Nora and her $36 million

A century ago, Ipswich’s Nora Rebecca Williams was one of the best-known personalities of the Queensland law courts. The old Supreme Court building (pictured above) hosted her many occasions. At one time she was a claimant to the Lewis Thomas millions. I told a version of this story live on West Bremer Radio.

Lewis Thomas was the Blackstone coal miner whose estate was valued at over $60,000,000 in today’s money. But Nora’s legal story began modestly in October 1921 when war veteran Frank Schy went to the Ipswich Police Magistrates Court to apply for an eviction order against Nora. They were living next door to one another on East Street in the centre of Ipswich.

Nora displayed the legal acumen that would define her career. She avoided an actual eviction order by agreeing outside of court to leave the property. This allowed her to easily ignore the unenforceable agreement, and heralded seven years of court proceedings that made her one of the best-known women in Queensland.

Nora had got her son to build a shanty for her to live in her the block in East Street. In November 1921, the Ipswich City Council supported a further complaint from Frank Schy to stop Nora continuing to build without the proper permits. Nora refused to acknowledge the magistrate’s jurisdiction, insisting that she be heard by the full court. Nora was fined £1.

In March 1922 Nora was charged with ignoring a council order. This time Nora won the case because the council had neglected to have their documents actually signed. Nothing was said of the fact that Nora had thrown a brick at the council engineer Frank Griffiths. At the same time, however, Nora’s son Mervyn was convicted of using obscene language at the council workers who came to demolish her building. Mervyn was released after having spent the night in the lock-up.

Nora’s antagonist Mrs Leah Schy

In September 1922, Nora was back in court for still ignoring the order. Her house was described as just six feet high, built of open lattice, with seven sides all covered in corrugated iron. Nora wanted to call the Ipswich mayor Alfred Stephenson as a witness because she claimed that the council was only trying to get the property for Mrs Leah Schy next door. She objected to the legal document that was served because it wasn’t in the mayor’s own handwriting and so it must have been a forgery. Nora rose to her feet, and walking with her son towards the door, angrily exclaimed, “I am not going to tolerate this sort of scandal anymore. Come on Mervyn, we’re going!” Nora was fined £2.

In April 1923, the stakes had risen dramatically and Nora was in the Ipswich Circuit Court before a judge and jury. The judge queried why this was being heard before a jury at all, and it was because Nora had insisted on it. It was alleged that Nora had thrown a rock and broken a pane of glass at Mrs Schy’s house. The jury quickly returned a verdict of guilty. Nora was fined £1 and ordered to pay 5 shillings compensation.

The Schy family was enduring problems quite apart from Nora next door. Frank Schy’s sister Hannah married his son George, and by marrying her nephew, Hannah had committed bigamy because she was already married.

Come October 1924, Nora was in the Brisbane magistrate’s court to get her clothes and sewing machine back from her landlords mechanic Andrew and wife Lizzie Amble in Arthur Street, New Farm. In was in this court appearance that it was said that Nora was a claimant in the estate of the coal king Lewis Thomas, and that her son Mervyn actually worked for the Secret Service.

William Gall sued for £20,000

In October 1927, Nora renewed her Ipswich battle. She issued a writ in the Supreme Court against the Queensland government, and specifically William Gall who was the under secretary of the Home Department. She claimed £20,000 damages. This was a colossal amount that would be almost $7,000,000 dollars today. Nora alleged unlawful detaining, destruction of property, criminal assault, defamation of character, and that her life had been threatened a number of times, all while she was being driven out of Ipswich.

Alfred Stephenson sued for £20,000

In December 1927, Nora issued another writ, this time against the mayor of Ipswich Alfred Stephenson and all the Ipswich aldermen. She claimed further damages of £20,000. Nora said that Mrs Lewis Thomas had bribed the council, and that Frank Schy had bribed two policemen to garrotte her son and call him illegitimate. What’s more, Nora alleged that they destroyed her garden and took 14 head of cabbage, and that the police and city councillors had eaten them for dinner.

Mrs Lewis Thomas sued for £50,000

Nora upped the ante in January 1928 when she issued a writ claiming £50,000 damages from the coal king’s widow Mrs Lewis Thomas herself.

A few days later, Nora issued a writ against the Queensland police commissioner William Ryan. She claimed £5,000 damages for unlawfully detaining her in an asylum.

William Ryan sued for £5,000

Nora Williams’s colossal legal actions in the 1920s had claimed £95,000 in damages which is $36,000,000 today.

Although Nora never received a penny of it, her high-profile writs earned her fame in Queensland courts that no other woman of her time could even come close to.

CLICK HERE TO LISTEN TO A VERSION OF THIS STORY TOLD LIVE ON RADIO.

Photo credits:
Brisbane Supreme Court building 1879-1976, photo taken 1907 – State Library of Queensland.
Mrs Leah Ann Schy – Ancestry uploaded by Deborah Friend in 2014.
William James Gall, assistant under secretary, Office of Home Department in 1910 – State Library of Queensland.
Alfred Tully Stephenson – Picture Ipswich, Whitehead Studios.
Mrs Lewis Thomas – Evening News, Rockhampton, 20th January 1930, page 12.
Police commissioner W.H. Ryan – Telegraph, Brisbane, 11th December 1929, page 16.

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