Australia’s First Female Jockey Lived Life As a Man

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Australia’s First Female Jockey Lived Life As a Man

It wasn’t until quite recently in 1979 that female jockeys were given the green light to race against men in Australian horse races. It was this restriction that forced a young woman to live her life as a man. Just so she could realise her life’s passion.

Racing thoroughbred horses. Australia’s first female jockey lived life as a man.

Wilhemena “Bill” Smith, more commonly known as Bill “Girlie” Smith during her racing career, was born back in 1886. Not a lot is known about Ms Smith. But more details have recently come to light in a book called “Ghosts of a Mining Town”, edited by Ivan Searston, where Ms Smith’s story is featured and her secret life revealed.

Even now she is considered somewhat of an enigma and the substance of local folklore in far north Queensland. It actually wasn’t until she was 88 years old and admitted to hospital in Herberton. That staff soon realised Bill “Girlie” Smith was indeed a woman. And not a man, as she’d successfully managed to portray for so many long years.

Wilhemena was orphaned at a very young age and was placed in an orphanage in Western Australia. Hating the place, she ended up running away from the orphanage. Made passage across the country, where she ended up relocating to far north Queensland.

Details are still very sketchy about Wilhemena’s past or about when she officially started passing herself off as a man, but it’s believed she did so soon after arriving in Queensland in a bid to get a job in the mines, which was a totally male-dominated industry.

For a while, she worked as a miner, and also as a labourer on the Cairns wharf. Another job of hers included working for a local brewery, and then as a racehorse jockey. After a while, Wilhemena landed herself a job at a stable in far north Queensland where she continued to adopt the alias of “Bill Smith”. Although everyone was convinced she was a guy, she definitely had a somewhat feminine persona, so hence the nickname of “Girlie”.

While she never travelled south for the Melbourne Cup or other big race meets, Bill “Girlie” Smith contested races as a jockey in Herberton, Innisfail, Cairns, Mareeba, Tolga and Mount Garnet, all in far north Queensland. Not only was she a very competitive jockey, but Wilhemena also saw success as a horse trainer as well.

She won several races as a “male” jockey in the 1940s and 1950s, when most jockeys would be considered to be well and truly past their prime as far as age goes. That’s remarkable in itself, despite the fact that she was masquerading as a man all that time. There wouldn’t be many jockeys around the world today winning races in their 50s and 60s, but Bill “Girlie” Smith managed to achieve it.

A retired Cairns jockey by the name of Linde Allendorf competed against Smith in races during the 1950s. He and fellow jockeys became suspicious that something was amiss. When Bill Smith refused to change clothing before and after races with the rest of the boys.

Wilhemena died in 1975 at the age of 88. Hospital staff kept her gender a secret right up until her death. Only then was the shocking truth that Bill “Girlie” Smith was, in fact, a woman was revealed to the public. Along with Mr Allendorf, people had their suspicions over the years. Nobody in the industry was ever able to prove it or catch her out.

Her body lies in an unmarked grave for many years following her death. Until the Herberton Lions Club restored her grave after her true identity as Wilhemena Smith was revealed.

These days female jockeys are commonplace on Australian race tracks, with some 30% of all jockeys being women in the modern era. In fact, in 2015, Michelle J. Payne became the first woman rider to win the coveted Melbourne Cup riding Prince of Penzance.

Wilhemena “Girlie” Smith now enjoys somewhat legendary status in Australia’s horse racing history, and with more and more female jockeys competing in the country’s biggest races, it’s a certainty that in years to come major race meets will likely be dominated by women riders.

 Feature image: filliesfor
Helen Cartwright

Helen Cartwright is a passionate blogger, who excels in the Digital Marketing and Technology niche. She writes for a variety of on leading online media channels.

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