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Perry Smith, Shirley (Mum Shirl) (1924 - 1998)

Alternative Names
  • Mum Shirl


Colleen Shirley Perry, tireless community worker, died on 28 April 1998 aged 73. Shirley was born on the Erambie Reserve, Cowra, of Wiradjuri descent. Born into a large family, young Shirley received great spiritual and moral guidance from her parents, Isabell and Joseph Perry, elders and grandparents.
Endowed with a prodigious memory and lively wit, she attended the Erambie Mission School, but her education was impaired by epilepsy, at a time when medication for the disease did not exist.
She moved with her family to Sydney in the mid 1930s. Not long after the move, one of Shirley’s brothers went to jail. Visiting her brother in jail would start a lifelong and tireless involvement in welfare work.
After his release, the NSW consorting laws prevented her brother from maintaining contact with his friends in jail, so Shirley continued the visits on his behalf. Her nickname arose from her habit of replying, "I’m his Mum", whenever officials queried her relationship with the prisoners. Eventually the authorities recognised the value of her support for prisoners and allowed her access to any prisoner she wished to visit.
Her caring continued beyond prisons, with many people with no family or friends in Sydney arriving at Mum Shirl’s Redfern house seeking shelter. By the early 1990s she had reared over 60 children.
In 1970, Shirley, along with Ken Brindle and Chicka Dixon, were the guiding force behind a group of young Aboriginal men and women who were involved in the Gurindji campaign for land rights. This group included Paul Coe, Gary Williams, Gary Foley, Billy and Lynn Craigie.
This same group helped to establish the first Aboriginal Legal Service in 1971, the Aboriginal Medical Service in 1972, the National Black Theatre, the Aboriginal Embassy, the Aboriginal Children’s Service, the Aboriginal Housing Company and the Detoxification Centre at Wiseman’s Ferry.