On 3 September, at Christie’s in London, an Olympic gold medal which was won by Raymond D. Etherington-Smith, the captain of the Leander eight which became Olympic champions in 1908, was sold for an astonishing £17,500 ($27,738). This solid gold medal, 25g, 15 carat gold, auctioned off by his family, was estimated to sell for £5,000 – £7,000 ($7,600 – $11,000).
Raymond Etherington-Smith (1877-1913), called ‘Ethel’ by his friends, studied at Trinity College, Cambridge, where he proved to be an incredible oarsman. He won the Colquohoun Sculls, the Lowe Double Sculls, the University Pairs and Fours, and rowed twice in the Head of the River. In 1898, Ethel rowed in his first Boat Race, and the following year he became President of the C.U.B.C., which was the same year he and his crew managed to break the Dark Blues’ nine-year winning streak. The 1900 Boat Race was also won by the Light Blues with Ethel in fifth-seat. He was Captain of Leander in 1903, 1905, 1906 and 1908, winning the Grand Challenge Cup in 1901, 1903 and 1905, and was the runner-up for the Diamond Challenge Sculls in 1902, racing against the mighty F.S. Kelly.
Ethel was a fine specimen of an oarsman, and Leslie Wars, ‘SPY’, wrote about him: ‘The finest and handsomest young athlete I ever drew as an under-graduate’.
In an article published by the Daily Mail about the auction at Christie’s, Ethel is likened to Sir Steven Redgrave. Read the article here. Incorrectly, the paper writes that Leander’s opponents in the Olympic final race in the eights, the splendid crew from Royal Club Nautique de Gand of Belgium ‘sunk and capsized’ during the race, but that is not true. Following is an account of the race in Henley Races (1919) by Sir Theodore Cook:
‘This proved a magnificent race. The Belgians, who had twice won the Grand Challenge Cup at Henley, and at this Regatta had defeated Cambridge University, were thought likely winners by many people. […] Along Temple Island both were rowing 38 a minute, Leander forging slowly ahead and having half a length to the good at the first signal-box. They gained another quarter length by the time the second box was reached, in spite of a fine spurt on the part of the Belgians. […] At the Henley mile post Leander were rowing 35 a minute, and were a length and a quarter in front. Both crews rowed in to the finish very hard, Leander at 36 and the Belgians at 38 a minute, the former winning by a good two lengths’ distance in the very fast time of 7min. 52sec.’
The Leander eight had been Great Britain’s ‘second’ boat, and many of the oarsmen had their active rowing career behind them. Due to their age they were called the ‘Old Crocks’. So at age 31, Ethel jokingly told his crew mate Guy Nickalls who was 42 years old: ‘I suppose they have asked me because I am about half-way down the line between yourself and Bucknall in age’ [Henry Bucknall, the stroke, was 23 years old].
Sadly, Ethel, who became a doctor, died five years later, a week after he had turned 36, contracting peritonitis during an operation.