Tuesday, May 28, 2024

Fact, fiction blend in novel based on the life of jockey Bill Smith

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Mr Smith to you by Kerry Taylor is described as a novel based on the true story of Australian jockey Bill Smith – a life lived in secret and that’s pretty right, but there’s so much more to it.

Bill Smith was a well-known jockey in the bush area of Queensland for many years in the 1940s and ‘50s. Although nicknamed “Girlie”, he was always thought to be a man until an admission to hospital when aged in his late seventies revealed the truth: Bill Smith was a woman.

How Bill’s sex was not discovered during his/her working life is a total mystery but Taylor skilfully blends the known truths with local legend to create a gentle and fascinating story.

(We’ll refer to Bill as “she/her” from now on in this article to avoid confusion.)

It is believed Bill lived this way for many years and that it helped her to find work in professions where females were not often employed: in the mines, on ships, at a brewery and then as a jockey.

Bill (Wilhelmina) Smith rode in open races at a time when women were not permitted to be licenced jockeys. (This did not change until 1974.) It was well noted that Bill never undressed in the jockeys’ room and wore silks under her day clothes.

She died in 1975, aged 88, having confided some of the story to a Nurse McConnell, who is quoted in Laurence Murphy’s 2020 publication, Under False Pretences.

Tayor touches on the fact that long after Bill ceased riding in races, she still maintained a male persona, and wonders if in fact she was transgender long before that category was accepted.

Her relationship with a nurse named Maureen drives the storyline of the novel as Bill approaches the end of her life.

It’s a fascinating tale that will no doubt make you do as I did once I had finished the book, which was to search the internet to find out as much as I could about Bill Smith the jockey.

There are many theories about the person whose headstone in the Herberton cemetery in far north Queensland simply reads “In loving memory of Wilhemena ‘Bill’ Smith, Australia’s first licensed female jockey”.

Mr Smith To You is one of them and is an interesting and satisfying read.

The book is for sale on several sites with consistently high reviews. It is retailing on Booktopia in paperback for $28.50.

This article appeared on The Regional on 9 August 2023.

Stories on The Regional’s website are free to read and always will be.

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