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Articles Today is 24/01/2017
Herberton Cemetery where Wilhemena Smith lies in an unmarked grave. Photo courtesy of The Cairns Post.
The history of the racing industry is filled with some amazing stories. Sometimes they are amazing for the right reasons – sometimes not.
You would go a long way though to find a more extraordinary story than that of Bill ‘Girlie’ Smith.
If you think Pam O’Neill and Linda Jones, in 1979, were the first women to ride in races against men in Australia, this true story will leave you with a different outlook. Sadly, history will probably always attribute Pam and Linda with a record they are not entitled to. They are unquestionably the first female riders to be licensed to ride in the metropolitan area of Australia, but that is all they are. They were not the first women jockeys to ride against men in Australia, as historical records have always portrayed. In fact, they had a predecessor in that field – by over 30 years.
Bill Smith rode in far North Queensland on the country tracks around Cairns. The other jockeys nicknamed Bill ‘Girlie’ as a reference to his shyness to change his clothes in front of them. He would arrive at the track with the colours already being worn under his normal street clothes. He would never shower at the track – even after a big book of rides. Bill kept conversations with other jockeys to a minimum. His fellow riders didn’t talk much either to ‘Girlie’, citing him as a loner. They just put all his odd traits down as eccentric behaviour.
Bill Smith obviously held a joint trainer and jockey licence. It was possible back in the 1940’s and 1950’s – and is still allowable today – for one individual to hold both licences. An example is current Queensland licensee Peter Clarke from Goondiwindi. Peter can both train and ride his own horses. His riding licence is restrictive, in that he can’t ride at TAB meetings and he must ride his own horses in a race. For instance, if he knows the horse he trains is as slow as a wet week, he cannot jump ship and accept a ride on a more fancied runner in that race.
So Bill Smith both trained and rode winners way back in the 1940’s and 1950’s, although he was not a high profile premiership jockey or trainer, even in the far north of Queensland.
Bill Smith eventually retired from race riding and training racehorses. He had been a battler in his life and retired to live on a government-funded aged pension in a tiny hamlet called Innot Hot Springs, situated on the Kennedy Highway, about 150 kilometres from Cairns. Bill rented a one room flat next to the Innot Hot Springs Hotel.
The shy, reclusive and then elderly Bill Smith became ill in 1975 and, in declining health, he was taken to the Herberton Hospital about 80 kilometres from Innot Hot Springs. (I am still in the process of confirming the place of death was Herberton Hospital with Births, Deaths and Marriages.) Bill ‘Girlie’ Smith never recovered from the illness that led to the stint of hospitalisation. It was upon his death that nurses launched an inquiry into the true identity of William Smith. It was subsequently recorded that William Smith was in fact a female. The hospital inquiries were reported as finding that William Smith was actually a woman who had been born Wilhemena Smith in a Sydney hospital in 1886. The investigations revealed tiny Wilhemena was orphaned soon after birth – the exact circumstances of why she became orphaned remain unknown to this day. Wilhemena never married or had a family and no living relations were ever found. The investigations also supposedly found that Wilhemena had worked as a seaman and a miner at various times of her life.
Upon Bill’s death, one publication reported a jockey called Joe McNamarra, who rode against Bill, spoke of how he and Bill both fell from their mounts one day at Atherton. Joe told of how he was okay, but Bill was winded. Joe tried to undo Bill’s riding pants to help him breathe, but was told ‘no, no, I’ll be alright’. Nearly 30 years later Joe McNamarra realised why he had his hand taken away from near Bill’s pants!
The story of William or Wilhemena Smith is one of the most amazing stories in the history of Australian racing. It is unquestionably factual.
I spoke to some well-known and highly respected North Queensland racing personalities to seek their historical version of events in the life of Bill Smith.
A North Queensland resident for all of his 64 years, Alan Atkinson said he recalled Bill Smith riding, but didn’t believe he ever rode any of his family’s horses. The Atkinson family has raced horses in North Queensland since 1903. Alan said ‘the circuit in the days when Bill Smith rode involved tracks at Cairns, Mareeba, Mount Garnet, Tolga, Innisfail and Herberton’. He also noted, back then ‘Herberton raced for the second highest prize money in the State, outside of Brisbane. The rich mining area of Mount Garnet had the biggest tin mine in the southern hemisphere.’
