Wilhelmina “Bill” Smith

Deserted at a Young Age

Wilhemena was a very early lady jockey pioneer championing a woman’s right to compete against men on equal terms. Wilhemena was born in 1887 the daughter of English immigrants who settled in Perth. Her mother died when she was very young and her father, who was struggling financially could not cope. He jumped ship and returned to England leaving young Wilhemena alone. Wilhemena ended up in an orphanage in Western Australia and had a tough upbringing. At the age of 16 she ran away showing the determination and courage she would display later in life. Arriving in Adelaide she obtained a position as a domestic servant but she soon tired of menial housework. Dressed as a man she got a job on a boat.

A Queensland Pioneer Lady Jockey


Wilhemena “Bill” Smith

She sailed to and from Queensland and finally settled in Cairns. There she felt more at home working as a stable hand. The world of racing in the mid twentieth century was entirely a male domain. There was no place for lady jockeys. To find a position within this world Wilhemena Smith dressed as a man, worked as a trainer and jockey, and rode against men under the assumed identity of Bill Smith. She had a day job at the Cairns Brewery. Wilhemena rode her horse “Sydney Two” to work every day leaving him to graze in the brewery yard.

Wilhemena won many races in Queensland riding under the pseudonym of Bill. Her secret was never discovered while she was riding.  Her contemporaries had their suspicions that Bill wasn’t what he claimed to be. He was nicknamed  “girlie” because he always came to the track with the silks on under his clothes. The Queensland pioneer lady jockey refused to change clothes in front of other riders. Wilhemena never married and people considered her a very private and somewhat eccentric individual. In her role as a jockey Wilhemena was a pioneer of women’s rights when it wasn’t fashionable to do so.

Secret to the End

Wilhemena survived on a pension in seclusion near Cairns until 1975 when it was discovered after her death at the age of 88 that Bill Smith was really a woman. She left no family behind and a nurse who looked after her in her latter years pieced together her story. The nurse also painted this portrait of her.

In 2005, both Australian and overseas contributors raised money to place an appropriate headstone on her unmarked grave at the Herberton Cemetery in Queensland where she is now interred under her proper name of Wilhemena “Bill” Smith.

She lived a secret life for many years just to realize her dream of being a jockey. How much happier her life might have been had she been able to share her track glories with associates and friends?