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Smith, Shirley Coleen (Mum Shirl) (1921–1998)

Mum Shirl: An Autobiography, with the assistance of Bobbi Sykes, Heinemann Publishers Australia Pty Ltd, 1981, Richmond Victoria

SEX: Female

BIRTH DATE: 22 November 1921

BIRTH PLACE: Erambie Mission

FIRST LANGUAGE: English

SIGNIFICANT LOCALITIES:

  • Erambie Mission: A ‘mission’ near Cowra. Mum Shirl lived there with her family, until her Grandfather was expelled from the mission when she was six.
  • Cowra: A small town in Central Western New South Wales, which was close to the Erambie mission. Mum Shirl had numerous connections to Cowra, however she felt discriminated against in the town itself.
  • Grenfell: The town where Mum Shirl’s parents were working as drovers when she was very young. One of Mum Shirl’s earliest memories was travelling with her grandparents from the Erambie Mission near Cowra to Grenfell.
  • Sydney: Mum Shirl remembers moving from Cowra to Waterloo in Sydney around the time when King Edward VII abdicated. Her Grandfather didn’t like Sydney, so they moved back to Cowra. (p.17)
  • When Mum Shirl got married, she and Darcy moved to a house in Surry Hills. They paid ten pounds a week rent, and Darcy’s manager furnished the house. (p.23)
  • Mum Shirl spent most of her life in Sydney. She lived around the inner west, including in Erskineville and St Peters, and worked mainly in Redfern, the hub of Aboriginal political activism in the 1970s.
  • Kempsey: Mum Shirl moved to Kempsey on the Northern New South Wales coast to live with her husband’s family when she was pregnant. She returned to Sydney when she discovered that the local hospital was segregated. Her daughter and husband later returned to Kempsey; however Mum Shirl stayed in Sydney.
  • Condobolin: Mum Shirl worked briefly in the Local District Hospital. (p.40)
  • Darwin: The Cardinal of the Archdiocese of Sydney sponsored Mum Shirl’s first interstate trip to Darwin in the late 1960s. Up until this point, she wasn’t aware of the existence of the Northern Territory. (p.73) After her first trip, she visited a number of times, and met with Aboriginal elders such as Vincent Lingiari and Claude Narjic. (p.85)

INTERNATIONAL TRAVEL:

  • Mum Shirl travelled overseas for the first time when she was invited to Las Vegas by Neil Diamond. Mum Shirl didn’t want to go, and when she got there she didn’t like having to attend cocktail parties and was appalled by the conspicuous consumption. Her favorite part of her trip was staying with some Catholic priests in San Francisco on her way home, and engaging with the troubled communities they served. (pp.88-99)
  • Mum Shirl took a second international trip to New Zealand.  People speculated that she had taken her family on holiday with the money given to her by Neil Diamond. However, Mum Shirl stressed that she was sponsored to go to New Zealand, that she went alone, and that Diamond had not given her any money. (p.100)

EXPERIENCES OF EDUCATION:

  • The Erambie mission Manager’s wife, who was not a qualified teacher, held class for the children at the Mission. However, because of her epilepsy, Mum Shirl was largely excluded from school. (pp.8-9)
  • After moving off the Mission to live ‘under the Railway Bridge’ Mum Shirl sporadically attended St. Brigid’s School. She learnt most of the alphabet, but did not learn to read or write proficiently. (p.12)

EXPERIENCES OF EMPLOYMENT:

