Chasing George Smith - Dispatch from Oldham

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I'm over halfway through my research expedition to England now, chasing down the remarkable sporting life of George Smith (1874-1954).  You can read about the project in my earlier blog, here.

The largest chunk of my time has been spent in Oldham. This is where he finished his sporting career,  as a successful and pioneering professional rugby league player, and where he lived for the rest of his life. He is better remembered in Oldham, I find, than he is in New Zealand. Below is a feature about George and me that appeared in the Oldham Chronicle a few days ago.

chronicle image duo

Here I am soon after my arrival in Oldham. Behind me is Pippa Lowe, great-granddaughter of George Smith and custodian of the family papers. I have some of them in front of me (and you can read more about them below). Next to her are the Michael Turner (left) and Brian Walker, historians of Oldham Rugby League and founders of the Oldham Rugby Heritage Trust. They have all been extremely helpful (Oldham Evening Chronicle, 18 September 2014)

Oldham is an interesting place, even if it never has been, or will be, a tourist destination. Perhaps the nearest it got to that was a brief mention in the Baedeker Guide to Great Britain, published around the time George first arrived. It was a boomtown then, at the centre of the cotton trade, and Baedeker advised Lancashire visitors that "over 600 tall factory chimneys may be seen from the top of Oldham Edge," no doubt an impressive, if grimy, sight.*  Today the chimneys have long gone but many redbrick mill buildings remain, imposing structures, sometimes abandoned sometime repurposed, and typically surrounded by dense rows of two-story red-brick terrace housing, built for the mill workers. This was George's world from 1908, until his death in 1954.

No doubt George was sometimes nostalgic for the balmier weather of his Auckland hometown, and he was always a proud New Zealander. He and his wife and young family had planned to return, before her tragic death in 1920 left him a solo father. But he enjoyed his life in Lancashire, and being a respected member of Oldham's lively working class community.  It is a life of very marked contrast with that of the other New Zealand expatriate sportsman I have written about - upper-class, Oxbridge-based, Jack Lovelock.  

Daughters and cartoon duo

George Smith and his daughters, ca 1940. On the left is Emily Yearn and on the right her younger sister, Edna Stansfield. The cartoon clipping is from the later 1940s. During the New Zealand tour of 1907-8 the Northern Union clubs were not allowed to approach the New Zealand players until after the last game. As soon as the third test was over, though, Oldham and Wigan were outside the team changing room vying for the signatures of George and of Lance Todd. George claimed he got out of the bath to sign first. (Family papers)


Much of my time has been spent in the Oldham Archives Centre, looking through the local newspapers, tracking down George's Oldham playing career. 25,000 came along to watch him play his first game for Oldham, against Wigan (who were also introducing their new signing, the New Zealand inside back Lance Todd.) The rest of the New Zealand team were in the stands, reported the Chronicle, giving "a right hearty cheer...when [Smith and Todd] turned out and again and again as they shone with some particular brilliant display."  The reporter was certainly impressed. Smith, he wrote:

covered himself in glory in his first match with the Oldham men. Some of the openings he made were simply electrifying, and his defensive work was equally brilliant....Smith’s tackle is a very deadly affair, swift, low, and sure; and he is both speedy and clever.

It is a good summary of George's playing strengths, although he did not really show his full abilities until the following year, when he was more familiar with Northern Union rules, and had finally shaken off niggling injuries from the New Zealand tour. He was Oldham's top try scorer for the next two seasons and forged formidable centre/wing partnerships with a series of other top-class signings, including the Australian Syd Deane and the England captain James Lomas. Much of his skill lay in setting up others to score but the crowd at Oldham's famous (now gone) Watersheddings Stadium were always hoping for a Smith special - perhaps one of his trademark twisting, dodging, jinking runs through an opposing backline, or a swerving burst relying on sheer speed.  

Players cartoon

This is a detail from a larger cartoon that appeared on the front page of the Oldham Evening Chronicle Sports Edition in November 1922. It is headed "Peeps into Oldham's Past (Sketches from Memory)". Smith is featured in typical full flight on the left. Passing the ball to him is the Australian player Sid Deane who was inside centre for many games during Smith's best years with Oldham (Oldham Evening Chronicle, 4 November 1922).

