Born Colleen Shirley Perry Smith, on Erambie Mission, New South Wales, Shirley Smith AO OBE, or 'Mum Shirl' as she affectionately became known by thousands of people, held many community titles: social worker, activist, humanitarian, foster parent but above all 'Mum' being a true believer in the resilience of the human spirit.
In the mid-1930s, her family moved to Sydney, at which time one of her brothers was jailed. Upon her brother's release, Mum Shirl continued to visit other prisoners, helping them to regain health and focus and finding their families. Soon she began supporting Aboriginal people in court and looking after countless children who were often placed with her by the magistrates. Throughout the decades, Mum Shirl would visit prisoners on a regular basis; this is how her nickname arose, as she had a habit of always replying to people in authority "I'm his Mum" whenever officials queried her relationship with prisoners. Eventually the authorities recognised the value of her support for prisoners throughout New South Wales and unprecedently allowed her access to any prisoner whom she wished to visit throughout the state.
Mum Shirl's caring ways extended beyond the prison sector though; she lived and worked in Redfern and was well known for her open-house policy for anyone who was down on their luck, homeless, hungry or in need of company or protection from police. It was while living in Redfern that Mum Shirl began caring for hundreds of alcoholics and vagrants; she became one of the original founders of the Aboriginal Medical Service and Legal Service in the early 1970s. Over time she was involved in the establishment of the Foundation for Aboriginal Affairs, the Aboriginal Children's Service, the Aboriginal Housing Company and numerous other organisations which today remain an historical legacy to a woman who was unable to attend formal education at Erambie Mission School due to being impaired with severe epilepsy, at a time when medication for the disease did not exist. Mum Shirl left formal primary education unable to read or write.
By the early 1990s Mum Shirl had reared more then 60 children in her family home, and endlessly assisted families who were seeking housing accommodation either from the state government or private rentals in and around the inner Sydney suburbs. Numerous stories, essays, studies and articles have been written on the life and struggles of a remarkable and proud Wiradjuri Woman. In every sense of the word Colleen Shirley Smith, lived a life of great happiness, satisfaction and the ability to love all, regardless of race, culture or religion. Her legacy continues to grow through the various organisations which she helped to establish, at a time when Aboriginal people were not even considered in the national census.
When she died, Sir William Deane, Governor General of Australia, said 'Australians are prone to use the words "great" and "hero" too lightly . . . There are, however, . . . a mere handful for whom they really are the only appropriate words. Mum Shirl was one of them.'