  • When her daughter Beatrice moved to live with her husband’s family in Kempsey, Mum Shirl decided to look for a job. She had always had difficulty finding stable employment because of her epilepsy. She applied to Mr Beard at the Argent’s Box Factory, knowing that he had hired a number of Aboriginal women, and paid them a very reasonable wage. Mr Beard was a very lenient employer, who appreciated that Mum Shirl had commitments to visiting Laurie in prisons around the state. (p.26)
  • When Laurie was released, Mum Shirl continued to make frequent prison visits. She provided support for inmates, and organized for the prisoners to have access to musical instruments. People who worked in the prison came to think of Mum Shirl as “some kind of welfare officer”, and began to refer to her in this way. (p.55) She was, however, working on a voluntary basis.  The Child Welfare Department and the Police in Newtown also came to rely on her to help them in court cases involving the Aboriginal community. They gave her a small courtesy fee; however, her main source of income was her invalid pension. (pp.66-67)
  • Mum Shirl’s pension was spread very thin, as she shared it with those whom she sought to help. (p.66) This left her often desperate for money.
  • For over twenty years, Mum Shirl used her own pension to support others. Though she found the work interesting, she was constantly stressed about money, as her electricity was often cut off and her rent was always late. (p.66)
  • Mum Shirl increasingly became involved in the service provision and political activism in Redfern. Her work included helping to establish the Aboriginal Legal Service, the Aboriginal Medical Service, and the Aboriginal Tent Embassy. (p.70-79) Eventually the Aboriginal Medical Service offered to pay Mum Shirl 50 dollars a week, which was more than her pension. (p.79)
  • During this time, Mum Shirl also rented a number of houses for her own family and a group of un-married mothers. She tried to encourage the children in her care to go to school, so that they could grow to become activists as well.
  • Increasingly, Mum Shirl was relied on to represent the growing number of politically active people of Aboriginal descent. She presumes that she had a lot of requests to speak because she was older, a women and a Catholic, and was thus less threatening than the young, afro-wearing men. (p.79)
  • Through this involvement, Mum Shirl came to understand democratic processes, and to publicly support the Australian Labor party. Before the 1972 election, she spoke in front of a crowd of three thousand people with the then Leader of the Opposition Gough Whitlam. (p.81) When the Labor government was subsequently elected, Mum Shirl felt more positive about the future for Aboriginal people. (p.81)
  • In her later life, Mum Shirl’s work at the Aboriginal Medical Service became difficult. In her view, the Department of Aboriginal Affairs “put pressure on the A.M.S to run the place like a white institution”. (p.111) This management style did not take into account the difficulties she had with reading and writing, and the fact that her schedule was unpredictable.
  • Mum Shirl had a heart attack, and while in hospital she was made redundant. (p.112) Despite her own negative experiences with the organization, Mum Shirl recognized the importance of the work of the AMS. (p.144)

IMPORTANT INSTITUTIONS:

  • Long Bay Prison: where Mum Shirl’s brother Laurie was sent for breaking and entering. (p.19)
  • The Salvation Army: Mum Shirl claims that, while many Aboriginal people are skeptical of the Catholic church generally, the Salvation Army has “won a place of respect for a lot of Aboriginal people.” (p.37) She had a lot of interaction with Salvation Army Officers while working in prisons. (p.37)
  • Redfern Office of Youth and Community Service: A centre that provided food for homeless people in Redfern. Mum Shirl recalls that the queues at the Office were very long, and often the appropriate person was not in the office, and so people would go hungry. (p.44)
  • Corrective Services Department: Mum Shirl became friendly with the people who worked behind the desk at the Corrective Services Department when she began visiting Aboriginal prisoners. They issued her an identity card that enabled her to visit prisoners. This won her the respect of the Aboriginal prisoners. (p.55)
  • Mum Shirl’s identity card was later revoked by the Corrective Services Department. It was, however, later given back in the form of a shield, which she has mounted. (p.114)
  • Newtown Police Station: The Newtown Police came to rely on Mum Shirl’s support with crimes involving Aboriginal people, and was paid a courtesy fee. (p.67)
  • Newtown Child Welfare Department: The Newtown Child Welfare Department would often rely on Mum Shirl to locate Aboriginal children’s parents, or identity an appropriate family member to take responsibility of children whose parents were in custody. (p.67)
  • Aboriginal Legal Service:  The ALS was one the first Aboriginal run organisations established in Redfern in the 1970s. Many of the leaders of the ALS were her younger relatives, and she strongly supported the organisation’s goals.
  • National Black Theatre: Another institution started in the 1970s in Redfern that Mum Shirl was involved in. Mum Shirl recalls that the theatre was doing very well under Betty Fisher, however when Fisher died it “didn’t recover.” (p.91)

