draw up a petition,


pleading for the original £30 damages to be remitted and for her to be re-vested in her land. The language used in the petition was more seemly and educated than she would have used if unaided in writing the petition herself. She soon received the necessary 45 signatures, so she must have commanded some support and sympathy. She did not stop there. She sought an audience with the Governor himself. His Secretary would have been sorely tried to calm her down and to persuade her to leave without disrupting His Excellency’s programme for the day. He mentioned the matter to Leake, who suddenly showed concern for Eliza's misfortunes, and his own involvement through his judgments. He sent her a telegram telling her to come to him. He planned to advise her to find a ‘respectable lawyer' and was of the opinion that if she would pay the original award of £30 there was a reasonable chance that ‘the whole transaction so vitiated by fraud' might be upset. However Eliza suspected his motives and ignored the olive branch.

By this time many of the legal fraternity were very disturbed by Mrs Tracey's allegations of 'fraud on one side and gross injustice on the other.’ There was growing sympathy for a woman who had been ‘plundered of her property and despoiled of all her possessions’. When her petition was presented to the Legislative Council it was agreed that a Select Committee should enquire into the circumstances. Rason was appointed chairman. The other Committee members were C.N. Warton, Attorney General Septimus Burt, Q.C., George Randell, James Morrison and Charles Harper. The two last-named were residents of Guildford and well acquainted with Eliza Tracey’s reputation as ‘a notorious virago and scold.’

On 28 March 1889 Eliza Tracey stood before them and readily responded to their searching questions, which probed the truth of some of her statements with damaging results. The sordid details of her life were exposed, and she had to admit that her story as printed in ‘Possum' was not wholly true, and that she had told it ‘for a lark'. Horgan under questioning also came out badly, as one lacking principles.

R.B. Burnside, who came to Eliza’s defence, proved that there had been some laxity in the procedures adopted by officers of the Court when they permitted the Sheriff's sale to be held, and he declared that the sale of Eliza’s property by Haynes ‘looked uncommonly dickey’. This caused some amusement because 'Dicky' Haynes had already acquired a reputation for sharpness. After some deliberation the Committee announced on 12th April 1889:

‘it regrets that they are unable to suggest any means by which Mrs Tracey can be relieved of the loss which she has sustained, but is of the opinion that such loss can be attributed to

1. her own desire to defeat the law.

2. the improper advice of her solicitor Horgan. Her ready assistance to enable her to place her property beyond the reach of her creditiors and for purposes of his own.

Your Committee is unable to say that Mr Haynes acted in any way outside the law, but is of the opinion that his adroitness, coupled with the knowledge


he had previously obtained of the title of the land, gave him an opportunity for speculation which he was not slow to profit by'.

It was agreed nevertheless that Eliza could bring a suit against the purchasers of the land, under the Paupers Act. Writs were issued, and solicitor Walter James was appointed to act for her. James’ main aim was to discipline the two lawyers, Horgan and Haynes, and he proposed bringing a charge of unlawful practice against them. Eliza’s concern was to regain her property and she was adamant that the action should include the purchasers of the property as well, arguing that if there were ‘no receivers then there would no thieves’. When she would not accept James’ advice he withdrew from the case and he was thus added to her growing list of enemies to be reviled.

Burnside, a stickler for the niceties of procedures, and who had personal disagreements with some members of the Bar, again offered his services. At the Court of Appeal, the Chief Justice agreed that there had been irregularities regarding the Sheriff s sale, and said he felt sorry for Eliza, but he was of the opinion that she should have objected at the first sale, and then should not have delayed so long in making her appeal. However he ruled that the appeal could be allowed; but made no order for costs. All that Burnside got for his trouble was more abuse from Eliza. Nevertheless he persisted and got a fresh order. On this occasion it was necessary for Eliza to place £100 in Court as security. She had quibbled at paying £30 to Francis, but readily agreed to the raising of £100 to bring her case to Court.

For the next seven months Eliza Tracey canvassed the country-side, walking from house to house, seeking lifts in carts from farm to farm, and even riding in the engine cab with drivers on the newly opened railways as she went from settlement to settlement along the Avon Valley and to Gingin. She found many willing listeners among her fellow Irishmen, for she could wag a persuasive tongue when necessity arose. Pennies and threepences were dropped into her bag along with halfcrowns and an occasional half-sovereign. She claimed that over 2,000 people contributed to her cause of a dispossessed widow fighting for her home When at length the target of £100 was reached and the money placed in Court there were delays in proceedings because Burnside became ill.

After two adjourments, Attorney-General Burt declined to hear the case, saying that she had slept on her rights. Eliza Tracey persisted in her pleas for justice until in December 1892 her case was heard before Judge Onslow. The whole story was again repeated in Court, this time with the addition of one new piece of evidence, the note which she had written to Horgan suggesting that they should allow the Sheriff's sale to proceed without protest.