Alan also stated that Innot Hot Springs, where Bill Smith retired to, ‘had hot water bubbling up out of the sand at the back of the pub and people with arthritis used to drive there and lie in the hot water for its medicinal benefits’. Alan said that Innot Hot Springs today ‘has a population of about 30’.
I also spoke to 73-year-old retired racehorse trainer John Brady, who resides at Mareeba. John’s father was also a trainer and farrier in Cairns. John said he knew Bill Smith. ‘The other jockeys all called him “Girlie” because he’d always come to the races with the silks on under his clothes. I remember he trained two horses – one was called Nor East and the other was a chestnut horse called Sydney Two.’ Asked whether Bill Smith had trained other horses, John Brady replied: ‘No, to the best of my knowledge they were the only two horses he ever trained.’ Asked if the horses won many races, John thought they ‘were only average’. He also said ‘Bill Smith was only an average jockey’.
John said elderly, retired Cairns trainer Fred Lansky would know more than him. I spoke to 94-year-old Fred Lansky, who trained racehorses in Cairns for 70-odd years until retiring in 1999. Fred said his ‘memory was slipping’, but recalled that while he never rode for him, Bill Smith had lived ‘half a mile or a mile from the Cairns racetrack’ where the Balaklava School now stands in the Cairns suburb of Earlville. Fred said that Bill Smith ‘lived alone and kept to himself and didn’t speak much, but when he did he sounded like a female’. Asked whether anybody knew Bill was a woman, Fred said, ‘Nobody knew, but he wouldn’t take his pants off in the jockeys’ room. Of course everyone found out when he, ah she died.’
I asked Fred if he knew of any jockeys who had ridden against Bill to whom I could talk. He said ‘not really’, but continued by saying ‘Jack Wilson was the premier jockey here for a long time – he’d have known everything, but he died about 4 or 5 years ago. Jack Wilson was so respected here, they have a memorial race in his honour each year.’ Asked how many jockeys regularly rode in that era when Bill Smith and Jack Wilson rode, Fred pondered for a while and said ‘probably about 30’.
I spoke to 80-odd-year-old retired trainer Pat Williams from Mount Garnet.He remembers Bill Smith as ‘a person who kept to herself. When Bill died everyone found out she was a female, but she’d ridden in races all around the Tablelands and she had ability as a jockey. She was never close to anyone, but did strike up an association with a much respected bloke called Fred Le Hong, a Chinese man. He’d always stand a couple of stallions up here and have a few mares and I recall he had a handy (son of) Heroic stallion up here, a horse called Sydney. Fred Le Hong had a property just outside Tolga and Bill Smith must have worked there. There were many Chinese people in racing. We had an outstanding jockey up here and he became the leading trainer in Cairns. He rode and trained as Jack Wilson (Fred Lansky made reference to the same man), but Jack Wilson’s real name was Yet Foi. His parents had come from the goldfields up at Croydon. That man was a master with a horse. Anyone with a rogue horse would give it to Jack and he’d handle it; he’d ride it in races and you could bet he’d get it out the barrier first; he was outstanding as a jockey.’
In reference to the hot springs at the Innot Hot Springs Hotel, Pat said ‘there had been a new hotel built there about 10 to 15 years ago, but the old hotel used to have baths there where people with arthritis could go there and sit in the baths’. Pat confirmed that Bill Smith did live next to the pub by saying ‘I knew she was there’.
Pat said: ‘Turf Monthly once wrote a story about how women like Pam O’Neill were the first women riders. A chap called Bill Davis and I put a whole overview of Bill Smith’s life together then and said this woman had been riding back in the pre-war and post-war years up here. We sent it in, but we never ever got a reply.’
I spoke to a helpful and knowledgeable lady called Alison Steel at the Herberton Shire Council. Alison said Wilhemena Smith is buried in a grave at Herberton Cemetery with no tombstone at grave number 25, row number 26. Council records indicate she died on 24/6/1975 and was buried on 25/6/1975. She was Church of England and the officiating minister was Reverend E. Biggs. The cemetery fees were $4.20. Wilhemena was 88 years of age.
Alison said it was quite common for graves at Herberton Cemetery to be without tombstones. She said probably only about 30% of graves in the cemetery had a tombstone. Alison put this down to a high number of itinerant workers who worked at the mines there during last century and large numbers of people who died as a result of mining accidents.
