Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Cecilia Smith (1911–1980)

by Ysola Best

This article was published:

Cecilia Smith (1911-1980), matriarch and Aboriginal activist, was born on 24 March 1911 at Beaudesert, Queensland, second of five children of Aboriginal parents William Hatton, labourer, and his second wife Dolly, née Tate. William, known as 'Pompey', was employed as a stockman and noted for his veterinary skills. Dolly came from Tambo. She had been removed from her family as a child and had worked in Brisbane before her marriage. Educated at Beaudesert and confirmed in the Church of England, Celia found employment as a domestic servant. On 8 August 1932 at Christ Church, Boonah, she married with Anglican rites Ernest Smith, a farm hand. The young couple lived at Dalby and then at Toowoomba. They had separated by 1943 when Celia moved with their four children to Fortitude Valley, Brisbane.

Compassionate and generous, Mrs Smith kept open house where anyone could obtain a hot meal, play a game of cards and receive a few shillings or some second-hand clothing. People needing accommodation stayed for a few days and occasionally longer. Smith visited prisoners in gaol, sometimes sought their release, and welcomed them back into the community. After her only daughter Betty died in the 1950s, she took custody of two of her three children and also cared for several other grandchildren over extended periods. From about 1960 she lived at Carina where she continued to provide hospitality: she grew vegetables and fruit, and cooked meals outdoors on a wood stove for large groups of people.

Joining the Queensland Council for the Advancement of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders soon after its formation in 1958, Smith served as honorary secretary (1972-75) and sat on the social committee, helping to run dances to raise money for various causes. She wrote a column (from 1970) in the council's monthly newsletter in which she discussed issues of land rights, wages, conditions on reserves and housing for Aborigines. A member of the Federal Council for the Advancement of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders, she attended conferences in Canberra in the 1960s and at Alice Springs, Northern Territory, in 1972. As an executive-member of F.C.A.A.T.S.I.'s women's council, she was a delegate at the fourth national conference of Aboriginal and Islander women, held in Melbourne in 1974.

Smith had campaigned vigorously for a 'Yes' vote in the successful 1967 referendum to empower the Commonwealth government to legislate on Aboriginal affairs. She was often 'on duty' at the 'tent embassy' set up in 1974 at King George Square, Brisbane, to publicize the need for more Aboriginal housing in the city and to protest against the State's repressive Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders' Affairs Act (1965). In the 1970s she belonged to the Queensland branch of the Union of Australian Women, and kept the organization informed of matters affecting Aborigines. Following abdominal surgery, she died of renal failure on 23 December 1980 in Princess Alexandra Hospital, Brisbane, and was cremated. Her three sons survived her.

Select Bibliography

  • J. Bell, Talking about Celia (Brisb, 1997)
  • U.A.W. News, Feb, June 1974
  • Queensland Council for the Advancement of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders, Newsletter, June 1971, May 1972, Nov/Dec 1975
  • Sunday Mail (Brisbane), 28 Dec 1980.

Citation details

Ysola Best, 'Smith, Cecilia (1911–1980)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2002, accessed online 15 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 16, (Melbourne University Press), 2002

View the front pages for Volume 16

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Hatton, Cecilia

24 March, 1911
Beaudesert, Queensland, Australia


23 December, 1980 (aged 69)
Brisbane, Queensland, Australia

Cultural Heritage

Includes subject's nationality; their parents' nationality; the countries in which they spent a significant part of their childhood, and their self-identity.

Religious Influence

Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.