Burnside saw that his client's case was almost hopeless, but asked that the £100 be allowed to stay in Court for an appeal to the High Court. The judge ruled that the money should be divided among the defendant’s counsellors. By this time Burnside was as persistent as Eliza herself, and was prepared to appeal to the Full Court if she could find a further £30. This she did by the same means as before.


The appeal was heard by Judges Onslow, Stone and Hensman who ruled there were not sufficient grounds for a case.

In 1893 Eliza endeavoured to bring the matter to Court again by summonsing Horgan on a charge of fraud, but the local police magistrate would not hear her. Horgan was to play no further part in Eliza’s story. His defeat in Parliamentary elections and the collapse of his business left him without spirit and he died in 1908, a somewhat bitter old man.

By this time the tangled skein of Eliza Tracey’s conflict with the law was almost beyond unravelling and even the lawyers were becoming confused. Obsessed by the wrongs done to her, she produced a pamphlet giving the story of her life; dwelling on her numerous encounters with the law. Again she must have received aid in the writing, as well as the printing. In March 1896 she was touting copies to passers-by of ‘Mrs Tracey’s Case — or Legal Robbery in W.A.’ From its sale she proposed raising funds for further litigation.

She declared in the introduction that her intention was ‘to steer people through the intricacies of an outrageous case. Many who were inclined to the most generous sympathy with the victim of unparalleled concatenation of fraud, misfortune and misunderstanding, after following the case to a certain point suddenly lost their way, and on some imaginary or misinterpreted piece of evidence formed an altogether erroneous opinion... Mrs Tracey therefore caused a full statement of all the details of the case to be written down, and it is to be hoped that the following account of her misfortunes will give the public a clearer insight into the unheard of injustice done to her by the Courts of Western Australia’ (14)

She was then living in Perth. Across the verandah of her house in William Street was hung a large calico sign inscribed ‘Mrs Tracey, Robbed by Malice and Corruption by our Judges and Lawyers in W.A. Authoress of Legal Robbery.'

Although her main target for abuse were the lawyers, the judges were not immune from attack. In 1900 she placed an advertisement in the Sunday Times stating that ‘Houses of ill fame are allowed to flourish in Roe Street because most of the judges patronise them’ (15)

Her obsessive campaign for justice was paranoic. Her virulent, loud-mouthed vendetta against lawyers enlivened the streets of Perth for many years. She vowed they were all leagued against her, and she linked them through their family relationships: S.H. Parker was a son-in-law of G.W. Leake.

Parker’s brother married a sister of the wife of Walter James. Walter James was a partner in the firm Leake, James & Co. Leake’s son was a brother-in-law of Septimus Burt and so on.

Eliza Tracey's vituperations today would be considered scandalous, but those were more tolerant days. If she saw Walter James or R.S. Haynes hurrying along to the Courts she would waylay them and spit out her insults; ‘Look at them, James the Robber and Dirty Dick.' It was said that if either of them caught sight of her


from afar they would dash down a side street to avoid an encounter, for she would yell at them from across the road, to the consternation and amusement of passersby.

Once when James was embarking on a year-long stay in England, he remarked to a friend. 'Just fancy having twelve months rest from this wicked old woman.’ (|6) Haynes, on the other hand when asked, after her death, whether he believed in spiritualism replied with conviction, ‘Certainly not. Do you think old Mother Tracey would leave me in peace if she could return to torment me?’

Even as late as 1901 Eliza Tracey had not given up her fight. In October that year she presented another petition, on this occasion to the newly-elected Parliamentary member for Perth, asking his help ‘to regain her rightful possessions', declaring that she was ‘almost dependent on charity for the necessities of life.’

She made no effort to be re-united with her husband James Tracey, whom she described as ‘much older than herself, of a different religion, and given to drink and bad living.’ He was still a poor labourer, employed at Bindoon where he died, unmourned, on 6th May 1902.

Eliza Tracey earned a precarious living as a charwoman, and as a midwife, although her services in that field were not in great demand. Midwifes in those days usually lived in the home of the patient and acted as a housekeeper until the mother was on her feet again. In 1911, when midwives were required to register, she was recorded as having attended only twenty cases in twenty five years of practice. She was then 69 years of age and living at 64 Parry St. Perth. Her midwifery Registration Number was 344. (18) In later years she conducted a small labour bureau in Perth and her home was in Victoria Park.

