Mum Shirl
The story of Shirley Smith

Shirley Smith
"Black Saint" of Redfern
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Biographical entry, Australian Women's Archives Project - 3/09/2002

Mum Shirl (c. 1924 - 1998) AM, MBE 

Community worker

Born: c. 1924  Erambie Mission, West Cowra, New South Wales, Australia.  Died: 28 April 1998.

A Wiradjuri woman, MumShirl was born Colleen Shirley Perry on Erambie Mission, West Cowra, New South Wales, around 1924. Her married name was Shirley Smith.
MumShirl wrote about her life in her book MumShirl: an autobiography. This book tells the story of her life working with Aboriginal people. MumShirl's welfare work began with visits to Aboriginal people in jail, a commitment which was eventually recognised by the Department of Corrective Services (New South Wales) who gave her a pass to facilitate this work. Her support for prisoners earned her the nickname 'MumShirl'; during her life she also brought up over 60 children who needed a parent. MumShirl was involved in supporting the Gurindji land rights claim and in establishing the Aboriginal Legal Service (1971), the Aboriginal Medical Service (1972), the Aboriginal Black Theatre, the Aboriginal Tent Embassy, the Aboriginal Children's service, the Aboriginal Housing Company and the Detoxification Centre. She worked with the Aboriginal Medical Service for many years.

In her autobiography, MumShirl tells about the day she attended the ceremony to collect her MBE medal, 11 June 1977 (MumShirl's citation name was Mrs Shirley Colleen Smith). MumShirl had been nominated to become a member of the Order of the British Empire (Civil) (and in 1985 a Member of the Order of Australia) for services to Aboriginal people. In her words:

'I never did find out who nominated me, and I didn't really know whether I ought to take it, or really what it would mean to me, but I asked around and the people I spoke to all urged me to take it I received my citation and I felt very strange. As it was getting close to my turn, it was flashing into my mind the numbers of places where I couldn't get served; how I had had to sit on the ground at the front of the picture theatre as a child in the roped off section that Blacks had to sit in, white kids in Cowra running after us yelling, 'Nigger, nigger pull the trigger', the camps and shacks that Blacks were having to live in all over this country that was, after all, ours - and here I was, standing up here with all these well-dressed and fashionable people, waiting in turn to collect this medal which would make me a Member of the British Empire.'

The ironies of the prestigious accolade were clear to MumShirl as she resumed her day to day struggle after the ceremony. Then the Department of Corrective Services revoked MumShirl's pass, making her prisoner support work near-impossible. She wrote, 'the many honours that I had received over the years, and even the MBE which I had worked for and earned, none of these things could help me now. I could hardly go about my work, but I drove myself on.' Of the many 'medals and pieces of paper' that have been awarded to MumShirl she asks in the final sentence of her book, 'They must be worth something in the end, mustn't they?'

Source: The Australian Women's Archives Project, established by the National Foundation for Australian Women (NFAW) in 2000 with the purpose of supporting the preservation of Australian women's records and providing access to those records.

by Clare Land, National Foundation for Australian Women


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