Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Eliza Tracey (1842–1917)

by Rica Erickson

This article was published:

Eliza Tracey (1842?-1917), litigant, was born in India, daughter of an Irish soldier named Kearns. As an assisted immigrant from Ireland, she came to Western Australia in 1859 and on 12 January 1860 at Guildford married James Tracey, an illiterate labourer and ex-convict. They ran an inn, but failed to pay their debts. When refused credit in 1873, she twice sued the merchant, unsuccessfully. In 1870 the Traceys were charged with stealing sheep; James was imprisoned and thereafter disappeared from Eliza's life.

She became housekeeper to the widower Richard Edmunds, an ageing blacksmith at Guildford who owned two cottages and a farm. Mrs Tracey managed his business and reared his two resentful grandchildren. With the help of a lawyer, John Horgan, she induced Edmunds to bequeath her a life interest in his properties. After his death in 1886 she received rent from the cottages and farm, but the grandson claimed the farm rents since the titles were in his mother's name. Horgan advised Eliza to contest the three resulting lawsuits. She lost them all.

Eliza quarrelled with a tenant of one of the cottages and sued him for abusive language; he refused to pay rent, so she put his scant possessions on the street. The tenant won a suit for trespass with £30 damages. On the advice of Horgan, she refused to pay; to her indignation, she was imprisoned. Horgan asked for £250 in fees; Eliza gave him the titles to her cottage—as security—and transferred her legal business to R. S. Haynes. When a sheriff arranged to sell her cottage to raise the £30, Eliza thought that no one would bid for property in which she held only life interest. Haynes then paid £17 and acquired her property which was worth £600. Horgan protested and received £250 from Haynes for the titles. Evicted from her cottage, Eliza petitioned parliament for redress. In 1889 a select committee uncovered her shady past and her reputation as a 'virago and scold', and concluded that she had compounded her loss by greed and deceit; while Horgan and Haynes had employed 'adroit' practices, they were within the law.

Perturbed by these events, other lawyers offered their aid. To raise £130 to bring her case to court, Eliza went begging in the settlements of the Swan and Avon valleys. The Full Court ruled that there were insufficient grounds for charges. Further appeals were refused in 1893. She again petitioned the government in 1901 when she appeared dressed as a lawyer; eventually, in 1904, parliament granted her a compassionate allowance. Determined to 'fight so long as I have life in my body', she saw the attorney-general in 1907 who concluded that no case existed for reviewing the original decision.

Waging a vendetta against the legal fraternity, Eliza published a pamphlet, Robbed by Malice and Corruption by our Judges and Lawyers; she also placed a notice in the Sunday Times stating that brothels in Roe Street flourished because judges patronized them. From her soap-box at the Esplanade on Sundays, she harangued the men of Perth about topical issues and thieving lawyers. The butt of ribald interjections, she responded with coarse wit. Towards the end of her life she conducted a labour bureau. Mrs Tracey died on 24 February 1917 at Victoria Park and was buried in the Anglican section of Karrakatta cemetery. Her estate was sworn for probate at £134.

Select Bibliography

  • R. Erickson, ‘Eliza Tracey, a Woman with a Grievance’, Early Days, 1983.

Citation details

Rica Erickson, 'Tracey, Eliza (1842–1917)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1990, accessed online 20 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 12, (Melbourne University Press), 1990

View the front pages for Volume 12

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Kearns. Eliza



24 February, 1917 (aged ~ 75)
Victoria Park, Perth, Western Australia, Australia

Cultural Heritage

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