By the turn of the century Eliza adopted politics as her field of interest and campaigned for the Labour Party. In an age when it was considered unseemly for women to address political meetings Eliza Tracey made her mark as a public speaker. She had attracted notoriety, even before Mrs Pankhurst, the suffragette, was before the public eye. Eliza expounded at length, but without knowledge or logic, on such subjects as Franchise for Women, Federation, and Prostitutes. She was more an embarrassment than a help to the causes she embraced. But no matter what topic she announced as her subject, her speeches never failed to turn to her battle with the lawyers. If their portraits appeared in newspapers she held them aloft and then tore them to pieces and trod them into the ground. (19)

On Saturday evenings she stood at the busiest street corners in Perth distributing handbills inviting people to come to hear her on the Esplanade the following afternoon. Her soapbox oratory was the regular, weekend diversion for the idle, male population of Perth. In the eyes of some she was a pathetic figure. Florid, over-plump, and given to wearing a large hat covered with flowers, she stood on a rickety chair provoking ribald comments. She interspersed her discourse with hymns and she called for patriotic cheers for the Monarchy. She parried every thrust from her hecklers with quick, earthy Irish wit and could hold her own with any of them. Her weakness lay in her own greed and deceit, and her talents deserved a better cause than Eliza Tracey.


She died on 24 February 1917, notorious as one of the eccentric characters of Perth, the subject of ribald verses in the variety concert halls of the day. She became a legendary figure, remembered for decades by those who had flocked Esplanade on Sundays to hear her tirades against ‘thim thievin’ lahyers.'


1. Rica Erickson, Dictionary of Western Australians, Vol. 2, Perth, 1979 I

2. Death certificate of Eliza Tracey

3. Inquirer, 19 March 1872

4. Ibid, Supp. 18 Dec. 1872

5. Ibid, 3 Nov. 1869

6. WABI files on employers of convicts, in Battye Library.

7. Will No. 825, Probate Office

8. W.A. Leg. Co. V. & P., 1889, Paper A8: Report of the Select Committal ....appointed to inquire into the Allegations contained in Mrs Tracey’s petition... I Evidence given before this committee gives many of the facts of Eliza Tracey's I law suits

9. Possum, 10 Sept. 1887, BL

10. C.T. Stannage, The People of Perth, Perth, 1979, p.196.

11. West Australian, Oct. 1887

12. Ibid, 11 Nov. 1887

13- Western Mail 5 Oct. 1889, p.16

14. Mrs Tracey's Case, in Pamphlets, 8vo series vol. XXIX, Battye Library.

15. Victor Courtney, All I May Tell, Sydney, 1956, p.77

16. Letter from W. James to William Patterson, 8 October 1905, James PapetsI Mitchell Library, 412, Ic

17. Victor Courtney, Perth and All This, Sydney, 1962, p.289

18. Information from Miss V. Hobbs, author of But Westward Look, Nedlandsl 1980.

19. E. Joll, Weekend Magazine, 8 Nov. 1969, p.10-14 >


During Saturday Mrs. Eliza Tracey, a well-known litigant, circulated bills announcing that I she would speak on 'Woman's Franchise' on the Esplanade on the following afternoon. Three o'clock was the hour fixed for the ‘monster meeting’ but when it arrived there were no ladies present. A large crowd of men surrounded Mrs. Tracey, who stood on a table, draped with scarlet cloth, and flanked by the British and the American colours. Mrs Tracey has a grievance, she said, about woman's franchise, besides demanding it from the sex whose 'tyranny' had so long withheld an equitable privilege:— “Give us the franchise, and then, begorra, there'll be no more eating and drinking at the Weld Club at poor women's expense." "What about federation?" asked a gentleman in the crowd. Mrs Tracey retorted — “Hould yer whist! This is not the time for fideration. I'll be after telling vez when the country wants fideration." She had reserved, she said, chairs for Sir John and Lady Forrest, but regretted that they were not present. But Mrs Tracey bore no malice, and called for three cheers for them. As no one joined, she did the cheering herself. She said that she was 'very proud' of Mr Walter James, who was a good man, a nice man, a 'broth of a man.’ for having assisted the women of Western Australia to get their lawful rights. It was a blessed sight, the lady added, to see Mr James, with a blush on his cheeks, eloquently holding forth on the subject of woman's franchise. Concerning her own particular grievance. Mrs Tracey said that she had written to ‘Sydney and the other nations.' acquainting them with the wrongs inflicted on her by a certain villain.' Give us his name?" some one suggested. ‘Indade, then. I'll not; Ye’ll know him when ye see him' As a mark of identification, she added confidentially that this 'villain' always roamed about with his hands in other people's pockets, and belonged to one of the six families.' But she had written to ‘Sydney and the other nations’ to say that she was a soldier's daughter, and would stick to her guns and fire away the truth — the truth which shamed the devil." There was a good deal more said by this lady which had no bearing on woman's franchise, as she addressed the crowd for about an hour and a half.'

(An extract from an unnamed newspaper, July 1899)

Garry Gillard | New: 30 August, 2020 | Now: 30 August, 2020