Shirley Smith was a social worker and humanitarian activist committed to justice and welfare of Aboriginal Australians. A Wiradjuri woman, she was born on Mission near Cowra, and grew up with her grandparents.
Shirley began her lifelong welfare work after her brother’s imprisonment, when she realised that many of his fellow inmates had no visitors, nor anybody with whom they could discuss their problems. She began to visit other prisoners in the gaol and, later, began to extend her visits to other gaols in New South Wales. Eventually, the Department of Corrective Services allowed her access to all its prisoners. She earned the nickname ‘Mum Shirl’ through her visits to the inmates.
In Sydney, she 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.
Shirley 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. Her funeral in 1998 was attended by a number of dignitaries including the Governor General of Australia.