A chance conversation about Bill Smith led academic Kerry Taylor on a journey to better understand a misunderstood historical figure.
Taylor first learned of the little-known true story of jockey Bill Smith (1886–1975) from her uncle, who encountered Bill during his career as a prominent horse trainer.
It was well known in the racing industry that Bill would attend race meets with his riding silks already beneath his clothes. Bill lived the remainder of his life presenting as male and it was only after his death, that it was revealed that Bill was assigned female at birth.
“Most people have said that he was just a woman who wanted to ride, so that’s how it was told to me,” Taylor said.
“But even back then, it just didn’t seem right to me. I thought straight away that from my perspective, surely Bill was trans, but that wasn’t a conversation I was having with my uncle at that time.”
Taylor’s interest was reignited when stories began appearing claiming Bill Smith as “Australia’s first registered female jockey” and a “feminist hero”. Wanting to know more, Taylor spent years researching Bill Smith, deciding to explore his life in her debut novel Mr Smith to You.
The idea that Bill was a woman ‘disguised’ as a man in order to fulfill an ambition to ride, is at odds with evidence that suggested Bill presented as male long before becoming a jockey and continued to do so up until his death.
‘Mr Smith to You’ explores life of Bill Smith through fiction
“As an academic, if the evidence isn’t clear, and it isn’t rigorous, then I think you owe a duty of care to the person not to assign something to them that they may not themselves,” Taylor said.
“Working in fiction freed me up to explore the way that a lot of queer people have had to hide themselves at various points in history. That there are still people who hide themselves or aspects of their life in order to fit in or make others feel comfortable around them.”
Taylor hopes that readers of Mr Smith to You will feel empowered to come to their own conclusions and that the novel may inspire others to reflect on history through a different lens.
“I would like to think that members of the queer community would see it as a part of our history,” she said.
“And for those that are not part of that community, I think it is important for people to be able to look at this differently because there may be something else at play here that they may fail to recognise at first.”
“But it also talks about a period of time that most readers may not have explored before, so I hope the historical fiction aspect has some appeal to people as well.”
Mr Smith to You is now available to purchase.
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