Page 1: Biography
Smith, George William
Jockey, rugby player, athlete, factory worker
This biography, written by N. A. C. McMillan, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, vol 3, 1996, and updated in June, 2012.
George William Smith was born in Auckland, New Zealand, on 20 September 1874. He was the eldest of 10 children of Caroline Pell and her husband, William Smith, an engineer. Registered as William George, Smith later changed the order of his names.
Smith was educated at Wellesley Street School, but ran away from home to work as a stable boy. He later became a jockey and his many successes included the winning of the 1894 New Zealand Cup on Impulse. Increasing weight forced him to abandon his riding career and he went to work for the meat processing firm of R. & W. Hellaby.
In 1896, while a member of the City Rugby Football Club, Smith made his debut in representative rugby when he appeared for Auckland against Wellington. In the same year the club came first equal in the Auckland senior championship, aided to a large extent by Smith's prolific try-scoring. He played as a three-quarter, and his solid build – he was five feet seven inches tall but weighed almost 12 stone – was now an asset. In 1897 Smith was selected for the New Zealand team to tour Australia. He played in all 10 matches, topping the try-scoring table with 11.
Smith dropped out of rugby until 1901, when he made an impressive return to the game, winning selection for New Zealand against the touring New South Wales team and playing three matches for Auckland. He disappeared for another four years but staged a come-back in 1905, no doubt lured by the prospect of a tour to New South Wales and the northern hemisphere with the 1905 team, the first to be known as the All Blacks.
George Smith was duly selected and was one of the tourists' outstanding players, even though his appearances were curtailed by injuries. He played in 19 games, including the internationals against Scotland and Ireland, scoring 19 tries. Altogether he made 39 appearances for New Zealand, 21 as a wing and 18 at centre, and scored 34 tries.
In 1906 Smith played four times for Auckland in what was to be his last season in the rugby union code. While in England he had seen games played under what were then known as Northern Union rules, and the game, later known as rugby league, appealed to him. He played a leading part in the formation of a New Zealand team to tour the north of England and Wales playing under these rules in 1907. As Northern Union players were professionals, this pioneer New Zealand team was known as the All Golds. None of the 28 team members had ever played the game – few had even seen it played – but 19 of the 34 matches were won.
At the end of the tour Smith accepted a contract to play for the Oldham club. He returned home briefly before setting out for England again. His fiancée, Edith Susan Kemble, followed him and they were married in Brighton, Sussex, on 10 August 1908. Smith played for Oldham from 1908 until 1916 and was top try-scorer for the club for three seasons. A broken leg ended his playing career in 1916 at the age of 42. After working for a textile firm for 16 years he joined the coaching staff at Oldham in 1932, retiring three years later.
Smith also excelled as a track athlete. Between 1898 and 1904 he won the New Zealand 100 yards championship five times, the 250 yards once, the 120 yards hurdles four times and the 440 yards hurdles five times. He also won Australasian titles in the 120 yards hurdles in 1901 and 1904 and in the 440 yards hurdles in 1899, 1901 and 1904, when he set an unofficial world record of 58.5 seconds over three foot six inch hurdles. In 1902 a public subscription was raised to send Smith and Bill Simpson of Canterbury to England for the Amateur Athletic Association's British championships. Smith won the 120 yards hurdles from a strong field.
After settling in Oldham he spent the rest of his life there. George and Edith had three children: Edith, George and Edna. In 1920 he intended to return permanently to New Zealand with his family but the sudden death of his wife caused an alteration in plans. When preparations for the New Zealand trip were renewed in 1921 the family did not want to leave England and Smith abandoned the idea of returning home. Their son, who played both rugby codes, died in a Japanese prison camp in 1943.
Although he spent most of his adult life in England and acquired a pronounced Lancashire accent, George Smith always considered himself a New Zealander. He died at Oldham on 7 December 1954.