Mum Shirl

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Mum Shirl
Born Shirley Colleen Perry
21 November 1924
Cowra, New South Wales, Australia
Died 28 April 1998(1998-04-28) (aged 76)
Resting place Botany Cemetery
Nationality Australian
Ethnicity Aboriginal Australian
Known for Aboriginal rights
Religion Christian (Roman Catholic)

Shirley Colleen Smith AM MBE (22 November 1924 – 28 April 1998), better known as Mum Shirl, was a prominent Aboriginal Australian and activist committed to justice and welfare of Aboriginal Australians. She was a founding member of the Aboriginal Legal Service, the Aboriginal Medical Service, the Aboriginal Tent Embassy, the Aboriginal Children’s Service and the Aboriginal Housing Company in Redfern, a suburb of Sydney, Australia.

Building community[edit]

Shirl Smith began to visit Aboriginal people in jail after one of her brothers was incarcerated and she discovered that her visits were beneficial to other prisoners as well. Her community activism also saw her accompanying indigenous people who were unfamiliar with the legal system to court when they had been charged with a crime. Her nickname came from her habit of replying, "I’m his mum" whenever officials queried her relationship with the prisoners - the name by which she became widely known.[1]

Because of her work visiting Aboriginal prisoners, Mum Shirl is the only woman in Australia to have been given unrestricted access to prisons in New South Wales. "She'd be at one end of the state one day, and seen at the other end of the state the next day. The department wasn't getting her from A to B. She used to rely on family and friends to get her around." said Ron Woodham from NSW Corrective Services.[2] Later the Department of Corrective Services revoked her pass, making her prisoner support work near impossible.[3]

Smith's welfare work, however, was not confined only to prisons and the legal system. She also spent considerable time and money finding homes for children whose parents could not look after them, and helping displaced children to find their own parents again. The children with nowhere to go often ended up living with her. By the early 1990s she had raised over 60 children. Likewise, many people with no family or friends in Sydney arrived at Mum Shirl’s Redfern house seeking shelter.

In 1970, Smith, along with Ken Brindle, and Chicka and Elsa Dixon, were the guiding force behind a group of young Aboriginal men and women who were involved in the campaign for land rights by the Gurindji people. This same group, with Fred Hollows and others helped to establish Aboriginal Medical Service in July 1971. They also helped establish the Aboriginal Legal Service in 1971, the Aboriginal Black Theatre, the Aboriginal Tent Embassy, the Aboriginal Children’s Service, the Aboriginal Housing Company and the Detoxification Centre at Wiseman’s Ferry.[4]

Committed Catholic[edit]

"Mum Shirl" was an integral and committed part of the Catholic Church of St Vincent's Redfern with the renowned Father Ted Kennedy. She was a devout Catholic and a mistress of the bon mot: one of her favourites being "There's nothing out of plumb with the Catholic religion; it's the way Catholics practise it". Local priest Father Kennedy said that she had "a capacity to comfort the afflicted but never suggested that she would not afflict the comfortable".[5] Smith also gave regularly of her time to visit Australian (largely) caucasian schools and communities as part of educating the broader Australian community on Aboriginal issues and concerns.


She was made a Member of the Order of the British Empire in 1977 and the Order of Australia (1985). The National Aboriginal and Islander Day Observance Committee named Mum Shirl as Aborigine of the Year in 1990. Just a few months before her death, the National Trust acknowledged her as one of Australia’s living national treasures.[6]

Mum Shirl died on 28 April 1998[7] and is survived by her daughter Beatrice, her sister Harriet and her brother Joe along with her grandchildren, great-grandchildren nieces and nephews, great nieces and nephews and great, great nieces and nephews. Her funeral at St Mary's Cathedral, Sydney was presided over by her friend Father Ted Kennedy and was attended by a number of dignitaries including the Governor-General of Australia Sir William Deane as well as many people that she had helped over the years. She was buried at Botany Cemetery.[8]

Two years after her death, Bronwyn Bancroft and the Boomalli Aboriginal Artists Co-operative organised a tribute exhibition of art works in her honour.[9]


  1. ^ "Shirley Perry Smith". AustLit. Retrieved 26 January 2015. 
  2. ^ "Australians - Mum 'Shirl' Smith". Schools TV. Australian Broadcasting Corporation. Archived from the original on 28 March 2012. Retrieved 26 January 2015. 
  3. ^ Land, Clare (2002). "MumShirl (c. 1924 - 1998)". The Australian Women's Register. National Foundation for Australian Women. Retrieved 26 January 2015. 
  4. ^ Mum Shirl, Mum Shirl: an autobiography, Mammoth Australia, 1992, pp 107 ISBN 1-86330-144-5
  5. ^ Kennedy, Ted (13 May 1998). "Mum Shirl: fighter for Aboriginal rights". Green Left Weekly. Retrieved 26 January 2015. 
  6. ^ Andrew Refshauge, Deputy Premier of New South Wales (29 April 1998). "Death of Mrs Colleen Shirley Smith". Parliamentary Debates (Hansard). New South Wales: Legislative Assembly. pp. 4410–11. 
  7. ^ Stephens, Tony (29 April 1998). "Mum Shirl, Black Saint of Redfern, dies at 76". The Sydney Morning Herald. Retrieved 26 January 2015. 
  8. ^ Stephens, Tony (5 May 1998). "'May black angels lead her into paradise'". The Sydney Morning Herald. Retrieved 26 January 2015. 
  9. ^ Jopson, Debra (22 November 2000). "Strong but fair, the Redfern reformer who didn't cop it.". The Sydney Morning Herald. Retrieved 26 January 2015. 
  • Mum Shirl with the assistance of Bobbi Sykes, Mum Shirl: an autobiography, Mammoth Australia, 1992, ISBN 978-1-86330-144-2

External links[edit]