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 andLinda 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 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, near Cairns.
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. 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.
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!
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.’
Wilhemena Smith is buried in a grave at Herberton Cemetery with no tombstone. Council records indicate she died on 24/6/1975 at 88 years of age and was buried on 25/6/1975.
The Herberton Lions Club Inc coordinated the erection of a fitting tribute to this remarkable lady who overcame numerous obstacles for her love of horses and the racing industry with a worthy headstone for her final resting place in the Herberton cemetery.
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.