Revisiting Bill Smith, Australia’s first transgender jockey


Bill Smith transgender jockey
Bill's headstone + a pic of another bloke with the same surname.

North Queensland jockey Bill Smith lived life to the full, and on his own terms. But on his deathbed, ill health forced the 88-year-old to reveal a secret. Bill Smith was Australia’s first transgender jockey. However, in 1975, neither he nor society possessed the language to describe his racing career in those terms.

I lived in Cairns for thirty years and heard Bill’s story years ago. During the two weeks prior to his death in Herberton Hospital, he’d shared his remarkable life journey with a nursing sister he’d grown to trust. When he died, at least five other people became privy to Bill’s great secret — the local registrar, doctor, hospital matron, undertaker, and Methodist minister.

On the advice of hospital staff, the registrar recorded Bill’s sex as female on his death certificate. The hospital also provided a female name, despite Bill being accepted as male for over sixty years. His burial passed without public comment.

Then, in the 1990s, Bill’s story emerged into the public domain. Good-hearted admirers embraced him as a local icon and the Herberton Lions Club raised funds to place a headstone over his previously unmarked grave.

Text on the headstone, erected in 2005, includes a female name and pronouns. It pays homage to ‘Australia’s first licensed female jockey’.

But I would dispute the name, pronouns and title while acknowledging the good intention behind the tribute. The community members involved used the information available to them, derived from an official document — Bill’s death certificate— and the legend that grew around him after his death.

Tyler Leslight

In early May 2022, a young transgender male jockey won a horse race in Mackay. Multiple news reports at the time described him as Australia’s first transgender jockey. I had long thought Bill Smith deserved that title. Although I always intended to write about him, I never previously got around to it. An endless list of forgotten, erased, and hidden stories await chroniclers of queer history.

However, the time now seemed right to correct the mythology surrounding Bill Smith, while also acknowledging Tyler Leslight’s outstanding achievement as the country’s first openly transgender jockey.

Bill Smith’s life journey

Bill Smith told the nursing sister before his death that he was born in England and assigned female at birth. He came to Australia with his mum and dad as a young child. He retained fond memories of his father working with livestock on a property in Western Australia. However, following his mother’s death, Bill’s father placed him in an orphanage and abandoned him there before returning to England.

Life in the orphanage was hard. In recent years, various inquiries exposed the horrific treatment of children in institutions across Australia including in Western Australia.

In his teen years, Bill worked unpaid from dawn till dusk at household chores and looking after younger children. He said he ran away at the age of 16. That was in 1902. He began to dress, live, and work as a man, taking a job on the wharves — tough work. He ended up employed on a boat that carried passengers and cargo between Adelaide and Cairns where he eventually jumped ship.

Discovering his passion

In Cairns, Bill found work at a stable. There he discovered his passion. Bill loved working with horses. Once he qualified as a jockey and horse trainer, he took full-time work at Cairns Brewery. In his spare time, he trained and raced horses.

But was the story Bill told the nursing sister true? And did she relate it accurately?

It would seem so.

Adelaide Steamship Company vessels plied a route between Adelaide and Cairns during Bill’s lifetime, picking up and dropping off passengers and cargo at ports along the coast. That fits.

Then, fellow workers remembered Bill working at the Cairns Brewery for anywhere between ten and twenty years. They recalled him riding the same horse to work that he rode in races on the weekends.

Finally, jockeys and numerous other race-course regulars remembered Bill Smith from his racing career during the 1940s and 1950s.

A journey of 88 years

At the end of his working life, Bill retired to a one-bedroom flat beside the pub in the tiny Atherton Tablelands township of Innot Hot Springs.

But that left a lot of gaps in a life spanning eighty-eight years, nine months, and nineteen days. And nature’s most imaginative species abhors a vacuum. So, people filled in the gaps.

In the 1990s, articles about Bill credited him with a successful racing career down south during his youth. He reputedly won the Sydney Cup in 1898. Later, he supposedly took out the classic Victorian Oaks and placed third in the Melbourne Cup. But 12-year-old Bill Smith lived on the other side of the continent in 1898 — in an orphanage.

Someone had mistaken him for William Henry Smith.

Born in Clermont, Queensland, W. H. Smith first rode as an apprentice in Rockhampton before relocating to the southern states. Sadly, he died in 1914 from injuries sustained in a six-horse pile-up at Rosehill.

William Henry Smith and Bill Smith were different people.

Why did Bill Smith live as a man?

At the turn of this century, admirers pondered why Bill Smith dressed, lived, worked, and identified as a man for his entire adult life. They innocently ignored what to many now seems obvious.

But his riding career provided a ready explanation. Queensland only allowed female jockeys in 1979, four years after Bill’s death. So, people assumed young Bill took on a male identity because of his passion for horse racing. A woman could not legally work as either a jockey or horse trainer. Only a man could do that. So, Bill became a man, giving up his previous identity, foregoing any opportunity for a family, and condemning himself to a life of solitude.

A ready explanation and an easy mistake.

Horse racing authorities estimate the average age of jockeys as 28. Most retire from the sport between the ages of 35 and 45. The sole photo used to illustrate articles about Bill show him as a fresh-faced lad in monogrammed riding silks.

But Bill did not race in his youth. His racing career happened during his fifties and sixties.

He already identified as a man decades before then. And… years before he first began working with horses at the Cairns stable.

