Richard Hylton-Smith: His First 83 Years In Rowing

Richard Hylton-Smith marking his 90th birthday in 2002. He is at stroke and his 84-year-old brother Ken (a former Secretary of Leander) is at bow.

Tim Koch writes from London,

I recently had the privilege of visiting the Henley home of a gentleman born in 1912. However, reaching the age of 100 (which he says ‘does not feel like an achievement’) is not Richard Hylton-Smith’s only remarkable numerical accomplishment. He started rowing in 1930 and had his last competitive row in 1965, his last ‘social’ row in 2002 and is today a member of Leander and the President of Quintin Boat Club. I make that 35 years in competition, 72 years on the water and 83 years (and counting) of involvement with the sport. Further, he won a Henley medal at the age of 34 and he has been married to his wife Margaret for 71 years.

Richard was born in Fulham, West London, but in 1918, with his father away in the army, he and his mother and aunt went to live on a houseboat moored outside of Hampton Court Palace. ‘From that’, he says, ‘I got to love the river’.

Although Richard’s education began at Colet Court, the prep school for St Paul’s, his secondary education was at a non rowing school and he only took up the sport in 1930 when he started an engineering course at the Regent Street Polytechnic in Central London. This is now the University of Westminster but in those days it was more of a technical school for boys in their teens and so the ‘Polytechnic Schools Boat Club’ was regarded as a school club. PSBC shared a splendid boat house at Chiswick with Quintin Boat Club – as does the University of Westminster BC today. In 1931 Richard’s crew came 14th in the Head of the River Race, at the time the highest position ever achieved by a school crew, and he made his first appearance at Henley in the Thames Cup.

On finishing his course in 1931 Richard naturally graduated to row for Quintin where he says ‘I really developed my rowing…’ In the 1930s, he also rowed for Twickenham and Kensington, moving to find the best crew as he changed rowing status from Junior to Junior – Senior and through to Senior.

‘In those days there were two schools of thought on rowing… ‘Orthodoxy’ and ‘Fairbairnism’…. I liked the Orthodox… but by the time I really got going the two (styles) had merged somewhat… the great Steve Fairbairn’s dictum was that if the blade did the right thing, the body followed while, with Orthodox rowing, the body had to be right for the blade to be right….’

The outbreak of war in 1939 put all thoughts of rowing aside. Richard had joined the reserve forces in 1936 and was a Sergeant in the Royal Tank Regiment. As if often the case with his generation, Richard is dismissive of his military service but the facts are that he ended the war as a Major having seen action in the invasion of Sicily (where, in two months of fighting, the allies suffered 25,000 casualties) and in the liberation of Europe. Richard landed in Normandy on D-Day +3 where he claims ‘…. the worst was over and we did not see a lot of action’.

As his unit went on through France and into Germany, I find this hard to believe.

With typical British self deprecation he says ‘I was lucky, I managed to dodge most of the bullets’ (laughs).

The one ‘war story’ that Richard was happy to elaborate on concerned his coming across a rowing club in Emden in Lower Saxony.

‘’There was a very good boat club which we sort of commandeered…. we got one or two crews out, but I found a very nice sculling boat…… we were always requisitioning stuff….. I thought, well I deserve this….. I met a naval man who said that if I could get it to…. I forget where…. he would get it to London for me….. so I duly got it on a three-ton lorry…. with its (bow) up in the air…. and he set off for where ever it was….. but…. he ran into a low cable across the road (which) broke the boat in half…. so that was the end of my sculling boat….’

The years following the war saw the peak of Richard’s rowing career. In 1946, he was in a Quintin eight, ‘…which was frankly awful…. but the stern four, we were quite good….’

The four went out to the eventual winners in the first round in the Wyfolds at Henley but won at Molesey, a good regatta.

‘We said, this is going all right, let’s keep it going next year… so we really got down to it in ’47, trained like mad and entered for the Wyfolds at Henley… which we won….’

Evidence of this victory is here. The win was witnessed by the actress-to-be Grace Kelly, later Princess Grace of Monaco, whose brother, Jack, won the Diamond Sculls. Richard tells the story of one of the photographs that were taken at the prize-giving. It showed Grace’s face ‘nicely framed’ between the three man’s legs – this gave rise to some ribald comments in the locker room.

The crew unsuccessfully trialled to be the British four in the 1948 Olympic Regatta held at Henley: ‘We were up against a lot of Oxbridge Colleges who by then had got going (after the war) and had matured a bit’.

Richard had two more Henley appearances, in the Stewards in 1948 (losing to a crew that contained Laurie and Wilson) and in the Goblets in 1949 (unfortunately hitting the booms just before Fawley). Although he finished with serious competition by the early 1950s, his last race was in the Head of the River Race in 1965, coxed by his son Chris. Richard was captain of Quintin in 1954 and 1955 and has been President of the club since 1993.

One hundred and counting – Richard Hylton-Smith at home in 2013.

In a recent interview with the Henley Standard newspaper, Richard is quoted as saying: ‘I spent far too much of my life rowing and sculling. Apart from business, it was my favourite thing’.

However, towards the end of our conversation, I asked him to look back over his first one hundred years and to say if there was much that he wished that he had done differently. Without much hesitation, his answer was ‘No’. Given his time again, I am sure that Richard Hylton-Smith would spend an equal amount of time on the river that he first fell in love with as a six-year-old in 1918.

My thanks to Richard and Margaret for their hospitality and patience, to son Chris and daughter Serena for all their help in arranging the interview and to Malcolm Cook, secretary and historian of Quintin Boat Club, for sharing his research on Richard’s career.

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