From the 1870s onwards, Mrs Eliza Tracey was a serial litigant within the Western Australian Courts. Initially her husband, James, brought the cases but it is likely that he did so with the firm backing of his wife.
By the 1880s the Traceys had mutually separated and Mrs Tracey continued to pursue her own lawsuits. While she had the occasional success, for the most part, she barely won a case.
After the separation she lived in Guildford and worked as a housekeeper for Richard Edmunds. At some point during that time Richard was said to have been induced to change his Will and he bequeathed her a life interest in his Toodyay property. Upon his death in 1886, she began receiving rent.
Richard’s grandson was understandably unhappy with that arrangement and he claimed the property for himself as the titles were in his mother’s name. He sued the tenant for possession of the land as well as the rent. Despite not being the defendant, Mrs Tracey had an interest in seeing the plaintiff’s case fail.
Mrs Tracey, a local celebrity, has been busy in vindicating her right to secure rent, and has unsuccessfully endeavored to draw blood from a stone, but not without having to suffer somewhat from financial draft herself.Victorian Express (Geraldton, WA : 1878 – 1894); 30 July 1887; Page 5; District News.
Her confidence was insurmountable. In early November 1887 (when the case was heard in the Supreme Court) she strode into the court room and promptly took a seat next to her solicitor, John Horgan. It rubbed rival solicitor, Stephen Parker, the wrong way and he questioned “…whether the lady had been admitted to the bar; if not, she had better be accommodated with a seat elsewhere.” A chair was provided and Mrs Tracey opted to sit directly behind Mr Horgan, whispering in his ear for the duration of the trial. Whatever she had to say to him did not help; the plaintiff won.
Some time after the trial she lost her temper with one of her tenants and threw his possessions out onto the street. The tenant sued her for trespass, won and was awarded costs of £30. She followed Horgan’s advice and refused to pay. A judgment summons was eventually issued against her in the Guildford Local Court however she declared that “…she would rather go to gaol than pay the amount.” Upholding his end of the bargain, Acting Police Magistrate, James James, sentenced her to a month’s imprisonment but stayed execution for a week to give her a chance to change her mind.
Mrs Tracey did not change her mind and an order was given for her removal to Perth Gaol. Upon her arrival, she complained of feeling sick. The authorities sent for the Colonial Surgeon and when he arrived she refused to see him, ordering that her own doctor be brought to attend to her. The prison authorities rejected her request until her solicitor was summoned and he confirmed that (as a debtor) she had a right to her own physician. Mrs Tracey’s doctor arrived, examined her, and immediately instructed that she be removed to the Colonial Hospital.
She remained in custody in hospital for nearly her entire sentence. A few days before it was due to expire she was released as a convalescent, much to the chagrin of the creditor.
Her creditor got very mad upon hearing the news, and (so we are informed) is now taking steps to recover from the Government the whole amount of the judgment – on the ground that they unlawfully discharged his debtor from prison before she had served the sentence imposed upon her in satisfaction of the debt.The Daily News (Perth, WA : 1882 – 1950); 17 January 1888; Page 3; News of the Day.
Mrs Tracey continually followed the advice of Mr Horgan and reached a point where she owed him £250 in legal fees. Unable to pay the fees, she gave him the title to her Guildford property as security and employed another solicitor, Richard Haynes, to act on her behalf.
Up until that point, Mrs Tracey had only really been known for her continuous court cases. That was all to change on 19 May 1888, after a public meeting in Guildford. Incensed that not enough people who lived in the area had attended, she stood up and issued a tirade against them which lasted for several minutes. When she resumed her seat, she did so “…amid the applause of the male portion of the meeting.” Perhaps it was that moment which first sparked her passion for public speaking and turned it into a blazing fire when she lost her house.