SALIENT LAWS AND POLICIES:

  • Mum Shirl is under the impression that she became a citizen in 1967, after the referendum. Until activist Faith Bandler told her about the referendum, it had never occurred to her that she didn’t have full rights.  Mum Shirl recalls that few Aboriginal people at the time were interested in voting, and that she personally could not drink. (p.72)
  • As she became more involved in politics in the 1970s, Mum Shirl learnt about the differences between the Labor and Liberal party, and saw the value of democratic processes. (p.81)

PHYSICAL AND MENTAL HEALTH:

  • Mum Shirl realized at a young age that she was “different” from the other children, because she had epilepsy. (p.8) Being a “fit thrower” was a constant source of stress for both Mum Shirl and those around her. People didn’t want to be left alone with her in case she had a fit, and she feared being alone for the same reason.
  • As a child Mum Shirl felt strongly indebted to people who cared for her when she had fits, most of whom were fellow Aboriginals. This feeling of gratefulness and indebtedness stayed with her throughout her life, however she gradually began to realise that she was not the only person who benefited from the assistance of others.
  • Mum Shirl began receiving treatment for her epilepsy as a young adult, however her illness continued to have a strong effect on her life choices. It caused the death of her first unborn child; forced her to give up care of her daughter and made it difficult for her to find work. Her epilepsy also made sure that she kept out of trouble, as she could not drink.
  • In her late adult life, her epilepsy became a problem again. Her doctors and friends advised her to stop work and go back on her pension, however she was committed to her work.
  • Mum Shirl had a number of bad fits, including one that led her to burn her dress with a cigarette. However, it wasn’t until she was in a car accident that Mum Shirl realized she had to take her health more seriously.
  • Mum Shirl later suffered a heart attack, while working at the Aboriginal Medical Service, and was in hospital for 7 months. (p.113)

EXPERIENCES OF RELIGION:

  • Mum Shirl was raised on a ‘mission’ where, according to her, all the residents were Roman Catholics, and her parents were both converts to Christianity. Mum Shirl claims that many Aboriginal people have a “hang up” about Christianity, in particular Catholicism, because of their hypocritical attitude towards Aboriginal people.
  • Mum Shirl also implies that the Erambie residents of the mission had only superficial Christian convictions, which masked their deeper spiritual connection. (p.37)
  • However, Mum Shirl also points out that her mother, like many Aboriginal women, turned to Catholicism as a source of consolation in a harsh world.
  • Mum Shirl abandoned the Catholic Church when a priest in Grafton discriminated against her during Mass. She did not attend sermons for the next fourteen years (p.15).  She maintained her Christian convictions and continued to pray, particularly to St. Martin de Pourre, a Dominican priest from Peru (p.16).
  • Eventually, Mum Shirl decided that she could not hold the whole Catholic Church responsible for one priest’s actions. (p.16) She began attending church again: taking an active role in the church community, and finding solace in church sermons of various denominations. (p.69)
  •  Mum Shirl later described herself as a ‘M.R.C’, like her mother, which stands for ‘Mad Roman Catholic’ or ‘Mad Roaming Catholic.’ (p.14) In the late 1960s, Mum Shirl began as a Adviser for the Cardinal of the Archdiocese of Sydney. (p.73)

RELATIONSHIP WITH PARENTS:

  • Mum Shirl described her mother as a “very pious woman.” (p.14) She was known in the mission as the ‘Mad Roman Catholic’. (p.14)
  • Mum Shirl’s father was one of the Aboriginal councillors at the Erambie mission. His powers were, however, limited to the point that he was unable to prevent his own father being expelled from the mission. When this happened, Mum Shirl left the mission and lived with her grandparents at Ryan’s place, and her father stayed at Erambie: trying to campaign for better conditions for the Aboriginal people who were living there. (p.12)

RELATIONSHIPS WITH PARTNERS:

