Elizabeth Lilian Oliver (Lady Burra) was born 20 April 1848, in the Kooringa Creek dugouts of Burra Burra in South Australia. Her life was a tumultuous ride from start to finish. This quickly became apparent after flash floods took the families creek bed home along with all possessions and her father’s snap decision to uproot and chase the allure of gold in Ballarat. The family shortly followed taking residence in a tent on the goldfields.
Lady Burra’s mother immediately disliked Ballarat describing it as “a horrid, sin stained colony of scoundrels and villains” and she, following the death of her youngest daughter from dysentery, moved to Adelaide with another man leaving Lady Burra to be raised by her father.
Lady Burra’s life was far from pleasant and by the age of 6 she had been traumatised by witnessing her father’s best friend’s death at the hands of policeman during the Eureka Stockade and shortly after witnessing the death of her own father from consumption. The following year seven year old Lady Burra was raped and left for dead with the psychological and physical damage immense leaving her in hysterics. Doctors treated her with opiates to which she became addicted. Lady Burra used what she had to live and did exactly that and with her addiction still afloat she engaged in many less than desirable activities.
In 1865 after receiving news that her mother was alive and looking for her, Lady Burra travelled to Moonta town and reunited with her mother and stepfather. She had a couple of good years became involved with the Church, kept house and even managed to kick her addiction.
Lady Burra commenced keeping house for a new immigrant Thomas Woolcock his wife and two children in 1865. His wife and one son contracted a fever and died the following year. Lady Burra’s stepfather disliked Woolcock and considered the live in arrangement scandalous and forbid the activity with retribution. Stubborn and naive Lady Burra dismissed her step-fathers orders and married Woolcock in the cottage’s front parlour the following week.
It quickly became apparent Woolcock was a heavy drinker, a bully and a wife-beater. Lady Burra attempted to leave him several times but failed and eventually attempted suicide by hanging herself in the stable but the rafter broke sparing her life. Her addiction resurfaced, this time to morphine, and the situation quickly worsened.
Out of the blue Woolcock became ill with stomach pains and nausea, three doctors were called upon over the following weeks, all with inconsistent diagnosis which led to the administration of a multitude of medications. The tyranny of ill-fated medical knowledge led to one doctor administering arsenic tablets as a treatment.
At 3 am on 4 September 1873, Thomas Woolcock passed.
Rumors of foul play quickly emerged and an inquiry was established. Without money for legal counsel Lady Burra self-represented. The trial was a sensation with crowds filling the Supreme Court and spilling out onto the streets. Lady Burra pled not guilty to accusations made against her but defendants at this time were barred from testifying on their own behalf so Lady Burra was unable to answer said accusations. Following a three day trial the jury, after deliberating for 20 minutes, found her guilty……
30 December 1873 Lady Burra was hanged in the Adelaide Gaol, the first and only female to be hanged in the gaol. The Lady Burra Brewery is a tribute to her spirit and legacy.
Cheers to Lady Burra.
What really happened…
December 1848, in the middle of one of the worst heat waves the “Dug-Outs” of Burra had seen, after an enduring 15 hour labour, there on the Burra river banks, Elizabeth Lilian Oliver was born. Her Irish immigrant parents had joked that the stubborn heat and punishing labour might be forewarning of their daughter’s character, this they would soon realise was far from a joke. Hot headed and stubborn as a mule, Elizabeth, AKA Lady Burra’s life was mysterious as it was tumultuous.
The life journey of Lady Burra can only be pieced together through old newspaper clippings and urban legend.
After witnessing from a very early childhood fuelled by alcohol, violence, love loss and poverty, Lady Burra forged firmly in her mind that she would not follow in the footsteps of her parents. As her family fell apart with her drunkard father chasing the allure of the ‘gold rush,’ the already hardened girl commenced her entrepreneurial independence through working a myriad of odd jobs, one of which was behind the local bar where she found she had a knack for charming and manipulating the most unsavoury of characters. Lady Burra would often bribe and blackmail the unscrupulous for easy money and jewellery, she quickly developed a particular pension for emeralds, as the striking green reminded her of her mother’s childhood tales of Ireland.
At the age of 18 Lady Burra had her first real run in with the law, her entrepreneurial ways had landed her running a small illegal alcohol racquet selling self-distilled and stolen whiskey to thirsty miners! However learning the local constable’s wife held a similar pension for emeralds, she was able to charm her way out of a sure conviction.
Despite being a hardened and successful entrepreneur, her heart was quickly stolen. One night, a handsome man – Ronan De Barra – an American Brewer, was introduced via an illegal card, whisky and beer night Lady Burra had organised. Ronan was smoother than silk and appeared genuine and unlike other men that roamed Burra town, he had come to Burra with a bigger vision which was to brew a new drop for thirsty miners… they immediately fell in love.
As time passed it became apparent that De Barra’s silky smooth person wasn’t the complete package, and his wealth was discovered to be more past than present. De Barra did however possess an un-matched skill, and that was the ability to brew beer which ran in the bloodlines of his family. Together, the couples’ entrepreneurial names soared and through a variety of sometimes legitimate and other times some not so legitimate means they became heavy hitters in the sly-grog market with a specific notoriety for their tactics in recovering unpaid and late payments!
Unable to bare children as a result of her childhood, Lady Burra learnt quickly and took to the art of brewing like a duck to water; she took intrinsic pride in each of her brews. Rumours soon emerged saying she had become obsessed with refining her recipes which she would hand-write, and keep under lock and key. De Barra, overtime, become frustrated as his legacy as a world brew master was quickly being overshadowed by his lover, until one night, he fled, taking with him her recipes and her acquired and beloved emerald collection.
Completely blind-sided Lady Burra was hysterical when she read her lover’s parting note and fell instantly ill. Many months passed with visiting doctors from all around coming to diagnose the now well-known Lady. Joao, a young Portuguese migrant doctor, would visit as often as twice a month from Moonta town to comfort Lady Burra, the two formulated a lasting relationship and became lovers. Ultimately though the tyranny of ill-fated medical knowledge, a failing heart was to be the demise of Lady Burra, and within 48 hours of Joao’s last visit (their bedside wedding) Lady Burra passed happily in her sleep.
De Barra managed to evade capture and flee to Fremantle where he boarded the Delilah Rose bound for the US. As with all things, a combination of karma and fate saw a freak once in a lifetime storm yield Delilah Rose to her death; both she and her crew were never recovered and condemned to the oceans floor.
In 1991 two young lovers playing on a Western Australia beach found copper canisters washed up on the shore. Those beautiful canisters contained the great ladies infamous recipes which have now found their way home to South Australia where they once again treasured and brewed with passion. The Lady Burra Brewhouse is a tribute to her entrepreneurial spirit, perfectionist brewing techniques, and thirst to find love in all things.