In 1889 the Sheriff eventually sought to recover the £30 costs (which was never discharged during Mrs Tracey’s time in hospital) and, to do so, arranged for the sale of her Guildford cottage. Due to the title being with Horgan, the auction was not expected to go well. Knowing everything about her business dealings and choosing to take advantage of the situation, her new solicitor, Haynes, purchased the cottage for £17, well below its value of £600. Horgan (who was in possession of the title deed) objected to the sale and was paid £250 (the amount he was owed) by Haynes to hand it over.
A furious Mrs Tracey found herself homeless and penniless and petitioned the Legislative Assembly for redress. After their investigation, they found that both solicitors had acted within the law although Haynes’s actions may have been morally questionable. With regards to Mrs Tracey, they stated that “her own desire to defeat the law” had acted against her.
More Government petitions and court cases followed throughout the 1890s. Each avenue failed and the law was upheld. Most people, including the Chief Justice, were of the opinion that there was nothing to be done. Mrs Tracey had essentially sealed her own fate by the way she had acted.
Angry at both the lawyers and the Government and with no other option before her, she took her grievances to the people of Perth. She began by vocally campaigning against Richard Haynes who was a candidate for election to the local council. When that was over, she took to airing her views publicly in a series of lectures.
Her first lecture took place in the Perth Town Hall on 11 January 1899. For the maximum cost of two shillings, the public had the opportunity to listen to her talk about ‘Truth and Justice in Western Australia‘.
According to the West Australian Sunday Times, no one turned up. Whether she had to pay costs to use the Town Hall is not known but it is probable that many people were turned off at the prospect of having to pay themselves. Never one to back down, she again gave a lecture in March, declaring that it was “the last time she will be able to give the public an opportunity of hearing her.“
There was some truth to that statement as Mrs Tracey once more embarked upon another unsuccessful court case to recover the land. With the trial over, she promptly returned to public lecturing, this time with a new venue: The Esplanade.
Perhaps well aware of her reputation in Perth, she opted to advertise her lecture in a veiled manner, simply stating that ‘A Lady’ was going to talk about ‘The Franchise for Women‘.
At 3 pm on Sunday, 30 July 1899, Mrs Tracey set herself up with a small table on the grass. On either side she placed the English and American flags (representing freedom) and on the table was a basket decorated in red, white and blue. A small sign in front of it stated that she was required to pay £40 to the Supreme Court. While it gave the impression that she was seeking donations, she later denied that was the case.
Her talk barely touched upon the subject at hand. To a small crowd of men she spoke of the legal processes which caused the loss of her land in Guildford and publicly condemned all those who were associated with the case in some way or another. At times someone in the crowd heckled her and she responded wittily.
Mrs. Tracey spoke for considerably over an hour, by which time most of those who had been attracted by the somewhat unwonted spectacle had left.The West Australian (Perth, WA : 1879 – 1954); 31 July 1899; Page 4; News and Notes.
Ignoring the negative opinions (including that of one newspaper who questioned whether anything could be done to “check such exhibitions“) Mrs Tracey again took to The Esplande in September 1899 to lecture on ‘Poverty and Crime, Their Cause and Cure‘. Having found her niche, she began to take full advantage of the attention it afforded her.
On 21 July 1900 she held a meeting at the Perth Town Hall to talk about Federation from a woman’s point of view. In her words, she had use of the hall “free gratis, and without paying for it” and spoke in front of a near capacity audience. Her Irish mannerisms, wit and plain way of speaking resulted in continual laughter from those present. At the end she urged everyone to vote ‘no’ against Federation in the referendum on 31 July. The meeting officially ended with hearty cheers for the speaker.
She spoke again for two hours on The Esplanade on 29 July and on the day of the referendum, was the first to enter the Town Hall at 9 am and “planked down her bit of blue paper before one of the clerks at the poll tables.” Not satisfied with simply voting, she returned to the Hall later in the day and “talked and talked and talked” until an elderly man continually ringing a bell at her shoulder caused her to stop.