  • Cecil Hazil (Darcy Smith): When she was younger, Mum Shirl used to go to football and boxing matches in the hope of meeting eligible young men.
  • When she was 16, Mum Shirl met a handsome professional boxer name Cecil Hazeil, who was known by his fighting name, Darcy Smith. Darcy and Mum Shirl soon decided to get married, and they were able to afford a big wedding.
  • Mum Shirl’s wedding was one of the highlights of her life. After one miscarriage, Mum Shirl and Darcy had a child together. Darcy toured for most of the year and gradually they grew apart. He began living with his family in Kempsey, and when Mum Shirl decided she couldn’t look after their daughter independently, she sent her to live with Darcy’s family in Kempsey.
  • Mum Shirl’s life in Sydney was very full of people, but she was nonetheless lonely at times without a partner. (p.67) She did fall in love with a Fijian man, who she considered marrying. However, because she was still technically married to Darcy, and – being Catholic – didn’t believe in divorce, she decided against it. (p.68) Also, she thought

RELATIONSHIP WITH CHILDREN:

  • Mum Shirl’s first child died from suffocation because she had an epileptic fit while giving birth. (p.23) During her second pregnancy, she received special attention from a female doctor, and gave birth to a healthy daughter whom she named Beatrice.
  • Darcy was away touring, and so – with the support from her female family members – Mum Shirl raised Beatrice independently until she was three.  At that time, fearing that she might have a fit, she was forced to put her daughter in the care of her mother-in-law in Kempsey. Darcy began living with his family in Kempsey, and played a greater role in bringing up Beatrice.
  • While Mum Shirl did not raise her own child alone, later in life she brought up a number of Aboriginal children in houses that she rented in Surry Hills.
  • As Mum Shirl was by then a busy political figure and community worker at the time, she struggled to keep them all fed and in school.

IMPORTANT/ NFLUENTIAL FIGURES:

