Chasing George Smith

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Smith with ball 1905

George Smith poses for the camera.  (Auckland Weekly News, 21 December 1905. Image supplied by Grey Collections, Auckland City Libraries)

So, Mr Adjunct Scholar, what are you actually working on, now that you have so much more time for writing? I've had some ask that. Well, I'm certainly busy. I've been commissioned to curate a New Zealand Portrait Gallery exhibition, about Wellington,  and there are other projects bubbling along. Most things, though, have been subsumed by my new  biographical project - the sporting life of George Smith (1874-1954).

Who?, some may ask. In his time, before World War I, Smith was one of the world's best track and field hurdlers, and unsurpassed as wing or centre firstly in international amateur rugby and later in professional rugby league. There is a DNZB article about him, and he has been inducted into the New Zealand Sports Hall of Fame, but he has been forgotten by most. It is a fascinating story, about arguably New Zealand's greatest-ever all-round sportsperson.

Smith's fame came from a uniquely quick-footed agility and extreme speed. He was a delight to watch. A journalist at a game during the 1905 All Black tour of Britain, for example, wrote how at one point Smith "threaded his way like an eel through a swarm of Leicester men, swerving here, dodging there, outpacing a third, leaping over a fourth, wriggling through the arms of a fifth until he actually touched down". There many such accounts. He was similarly spectacular swooping at great pace over high hurdles on the athletic track.

Domain - Alex Park collage

Much of Smith's sporting life centred around the running track at the Auckland Domain and at Alexandra Park football fields in Ellerslie. The Domain was the home of Auckland athletics and Alexandra Park was the venue for most rugby inter-club and representative games. This photo shows an end-of-season top-of-the table clash in 1901 between Grafton and City (captained by Smith). Despite some typical Smith efforts Grafton won narrowly. (Auckland Domain, c 1890. Artist: James Eastwood. Watercolour 118 x 173mm, A-050-004, Alexander Turnbull Library; Rugby game, Alexandra Park. Auckland Weekly News, 5 July 1901. Image supplied by Grey Collections, Auckland City Libraries)

He was a working class boy from Freeman's Bay in Auckland. After leaving school early he found work as a racehorse stablehand. His first sporting achievements were as a youthful jockey, and he had several good wins, although there is some uncertainty still about which wins were his and which those of a different G. Smith - just one of several strands I am in the midst of untangling.

By 1896 he was attracting the attention of the Auckland sporting crowd, both on the running track and as the star winger for the strong City Club of Freeman's Bay. He was picked for the Auckland rugby team the following year and, in 1897, for the New Zealand team to tour Australia, where he played in all ten games, scoring 12 tries. On his return he added to his reputation with two scintilating tries in the final minutes to win the end-of-season game against arch-rivals Wellington. For several years after that, though, he limited his rugby to the occasional game for City, apart from a full winter season in 1901, when his speed on the wing contributed to New Zealand and Auckland wins over the touring New South Welshmen.

NZ Rugby team 1897

The New Zealand rugby team that toured Australia in 1897. New cap Smith is third from right in the front row (New Zealand Rugby Museum)

He was just as successful at athletics, a much more popular spectator sport then than it is now. Between 1898 and 1904 he won fifteen national athletic titles as a sprinter and hurdler. There were Australasian titles as well and two world-best times - in the 120 yards hurdles in 1902 (never ratified) and the 440 high hurdles in 1904.. His success as a hurdler depended on very intensive training and it was his committment to that which partly explains the gaps in his representative rugby career. He just could not obtain the track form he wanted after the strains of a full rugby season.

He was competing as an amateur, but had little time for the ideologies of amateurism. Various low-paid jobs were fitted around his sport and he was often looking for ways to gain some financial advantage. For someone of his reputation there were ways and means to subvert the amateur code, especially in athletics, and how he did that is one theme of my book. Trophies could still be claimed as cash or goods. Sympathetic employers let him train and compete on work time. Betting at sports grounds was still endemic and there was money to be made through wagers and inside knowledge. The main perk of his sport, though, was more straightfoward - the opportunity for expenses-paid travel, around New Zealand, to Australia and, the ultimate sporting adventure of all, to be sent on the the long sea voyage "home". Nothing excited New Zealand players and spectators more than taking on the British in Britain.

Smith hurdling 1899

Smith's dominance of local athletics is well demonstrated in this photograph of the 120-yard hurdles at the 1899 Auckland Autumn Athletic Carnival in the Domain. It was a handicap race and he had started 12 yards behind the field, but was well in front by the last hurdle (Auckland Weekly News, 17 March 1903. Image supplied by Grey Collections, Auckland City Libraries)

Smith sailed to England three times, each time with a different sporting code, and did well every time. The first visit was in 1902 when funds were raised to send him to the English amateur athletic championships. There he won the 120-yard hurdles, which caused much pride back in New Zealand. His hosts were not so impressed, though. "Style, he lacks" wrote one English commentator, who thought the visitor "quaint and old-fashioned." He went on, condescendingly and inaccurately, "Smith looks what he is, a sheepfarmer, and his sunburnt skin would lead one to believe he follows his vocation attired only in his racing costume." The disdain was mutual. Smith had no time for the English "toffs", as he called them, and their lackadaiscial approach to training. "We were sent Home to win" he said "and that business comes first, and pleasure afterwards."