Whenever an opinion was needed, Mrs Tracey was there to offer hers. Throughout the rest of 1900 she gave intermittent lectures at several different places on a variety of topics including ‘Holding the Candle to the Devil‘, the ‘Relative Merits of the Candidates for the Mayoralty‘, ‘The Good Samaritan‘, ‘Locked from Justice in W.A. by the Judge’s Keys‘, ‘Two Complicated Rogues‘ and her final for the year, ‘The Last Woman that was Hung in Perth‘. It was highly likely that during all these talks she mentioned her own troubles. Just in case there was someone who was not aware, she plastered a sign on the roof of her house.
Throughout 1901, letters, court cases, petitions and protests continued on a regular basis. Mrs Tracey’s public lectures also became a weekly fixture on Sunday afternoons at The Esplanade. Ever the performer, on several occasions she took to dressing up in full barrister’s regalia.
Advertisements also indicate that she may have dressed in character as Moondyne Joe. Unfortunately despite the statement in the newspapers, no photograph appears to exist.
In March 1902 Mrs Tracey took her one woman show on the road and visited Northam. From the West Northam Recreation Ground she delivered a lecture on ‘Graves and Payne’s Discovery of the first payable Eastern Goldfield in W.A., and how they were rewarded by the W.A. Government‘. A large group of people attended but soon found themselves listening to something entirely different.
The text, however, from a listener’s point of view was a wrong one. The subject of the good lady’s discourse suggested “Mrs. Tracey’s Troubles” as a far more appropriate text.The Northam Advertiser (W.A. : 1895 – 1918; 1948 – 1955); 5 March 1902; Page 2; Local and General News.
The laying of the foundation stone for the new Supreme Court in Perth was an important occasion for everyone in the legal profession. Sir Arthur Lawley performed the ceremony on 2 June 1902 and a commemorative photo was taken. All the notable people associated with the courts were present, including Mrs Tracey who was spied by a reporter in the far left of the image.
In late 1902, Mrs Tracey had some success with another petition put forward to the Government. A Select Committee was appointed to look over the case and while they admitted that she had been wronged, they stated she no longer had any legal options available. Considering that fact, the Committee recommended that the Government grant her a compassionate allowance. They initially declined to do so but later agreed to give her 15 shillings a week.
The start of the new year and continued public lectures only helped to increase her profile. Various spaces in Perth were being renamed and one writer suggested (tongue-in-cheek) that The Esplanade be called ‘Tracey Park’. Advertisements for her talks were continually placed in the papers however she had reached a point where she was no longer surrounded by a handful of curious people unsure of what they were listening to. Instead, crowds gathered on The Esplanade anticipating her arrival.
The clock struck three, and a sense of disappointment pervaded the atmosphere. Presently a shout of “Here she is!” directed all eyes to a squat little figure bearing down on the centre of the arena, laden with a chair, a basket wrapped in the Federal flag, a brief-bag, and a piece of tin…The Daily News (Perth, W.A. : 1882 – 1950); 30 March 1903; Page 2; Esplanade Oratory.
While Mrs Tracey was there to talk about various topics (most often the wrongs committed against her) the people listening were there purely for entertainment. Her lectures and the “tirades of abuse” she hurled at various lawyers, judges and officials were considered “masterpieces” that were “delivered with rugged eloquence, punctuated with native wit and piercing repartee“.
What would the idlers on the Esplanade do, or where would they seek their Sunday afternoon amusement, were Mrs. Tracey not in Perth?The Daily News (Perth, W.A. : 1182 – 1950); 20 April 1903; Page 3; Mrs Tracey’s Vendetta
December 1903 saw the arrival of Madame Noel and her ‘American Vi Va Graph’ which showed new animated pictures. The show took place at the Perth Town Hall and cost two shillings. Images from India, England, Norway, Paris and New York were all popular and the new feature of illustrated songs “evoked considerable applause.” At the end, ten minutes was dedicated to “people we know” and included images of past and present prominent W.A. statesmen. Amongst them was a photo of “that well-known character” Mrs Tracey, standing out the front of her house.