  • Daniel Joeseph Boney (Grandfather): Mum Shirl opens her autobiography with a character sketch of her paternal Grandfather, who the book is dedicated to. She describes him as a calm and wise man, who had ethereal connection with the country. (pp.2-3)
  • Unlike her Grandmother, who did not have favourites among her grandchildren, Mum Shirl’s Grandfather was especially fond of her. He used to take her with him on his night trips, and teach her about the land and animals. Mum Shirl’s siblings were jealous of her relationship with their Grandfather, which increased her delight in this connection even more. (pp.7-8)
  • There were times when Mum Shirl was forbidden to spend time with her Grandfather, because he was engaged in men’s business.
  • When Mum Shirl was six years old, her grandfather was kicked out of the mission. His brother helped him to build a three-bedroom house under a railway bridge at ‘Ryan’s place’, and Mum Shirl left the Erambie mission to live with him. The family relished the relative freedom at Ryan’s place. (pp.11-12)
  • Mum Shirl’s Grandather died in Cowra, when the family was living in Sydney. She regretted that she was unable to see him on her wedding day, however she felt his presence at the church. (p.23)
  • Grandmother, Emma Sion: Mum Shirl recalls that Emma cared for her and the other children on their overland journeys. Unlike her grandfather, Mum Shirl’s grandmother did not give her preferential treatment.
  • George Lawrence (Laurie): Mum Shirl’s younger brother Laurie was her “closest and dearest brother” (p.6).
  • When they lived in Waterloo, Laurie used to take Mum Shirl out with him. Mum Shirl loved the trips: as she enjoyed being associated with Laurie, and was too afraid to venture out alone in case she had a fit. When Laurie got a girlfriend, and stopped taking her out, she was devastated. (p.18)
  • Laurie soon got married and had a baby with his first girlfriend’s sister. They came to live with Mum Shirl’s family when Laurie was sent to Long Bay prison for breaking and entering. (p.19) Mum Shirl explains her brother’s criminal activity by referring to the pride Aboriginal children took in finding things, and the sense of responsibility he felt in his father’s absence to provide for his poverty stricken family. (p.19)
  • Mum Shirl believes that this initial imprisonment for theft hardened Laurie, and brought him in contact with criminals, which led to him becoming a repeat offender. (p.28)
  • Laurie was moved between numerous prisons in the state, and Mum Shirl always made an effort to visit him.
  • Laurie recommended that Mum Shirl also visit other inmates, whom he thought would benefit from the emotional support she provided him. When Laurie left prison, Mum Shirl continued to make prison visits, much to his bemusement. (p.30)
  • Laurie later opened an alcohol rehabilitation centre near Wiseman’s Ferry. (p.107) When he was much older, he was arrested again for the alleged murder of one of the young boys in the community. Laurie was found guilty and charged with manslaughter. (pp.110-111) Mum Shirl was sure that her brother hadn’t committed the crime, and was outraged by the way in which the police treated her younger brother.
  • Laurie appealed against his sentence and was acquitted by three judges. However by this stage he was already in hospital, having suffered a heart attack. (p.113)
  • Mum Shirl lists a number of outstanding Aboriginal women who kept their communities afloat long before there were “Black organisations”, and who never received recognition for their work. (p.41) She offers these profiles to counter the opinion that she was an “exception” to the rule that Aboriginal people were dysfunctional. (p.39)
  • She lists the following women:
  • Muriel Coe (Mother Williams): A woman from Cowra who Mum Shirl claims was related to “every Black person across the state.” Mum Shirl described Mother Williams as an excellent cook, who used to travel around the New South Wales sharing her stories. (p.39)
  • Mrs Piedy: The wife of Dick Piedy, who looked after Mum Shirl when she first arrived in Sydney.
  • Granny Goolagong: An elderly woman who lived in Condobolin, who Mum Shirl got to know while she was working at the local hospital.
  • Jessie (Nana Ping): An Aboriginal woman from the North Coast who was married to a Chinese man, and who raised her own family as well as other peoples.
  • Ethel Perry: Mum Shirl claims that, when she was young, her sister Ethel “became like my parent” to her. (p.51)
  • Paul Coe: Mum Shirl’s nephew, Paul Coe, was also heavily involved in the Aboriginal political organizations in Redfern. Along with Gordon Briscoe, he helped to establish the first Aboriginal Legal Service.
  • Mum Shirl and Paul often argued about the management “and what he called ‘priorities’”: and sometimes they wouldn’t talk for months. (p.51) Despite this, Mum Shirl knew that if there was a serious issue, she could rely on Paul.
  • Charles Perkins (Charlie): Mum Shirl met Charlie in a hotel on Sussex St frequented by Aboriginal people. He told her about his plans to challenge racism in New South Wales through a Freedom Ride up the North Coast. Mum Shirl claimed that while young Aboriginal people embraced his ideas, the older people were more hesitant. (p.71)
  • Mum Shirl was concerned about Charlie being the only Aboriginal person at University in Australia, but felt immense pride when he graduated. (p.72)
  • Hal Wootten: the Dean of the Law School of the University of New South Wales, who helped Gordon Briscoe and Paul Coe to establish the Aboriginal Legal Service. (p.74)
  • Barbara Burgess and Barry Francis: A team working at the Newtown Child Welfare, who Mum Shirl had when they worked in Cowra. Barbara and Barry gave the initial donation that established the Aboriginal Medical Service.
  • Doctor Haryy Freeman: One of the doctors who worked pro bono at the Aboriginal Medical Service in Redfern, and became friends with Mum Shirl. (p.76)
  • Margaret and Gough Whitlam: After the election, Mum Shirl was invited to dine with Gough and Margaret Whitlam at The Lodge. She went to Canberra for the event. However when she arrived at the Prime Minister’s residence she was overwhelmed by her surroundings and went back to her accommodation. (p.82) Margaret Whitlam later invited her to lunch in Sydney. Mum Shirl again arrived for lunch, but felt too intimidated to stay, because she felt underdressed.
  • Sister Ignatius Jenkins: Sister Ignatius was an elderly nun who met Mum Shirl and became “radicalized about Blacks”. She helped her campaign for better inner-city housing, which led to the establishment of the Aboriginal Housing Company. (p.82)
  • Neil Diamond: Mum Shirl took a group of children with disabilities to see a Neil Diamond concert in Sydney. However, she found when she arrived (by taxi) that the tickets were sold out. Mum Shirl complained on talkback radio, and was subsequently invited to America by Neil Diamond.
  • After her trip to America, many people assumed that Neil Diamond had donated a sum of money to Mum Shirl. In her book she stresses that this is not true, because many people came asking for money and she had to refuse them. (p.99)

