Royal Tricyclists, Colonial Cracks, and more - Sport and Leisure up North

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"This a small piece I did for the latest Phanzine, the Professional Historian Association newsletter.


I’m writing this esconsed in the British Library. Right now I’m in the Humanities reading room catching up on recent sports history. In the afternoons I’m down the corridor in the new newspaper room, tracking down English newspaper accounts of my “colonial crack", New Zealand sportsman George Smith. I’m writing a book about him.

For those of you who have never heard of Smith he was, among other things, a star of the 1905 All Blacks, a world-class sprinter, the fastest hurdler in the British Empire, and a pioneering Australasian rugby league player, who ended his long career as a professional league player in Lancashire. That is where I have just been, up north - in Oldham actually, Smith’s adopted home town. There is a chest of family papers up there, family memories, some helpful Oldham rugby league history enthusiasts, and a very good local studies centre.

Oldham snow

It was officially spring! Taken from the entrance to the Oldham Gallery and Library. The Local Studies Centre, where I spent many hours, is off to the left.

But that is not what this piece is about. On the way north I attended an International Sports and Leisure History Colloquium, to give its full title, at the Crewe campus of the Manchester Metropolitan University (MMU), organised by Dr Dave Day and other MMU staff in association with the British Society of Sports History. There were about 30 participants - academics, students and independent researchers – from Europe, Canada, and me from New Zealand. The timing fitted in well with my Oldham visit, so I offered a short paper about Smith which was accepted. I flag just a few highlights from the colloquium here. (You can find out more at

From the unfamiliar (to me) leisure history end of the spectrum several papers appealed. Alison Goodrum, Professor in the Department of Apparel at MMU talked about the fashion for dude ranching in 1930s mid-west America, and its influence on self-consciously casual dress. The cultural influence of America was to the fore also in a lively paper by Bob Nicholson about, what he saw as, the neglected influence of American popular culture in late Victorian Britain. Canadian Janice Li made an interesting case for the Great Exhibition of 1851 as a key influence on the development of department stores. The exhibition’s use of display and space, she suggested, “transformed the world of consumption – silently expanding the female realm in public space.”

Royal tricyclist

Humber advertising poster, ca 1903 (Craig Hooper collection)

There were some great images presented. One I particularly liked is the Humber cyclist poster of 1903 reproduced here, from Dr Craig Horner’s paper about lost histories of cycling. Too often, he argued, the dynamism of late nineteenth-century cycling has been ignored in motoring history. That is King Edward VII out front, dignified on his tricycle, followed by other members of the royal family, and a who’s who of English aristocracy - clearly a Humber marketing coup.

My main interest was in those papers about sport in the decades before World War I, when sport began to take a modern shape. There were several, and my paper was one of them – a story of a working class athlete out on the edge of Empire, at a time when the dream of every colonial sportsman was to make that long voyage “home” to take on Britain’s best. For a player like Smith such tours meant recognition and opportunities just not possible in a small country. No-one else came close to his achievement of touring the British Isles three times, in three different sporting codes, and being successful every time. Eventually it gave him a living, and sporting exile.

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).

So, how did my talk go? Not as well as it could have, unfortunately. One of the speaker options was a pecha kucha presentation. Pecha kucha is a quick-fire format comprising 20 slides, 20 seconds each, strictly 6 minutes 40 seconds in total. I rashly offered to give it a go. Too late, I realised I needed much more time. I insisted on a few minutes extra, which brought stern looks from the organisers, and no time for questions, but it was still too tight. Nevertheless there was some good feedback, and it was a useful rehearsal for a better presentation sometime back home.


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