8 April 2021
By Robert Treharne Jones
Inspired by Göran Buckhorn’s article on Tuesday, “Keep it in the Family”, Robert Treharne Jones dug into the archives to find the first pair of brothers, the Etherington-Smiths, who raced against each other in the Boat Race, in 1900.
It’s 121 years since brothers first rowed against each other in the Boat Race, a fact I unearthed while looking for some historical perspective when James and David Livingston were drawn in opposing crews in 2003. For Tom and Raymond Etherington-Smith had first achieved that feat in 1900, never suspecting that their record would stand for more than a century.
The Etherington-Smith family had its roots in Lincolnshire, where John Henry Etherington Smith, who would hyphenate his name sometime later, was born in 1841. He read law and was called to the Bar, and in 1873 he married a London girl, Ellen Pears, who would bear him six children, three boys and three girls.
Smith senior was himself a competent oarsman, winning the Grand and the Ladies’ with University College, Oxford, in 1863 (when the Ladies’ Plate was still a student event). The following year his crew attempted the Grand and the Stewards but lost their heats and rowed over to win the Visitors’ where they were the only entry. In 1866, he once again attempted a double in the Grand and the Stewards, this time rowing for Leander, but again lost his opening heats.
John and Ellen’s first child was Lancelot, whose stature never allowed him to achieve the high rowing honours of his younger brothers. Instead, he became a cox, before joining the RAMC, reaching the rank of Captain, and went on to train as an architect, settling with his family in the Berkshire village of Datchet.
Raymond was born in 1877, to be followed by Tom two years later, and both boys were sent away to school in Repton, Derbyshire, an establishment highly regarded after headmaster Steuart Adolphus Pears had breathed new life into the school in the 1850s. Repton is known for its prowess at football and cricket, but less so for its rowing pedigree, despite having produced 13 Boat Race Blues up to 1914 when the sport ceased, apparently as a result of a fatal accident involving their crews on the river.
Little is known of the brothers’ rowing achievements at Repton, but the family home off Putney Hill allowed Raymond to row for London Rowing Club before going up to university, and he was a member of the London RC Thames Cup crew at Henley in 1895, and rowed in the Grand for London in 1897.
Following his arrival to read medicine at Trinity College, Cambridge, Raymond was selected for the Blue Boat in 1898. It was to prove an ignominious start to his elite rowing career as a combination of wind against stream on race day produced standing waves on Putney Reach. Oxford, whose crew included the legendary CD ‘Don’ Burnell at 5, won the toss and chose Middlesex, leaving the Light Blues the rougher Surrey station. Within a few strokes the Cambridge boat was swamped, and the race was effectively over.
‘Ethel’, as he was now known, fared rather better the following year, when the Cambridge crew included Ronald Sanderson, another future Olympian, and William Dudley-Ward, who would later marry Freda, paramour to the Prince of Wales. The crew were level to the Mile before Cambridge applied the pressure to take a substantial lead by The Doves pub, and going onto win by 3 ¼ lengths, their first Boat Race victory for ten years.
At the end of Raymond’s second year at Cambridge, his brother Tom went up to Oriel College, Oxford, where he was selected to row at 7 against his brother’s crew in the 1900 Boat Race. Despite Oxford winning the toss, it was Cambridge who took the early lead and steadily drew away to win by a thumping 20 lengths – the most decisive victory in the history of the race, and equalled the record finish time set by Oxford some seven years earlier.
Following their graduation both brothers moved to Leander, where Tom raced the Grand in 1902, but his elder brother’s stellar career was only just gathering pace. Raymond won the Grand with Leander in 1901, once again with Dudley-Ward on board and this time with Don Burnell in the same boat. The following year, Raymond switched to sculling and lost the final of the Diamonds to Frederick Kelly, but thereafter his Henley wins kept on coming, in the Grand in 1903, both the Grand and the Stewards in 1905, and the Stewards again in 1906.
In 1908, ‘Ethel’ had been elected captain of Leander for the fourth time and was also chosen to captain the GB eight which won gold at the Olympic regatta, raced over the course he knew so well at Henley. Dubbed the ‘Old Crocks’, because of their average age, Guy Nickalls was the senior man on board at 41, while ‘Ethel’ was ten years his junior.
Following the Olympics, Raymond Etherington-Smith hung up his blade to move back this chosen profession in medicine. He became a demonstrator in anatomy at St Bartholomew’s Hospital (my own alma mater) and went on to a series of surgical posts at Barts. He picked up an infection while operating on a patient with gangrene. It developed into septicaemia which, in the days before antibiotics, proved fatal. Barts named an operating theatre in his memory, but the complete rebuilding of the hospital in the 21st century means that it no longer exists.
As part of my research in 2003, I managed to track down a member of the Etherington-Smith family, who still lived in London, a stone’s throw from Putney, up the New Kings Road. Did he have any photos of the brothers together, by any chance? Well, he had a box full of old photos, why didn’t I pop over and have a look?
While I was leafing through this treasure trove, picking out some images, he called out from the next room ‘Here’s something which might interest you!’ He had opened a large, velvet-lined box, which contained many valuables, and he handed me the central item – it was Raymond’s 1908 Olympic gold medal.
It was a very special moment.