PREOCCUPATIONS:

Tragedy:

  • Mum Shirl recalls the prominent place of births and deaths in her early life. She recounts the death of her sister-in-law Jean, from a chest infection, and brother Jimmy from a sleep-walking accident. (p.18) Mum Shirl also described the death of her brother Norman, who was smothered by a cat; her brother Milton who died in a pram accident and her sister Agnes. (pp.2-3)

Misconceptions about Aboriginal people:

  • Mum Shirl corrects what she believes are common misconceptions about Aboriginal people. For example, she dismisses the view that Aboriginal people were scared of the spirits that came out at night, by informing the reader that the same spirits exist during daylight hours. (p.7)
  • Mum Shirl also counters the belief that Aboriginal people “love to live on the social services.” (p.48)
  • Mum Shirl also believes that white people make negative generalisations about Aboriginal people, ignoring their diversity.

Colonial history:

  • Mum Shirl gives an account of the colonization of Australia. She describes the bloody conquest of Aboriginal people, followed by the establishment of missions where they might “die out quietly”.
  • Mum Shirl then described how missionaries controlled and infantilized Aboriginal men and women. (p.10)
  • Mum Shirl states that Aboriginal councillors where appointed – as they were at Erambie – they were not given any real power. Mum Shirl gives personal evidence of this historical reality: she recalls that her grandfather was expelled from the mission, despite her father being a member of the Council. (p.11)
  • Mum Shirl retells a rumor that some Aboriginal people hoped that the Japanese would win World War II, so that they would rid the continent of Europeans.

Social problems:

  • Mum Shirl gives her analysis of various social problems she has experienced in urban Aboriginal communities, including interpersonal violence, self-harm, unemployment, crime and drug abuse. She places the main emphasis on poverty and discrimination. She points out that the “black community has got so little, to be shared between so many,” and that situation often leads people to resort to crime. (p.51)
  • Relaying two scenarios in which Aboriginal people resorted to violence, Mum Shirl isolated a common factor: they were stuck in an alienating, non-Aboriginal environment - such as a prison or a school. (p.7) She also believes that Aboriginal people are denied employment, which leads to many other social problems.
  • Mum Shirl also explains murder, the crime that had affected her most, as a symptom of discrimination and disadvantage.
  • Mum Shirl complains that when one Aboriginal commits a crime, white people tend to blame the Aboriginal community as a whole.  She believes that is particularly felt by children at school.
  • Mum Shirl also contests the view of Aboriginal men as perpetrators of rape. She points out that, in the past, numerous incidents of white men sexually assaulting Aboriginal women went unreported. In contrast, Aboriginal women were never raped by their own menfolk, because that was not the ‘Aboriginal way.’ She believes that if Aboriginal men do commit sexual assault, it is because they lack strong male role models.
  • Mum Shirl also believes that Aboriginal Services do not received adequate government funding.

Political Activism:

  • Mum Shirl describes her political awakening in the 1970s. While she had always been concerned about social issues, she claims that she – like most Aboriginal people – was relatively apolitical up until this point.
  • Many Aboriginal people were drawn to racial politics in America. However Mum Shirl felt this was unrelated to her reality.
  • Mum Shirl found radical politics stimulating, however she was also confused by some of the language used by the younger generation. (p.78)

MODE OF LITERARY PRODUCTION: Mum Shirl is functionally illiterate, and so her book was transcribed and written by Robert Sykes.
—“I can’t read much and I can’t hardly sign my own name. Even this book is being written down for me by this young girl from bits and piece I have told her over the last ten year and some tapes she made about my younger years.” (p.112)

Additional Resources

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This biographical entry was contributed by Australian Indigenous Autobiography Archive

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Citation details

'Smith, Shirley Coleen (Mum Shirl) (1921–1998)', Indigenous Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://ia.anu.edu.au/biography/smith-shirley-coleen-mum-shirl-17817/text29401, accessed 24 March 2017.

© Copyright Indigenous Australia, 2012