Next I spoke to Linde Allendorf, a 72-year-old retired jockey. Linde is the father of former Sydney and Hong Kong jockey and now Macau trainer, Geoff Allendorf.
Linde, who retired as a trainer in 1993 after being a jockey until 1969, and his wife Shirley vividly remember Bill Smith, as he lived up the street from them in a house at McComb Street. The house no longer exists. Shirley Allendorf, now 74, says she remembers passing that house where Bill Smith lived alone, on the way to and from school when she was a young girl. Shirley’s cousin Harold McDonald, now 77, who had cumulatively worked at Cairns Cannon Park racetrack for 42 years as both a Starter and Clerk of the Course, said Bill Smith had two nicknames, ‘Girlie’ and ‘Granny’.
I spoke to Harold who recalled: ‘We all thought Bill was a woman – we were convinced – but we had no proof. He had big hips like a woman and a voice like a woman. One day when I was about 17 (1945), myself and a mate Robert (Jock) Rookwood waited for Bill to go to the outside shower. It had holes in the tin structure around the shower and we were going to find out once and for all. You wouldn't believe it, but just as we were about to get our eye up to the hole, a voice bellowed out . . . You boys looking for something? Well, we nearly died and got out of there!’
I asked Harold what he knew about Bill's horse Sydney Two and he told me that ‘Sydney Two was a stallion and he wasn't a bad horse. He started in a Cairns Cup once and Bill rode it and they went out with a big lead, but it knocked up and ran last I think. He actually served some mares too, because he was by a stallion called Sydney and he died as a fairly young horse, so Bill Smith put mares to Sydney Two when owners wanted that deceased Sydney stallion’s blood.’
Linde Allendorf says he rode against Bill Smith for about 10 years and continued by saying that ‘we (jockeys) all wanted to know if Bill Smith was a woman, as he spoke so softly. We were going to strip him one day in the jockeys room, but a stripe (steward) called Walter Carbery walked in and told us to stop.’
Linde said, ‘Bill Smith worked in the Cairns Brewery for many years – somewhere between 10 or 20 years – and used to ride a horse down to work. The horse was Sydney Two, which she trained and rode in races. She’d take him down there and feed him the brewery grain, leave him in a yard there all day, then ride him home when she finished work. That horse raced until an old age and went around (in races) all the time.’
Linde also recalls her ‘having a fall at the Cairns track in the 1950’s and the ambulance people rushed to her aid, but Bill Smith would not let them touch her’.
Linde also said that a jockey Joe McNamarra referred to in another article on the subject (A Racing Heart published 1987) was in fact ‘a jockey called Jimmy McNamara (one “r” in surname and a different Christian name). He died 5 or 6 years ago, but was a well-known jockey here – he rode a Cairns Cup winner and so on.’
To me, it would represent a gross dereliction of duty on the part of all racing people if we didn’t acknowledge forthwith that history should record that a lady called Wilhemena Smith was in fact the first female jockey in Australia.
Accordingly, she should not be bestowed the indignity and the injustice of lying in an unmarked grave in Herberton Cemetery. Positive discussions have already taken place and it is highly likely that a public announcement will be forthcoming soon to erect a tombstone on Wilhemena’s grave, as a result of this article being penned. Furthermore, it is possible that interested parties will be able to contribute financially. Any decisions made at the conclusion of those discussions will be listed here as a news article.
Take one moment and reflect what this person had to endure in life to achieve her marvellous feat. She must have surely had a daily battle with innuendo, suspicion and mockery. She obviously rose above all that and today should be rightly regarded as one of Australia’s great pioneering women – in an era when women were clearly denied equality.
Wilhemena Smith needs to be afforded her proper place in Australian racing history. She was unequivocally the first licensed female rider in Australia to ride against men – albeit the licence was in a male name.
Thank you to all the wonderful people referred to throughout this article for giving me their time to bring this remarkable story together. Their reputations for honesty and integrity, achieved over a lifetime, only serve to engender credence in the overall story.
The erection of a tombstone on the grave of Wilhemena Smith is of paramount importance. This would ensure that the historical significance of her grave is respected and that it can be visited by current and future generations of racing participants, or women drawing inspiration from female heroines who, often unknowingly, blazed trails on their behalf.
You are a better man than me Bill Smith – and a better woman than most Wilhemena Smith. In death it is high time we saluted you both.
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