By Fiona Sewell (ABC News Australia)
The headstone in the Herberton cemetery in far north Queensland simply reads “In loving memory of Wilhemena ‘Bill’ Smith, Australia’s first licensed female jockey” — but Ms Smith actually lived her life as a man.
Ms Smith’s extraordinary story came to light in 2005 after locals began researching the stories of some of the people buried there.
Her story is one of several detailed in a book called Ghosts of a Mining town, edited by Herberton resident Ivan Searston.
“We still don’t know much about her,” Mr Searston said.
“She was born in 1886 and was orphaned at a young age. She ran away from an orphanage in Western Australia, somehow she ended up in north Queensland.”
From miner to successful jockey, all as a man
Although it is unclear exactly when or why Smith started living as a man, it is believed she lived this way for many years and that it helped her to find work in professions where females were not often employed.
“She worked as a miner, a labourer on the Cairns wharf, at the brewery and as a jockey,” Mr Searston said.
Ms Smith eventually found herself working in a stable in far north Queensland.
Using the alias Bill, Ms Smith rode at race tracks in Cairns, Mareeba, Mount Garnet, Tolga, Innisfail and Herberton in Far North Queensland and had success as a trainer.
Mr Searston said it was in the 1940s and 50s that Ms Smith gained success as a jockey, winning several races and gaining the nickname Bill ‘Girlie’ Smith.
“And until she died no one knew.”
It was only in 1979 that women in Australia were given the right to legally race as jockeys against men.
The struggle as fellow jockeys grew suspicious
Retired Cairns jockey, 85-year-old Linde Allendorf remembers riding against Bill Smith in the early 1950s.
“She used to come to the races already dressed in her silks and clothes on and went home the same way,” Mr Allendorf said.
Mr Allendorf said ‘Bill’s’ refusal to change in front of others was what garnered Ms Smith the nickname ‘Girlie’.
He recalled one day on the track when her identity was almost revealed after a fall.
“By the time the ambulance started to undo her jacket, she sat up and wouldn’t let them undo it,” Mr Allendorf said.
He said some of his fellow jockeys grew suspicious when Bill refused to change at the race track like the rest of them.
Mr Allendorf lived in Cairns, not far away from Ms Smith who mostly kept to herself.
The former jockey said one day a couple of his mates tried to look through the holes in her corrugated iron shower, as they grew more and more suspicious — but Ms Smith was wise to their plan.
“But she caught them, they bolted and they still didn’t find out,” Mr Allendorf said.
Hospital staff helped keep lifelong secret
Later in her life, Mr Searston said Ms Smith lived alone in Innot Hot Springs in far north Queensland before becoming ill at the age of 88 and ending up in hospital.
She died in 1975 and lay in an unmarked grave for many years, until the local Herberton Lions club restored her grave and her story was finally told.
Mr Allendorf said the racing community was shocked when they finally learned the truth about Bill ‘Girlie’ Smith.
“It was a real shock. To keep a secret that long and mix with people you would think someone would spring her,” he said.
“Anyway, god bless her soul.”