So, Bill Smith did not dress as a man to pursue his love of horse racing. He identified as a man many years before.

But what about the photo?

How then do we account for the pic of the young Bill Smith with his name proudly monogrammed on his racing silks?

When I previously wrote about Bill, I received the sort of anonymous abusive email that history articles often prompt. People become easily enraged by facts that do not accord with their preconceptions. Tough! Historical truths do not care about personal prejudice — yours or mine.

“You’re a f_cking idiot. Any c_nt can tell from looking at that photo that it’s a woman.”

Sorry, dickhead sir. The photo is not of a woman. Not even a ‘biological’ woman. Nor is the photo of Bill Smith.

For years, I simply assumed it was. I never thought to check that the photo everyone said was Bill Smith, actually was Bill Smith. But when I recently obtained Bill’s death certificate, it did not include a second name. Nothing to justify the ‘H’ embroidered on his silks in the image.

Then I remembered William Henry Smith and searched for him in old newspapers. The photo is not Bill Smith. It is William Henry Smith. Numerous newsprint photos exist of W. H. Smith, all of them showing a strong resemblance to the lad in the Bill Smith pic.

first transgender jockey Bill Smith
W. H. Smith

What about the female name?

Warning: I am about to discuss what some may regard as a deadname. I would not normally. However, there is no evidence to show that the female name assigned to Bill was ever his, so I feel comfortable using it. But please, if you are not, look away now. History is no place for the easily triggered.

The name Wilhemena appears on both Bill’s death certificate and his gravestone. I found the origin of the name among the extensive interviews conducted by a racing writer in Herberton and Cairns for a 2005 article.

“It was upon his death that nurses launched an inquiry into the true identity of William Smith. It was subsequently recorded that William Smith was in fact a female. The hospital inquiries were reported as finding that William Smith was actually a woman who had been born Wilhemena Smith in a Sydney hospital in 1886. The investigations revealed tiny Wilhemena was orphaned soon after birth – the exact circumstances of why she became orphaned remain unknown to this day.”

So, Bill Smith never provided the name. Someone ‘found’ it.

The death certificate

I am looking at Bill Smith’s death certificate. He died on June 24, 1975. The following day, he was buried, and the death certificate issued with his name recorded as ‘Wilhemena SMITH also known as William SMITH’.

So, in 1975, someone apparently managed to successfully research Bill’s birth name in under 24 hours. They allegedly found information I cannot find now despite modern-day advantages of digitalisation and internet access.

I ordered Bill’s Queensland death certificate online, clicked on PAY and two minutes later it landed in my email. Things worked differently in 1975. Someone at the country hospital needed to make a long and expensive STD call to Sydney and request that bureaucrats search paper records of birth certificates from almost a century before.

Yet, when I searched NSW Births, Deaths, and Marriages, I could find no Wilhemena Smith born in a Sydney hospital in 1886 or any other year of that decade. Nor a Wilhemina, Willamina, Willetta, or any other variation of the name. There is also no record of the names of the mythical Wilhemena’s mum or dad, something one would expect to find for an orphan.

All that probably explains the blank space on the certificate where it asks for a place of birth.

I suspect when it came time to fill out the certificate, someone said “We can’t put female and call this person William.”

And then someone suggested Wilhemena.

Passing

In recent years, a couple of old blokes who once rode against Bill claimed they’d always suspected his gender. They said people nicknamed him ‘Girlie’. Perhaps. Perhaps not. No one mentioned it until recently. But in my youth, Girlie was a nickname given to boys, not girls. Regardless, funny how these stories only emerge afterwards, with the benefit of hindsight. Strange that no one mentioned anything back in the day.

Numerous witnesses attest to no one suspecting a thing until the revelation following Bill’s demise.

Bill Jessop was 12 when his parents became friends with Bill Smith.  In 2018, the then 87-year-old told CNN no one had a clue.

“He used to come to our house as we lived behind the racecourse — he was very quiet.

“He raced at Mount Garnet and around the place and I can remember he had a big stallion that used to buck.

“We didn’t have a clue Bill was a woman, it didn’t come out until years after he died.”

Back in 2005, 94-year-old retired Cairns trainer Fred Lansky told the racing writer, “‘Nobody knew, but he wouldn’t take his pants off in the jockeys’ room. Of course, everyone found out when he, ah.. she, died.”

Another veteran trainer, an 80-year-old from Mt Garnett, 15 kilometres from Bill’s home at Innot Hot Springs, said, “When Bill died, everyone found out she was a female.”

Bill Smith’s truth

I think we can take it as a given, that for six decades, Bill Smith dressed, lived, worked, identified and PASSED as a man. But only one of those things matters to his identity – how he identified. And Bill Smith undoubtedly identified as a man.

His local community meant well by erecting the headstone and declaring him ‘Australia’s first licensed female jockey’. But Bill Smith was Australia’s first transgender jockey, and this is not a sad story. Bill Smith lived the life he chose, on his own terms.

I have written here all the facts I know of Bill’s life. However, it remains but a scant outline of that 88-year, 9-month, and 19-day time span. History research is like a treasure hunt with multiple false clues and an ever-moving goal, as elusive as Gatsby’s green light. We can never tell the full story or record a truly accurate account because new facts will always become known, especially in this era of digitalisation.

But we can tell people what we know of people’s truth from the facts we do know.

Bill Smith lived his truth.

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