There were times when his form wavered, because of niggling injuries or overwork - his livelihood depended on game payments and on average he played 38 a year over the four seasons from 1908-9 to 1911-12. He kept himself formidably fit, though, seldom neglecting his daily sprint training. "How well the veteran wears!" exclaimed one reporter after a game against Widnes in 1911, "more than once on Saturday when the New Zealander had the ball some of the younger generation of the Widnes team were made to look old in comparsion.... He is nothing short of a marvel.”

He could still produce "A Sensational Try" headline in 1915. He was 40, and it was just a few weeks before a badly broken leg ended his playing days. He was Club trainer by then and had not been a regular in the first team since 1912, but was back playing now that war service had depleted the available players. This try came against Runcorn. They were on attack when, the Chronicle reported,

the ball was beautifully intercepted by George Smith, who took it well in his own half and ran to the other end beating man after man. The whole of the defence streamed across the field in vain endeavour to cut off his passage but he ran to the side of the posts and scored a brilliant try.

This Oldham research, of course, is just for the final part of my book. Most of the book will be about his New Zealand years, and at the heart of it will be chapters about his British sports tours. It was the dream of every colonial sportsman to make that long voyage to compete, successfully, against the best at "Home." Smith did it three times, each time with a different sporting code. The 1905 amateur and 1907 professional rugby tours have been very well written about by others, but a biographical approach gives a different perspective. I'll be doing some more research on that next week, in the Rugby League archives collection at Huddersfield University. 

It is Smith's first British visit, in 1902, to try for the 120 yards hurdles title at the AAA Championship, that has taken up most of my non-Oldham research time on this visit - at the British Library and working through the athletic archives at Birmingham University. He won, but it was a struggle, for he could never quite regain his New Zealand form after those weeks at sea. He did not like the London athletic administrators at all but enjoyed a northern tour with the team of visiting American athletes. It was there he received his first offer to play professional rugby. That's a good story for a later blog.  

Early Smith duo

Two of the photographs in the Smith family papers. The one on the left is the earliest known photograph of Smith, probably taken in 1894 or 1895. His companion is unknown. The other photograph was taken in West Ealing soon after Smith had arrived in England with the 1905 All Blacks. He wrote on it "Yours for eva" and sent it to his fiancé, Edith Kemble. (Family papers)

The other main source for my Oldham research has been the family papers now held by his great-granddaughter. As I hoped there is much there about his later Oldham working and family life. And I have been lucky enough to meet an old family friend, god-daughter of Edna, who remembers George well and has some good memories of life in Chief Street, Glodwick, where George lived for most of his Oldham life

What I had not anticipated was how much the papers would help fill in gaps in George's early New Zealand life. He was no records keeper, but his daughters were, and were very proud of their father's achievements. There are photographs, cuttings and correspondence with the New Zealand branch of the family and with earlier New Zealand sports historians. The local newspaper cuttings not only reveal how much of a local hero George remained in Oldham, but also include several articles about his life based on interviews with him.

One of the mysteries those papers have helped solve is about George's early years as a stablehand and jockey. The highpoint of that is often claimed to be his victory on Impulse in the 1894 New Zealand Cup at Riccarton. The jockey was certainly "G.Smith". but he weighed less than seven stone, while three years later our George was playing rugby for New Zealand, weighing five stone more. George the jockey - now that would be a good blog too. It is an interesting tale. But for that one you might just have to wait until the book comes out.  

George Smith cartoon 1958

The memory of George Smith's sporting life lived long in Oldham, his home town from 1908 until his death in 1954. The Oldham Chronicle somtimes included pieces about him, often drawn from interviews with him. There was never any claim there that his early racing career included more than several wins as an apprentice jockey around the racetracks of Auckland. (Cartoon, 3 April 1958, Oldham Evening Chronicle)


*Alan Fowler and Terry Wyke Spindleopolis: Oldham 1913 (Gallery Oldham. 2013)





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