After returning from England Smith announced his retirement. It was time to concentrate on "domestic life" he said. But he was soon back on the track. He was tempted into the occasional rugby game for City, too, but resisted calls for a return to representative rugby. That changed in 1904, as anticipation grew about the 1905 rugby tour to Britain. It was an exciting prospect and he announced his availablity. It only took a few games to show he had lost none of his pace and skill, and he was added to the team.

!905 Duffy collage

In April 1905 the American sprinter Arthur Duffey toured New Zealand, along with the English middle-distance runner Alfred Shrubb. At the Auckland meeting Smith faced Duffey in a 50-yard race and beat him by half a yard. Smith is third from left in the bottom photograpjy. Duffey was regarded by many as the best in the world over short sprint and had given Smith a yard start. Nevertheless it was an impressive performance. Shortly before this event Smith had announced his intention to try for the 1905 rugby team to tour Britain later that year. (Auckland Weekly News, 6 April 1905)

Much has been written about the 1905 All Blacks but Smith's contribution to the team's training and backline innovations has been underestimated. He was an undoubted star of the tour, with his greatest moment being the winning try in the last minutes against Scotland. Unfortunately a serious shoulder injury ruined his tour just before the crucial game against Wales. It was his replacement, Deans, who ran in the disallowed try that could have saved the game. (One cannot help speculating on what might have been if it had been Smith, with his extra pace and vision, who had taken that final pass.)

By the end of the tour Smith had decided to turn professional. The strongest teams in England were those competing in the professional Northern Union (later called rugby league) competition, based in Northern England. Smith had a Northern Union offer on his 1902 visit, but turned it down. He was interested now, but first he had another idea. He had seen how lucrative the All Black tour had been and was thinking about the possibility of a return tour to take on the best of the Northern Union. Back in New Zealand Albert Baskiville took up the idea, and after considerable under-cover negotiation a team was formed. It was a cooperative enterprise (organised on "socialistic principles", said the Athletic News) - everyone in the team put in £50, and shared any profits.

1905 collage

The All Blacks wander onto the field against Midland Counties, 28 October 1905. Smith is second from right. It was the thirteenth game of the tour and the New Zealanders had already scored 429 points, for just ten against. Once again the backs ran riot, with Smith scoring the first try in a 21-5 victory. Around this time this souvenir postcard was produced. (New Zealand Rugby Museum)

Although not as successful on the scoreboard as the amateur All Blacks the professional team did very well financially. Smith ended up with a £300 payout as his share, and he then signed on to finish the season playing for the Oldham in the Northern Union competition. That was worth at least another £150, with additional match payments, and a week-day employment. He had never been so well off. That summer his long-time fiance, Edith Kemble, joined him and they married in Brighton.

The last chapter in Smith's sporting life is as a professional for Oldham, one of the best of the Northern Union sides. It was hard work though. One acquaintance who met Smith after the 1907-1908 season reported that "there seemed to be hardly a sound spot in his body, so severely had he been knocked about in his first season.... One knee had given way, likewise one of his shoulders, and he had three ribs broken. He was strapped and bandaged and cased in plaster of Paris...." But, he recovered and played for several more successful seasons, finally being forced to give up in 1916 after suffering a badly broken leg.

After the First World War he and Edith had planned to return to New Zealand but her unexpected death in 1920 left him with three young children, natives of Lancashire and keen to stay there. He remained in Oldham, an expatriate working class hero, for the rest of his life.

There is definitely a good book in all that.  It is a fascinating sporting story, and has wider themes as well, about the colonial excitement of beating England, about the murky borders between amateurism and professionalism, and about the development of modern spectator sport in New Zealand and Britain. There is a lot more research to do, though, and very soon I'm off to Northern England to do just that.

!908 NRU cartoon

Oldham was one of the strongest teams in the Northern Union. With Smth's help they finished top of the league table in the 1907-1908 season. They failed to win the championship, however, which was decided by a playoff of the top four clubs. They drew with Hunslet in the final (shown here), and then lost the replay. Smith had a quiet game, making some good tackles but receiving a season-ending injury. Cartoons and drawings like this one were frequently used in the sporting press, as photography was not yet quite able to capture action highlights. (Athletic News, 4 May 1908)


Oldham 1911 team

In response to this blog I received this photograph from Michael Turner of the Oldham Rugby League Heritage Trust, showing the Oldham team and committee posing proudly at the end of the 1910-1911 season. It is too good not to include.  For the second season in a row they had won the Northern Union championship. The trophy is shown here, together with the Lancashire Cup which they also won. Smith is in the front row to the left of the trophies. He had played a large part in the team's success, being the leading try scorer for both the 1909-10 and 1910-11 seasons. (Oldham Rugby League Heritage Trust)


  • On 25 Jun 2014 john mccrystal says:
    Fantastic stuff, David! Love the photos. Smith caught my eye, too, when I was writing about the 1905 Originals. That team had some memorable characters — notably Billy 'Carbine' Wallace — but Smith was undoubtedly one of our enduring great sportsmen. Look forward to seeing the book.

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