As time passed and Mrs Tracey grew older, her political action in Perth began to slow down. She made appearances during elections (always heckling those standing for office), was a regular in court (often representing herself) and wrote letters to editors. Lectures continued on The Esplanade however they no longer appeared to be weekly. Fewer advertisements were placed in the newspapers but whether that was because of the cost or because she was lecturing less is not known.
It was inevitable that as her public lecturing declined, the donations by the public likewise declined. She had her public champions and many residents attempted to petition both the Government and the Perth Council in order to have more compensation paid to her. No matter what anyone did, the request was always refused.
I have endeavoured to be patient right throughout my cry for justice and equity, but it is heartbreaking. I have adopted every constitutional method in my power, but without avail. [Mrs Eliza Tracey]The West Australian (Perth, W.A. : 1879 – 1954); 5 June 1909; Page 9; Mrs Tracey’s Case
In late 1910 Mrs Tracey received an offer to speak at the Tivoli Skating Rink in Collie. Described as a “star attraction” over 100 residents attended the event to listen to the “notorious Perth Esplanade talker“. She gave two talks about her grievances with the courts and then passed the plate around for donations. The successful tour unfortunately ended badly when Mrs Tracey tripped and fell because of a pothole on a badly lit section of the Harvey Street railway crossing. She left the town “voicing her intention to sue the Collie Council“.
While she did not immediately sue them, she did however write a letter requesting £5 compensation. The Collie Council opted to stay away from a costly court case and in the following year agreed to her request. It was by far one of her easiest wins.
Towards the end of Mrs Tracey’s life, her actions took on an air of desperation. In 1915 she approached the Full Court four times requesting that her case be heard. Each time she was humoured by the Chief Justices and each time she was told that she had no legal cause of action left.
In 1916 she wrote her last letter to the editor of the newspaper ‘Truth’. Condescendingly described in the headline as ‘A Character from Dickens’, she repeated her story and pleaded with the public to help her. It was almost as if she knew that time was running out.
Her final appearances on The Esplanade took place in April and June 1916 with the last advertised topic being: ‘Judges who have robbed her out of a will.”
In the middle of February 1917 Mrs Mitchell came across the elderly Mrs Tracey wandering around looking neglected and exhausted. She took her back to her home in Victoria Park and cared for her for the next week. In the afternoon of Saturday, 24 February, Eliza Tracey passed away at age 74.
Every city, they say, has its character, and Mrs Tracey beyond doubt filled that role as far as the city of Perth is concerned.The West Australian (Perth, W.A. : 1879 – 1954); 26 February 1917; Page 6; News and Notes
The news of her death spread rapidly throughout the state. Both the metropolitan and country newspapers included notices that one of Perth’s well-known “orators of the Esplanade” had died. One even declared that she was “Western Australia’s most publicly known woman” who was “as familiar to Perth people as the Town Hall clock.“
Mrs Tracey was buried at Karrakatta Cemetery on 27 February 1917. She had lived in Western Australia for 55 years but had no family. Friends attended the funeral and many floral wreaths were received. A headstone was later erected over her grave with the inscription “After life’s fitful fever she sleeps well.” Today that headstone is still in place and is part of Karrakatta Cemetery’s historical walk trail (number 30).
Eliza Tracey was a woman who was larger than life, who was always ready to protest or fight for what she believed in and, until her very last days, never gave up on her own cause. Despite having frustrated and annoyed a number of people throughout her lifetime, the news of her death saddened many. She had been a constant figure in the city for such a long time; no one could fill the spot where she once stood on The Esplanade. In the words of one newspaper:
Perth will never be quite the same without Mrs Tracey…
- Rica Erickson, ‘Tracey, Eliza (1842–1917)’, Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/tracey-eliza-8838/text15507, published first in hardcopy 1990, accessed online 25 November 2018.
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