The Guardian, Saturday August 15 1992

Tyneside restores memorial to days when its sons ruled the rowing world

By Christopher Dodd

Click here to see full size. A sculptor finishing restoration of the memorial to world sculling champion James Renforth. Photographer: Ted Ditchburn

At a time of restored British prestige in Olympic rowing, Gateshead has restored a piece of British rowing history.

The town's most famous rower, James Renforth, a building worker, became professional sculling champion of the world in 1868 when he was 26. He beat Harry Kelley on the Thames. In 1871 he died in mysterious circumstances, during a fouroared race on the Kennebecasis River at St John, New Brunswick.

When the body was brought home, the Newcastle and Gateshead Operatic Band led a funeral procession estimated at 50,000 to East Gateshead cemetery. Public subscription paid for C. Burn's striking memorial, depicting Renforth in the arms of his crewmate Kelley on an Egyptian reed boat called Kennebecasis.

Tyneside oarsmen used to maintain Renforth’s memorial, but it was removed in 1985 after being vandalised. Now Gateshead council has spent ₤4,000 restoring the masonry to its former glory and given it pride of place outside Shipley art gallery.

The 19th century Tyne professionals' connection with Olympic champions Jonny and Greg Searle, and Steve Redgrave and Matthew Pinsent is closer than one might think. Tyneside was a mother of invention for the cigar-thin racing boats now used in the Boat Race and the Olympics.

Geordies had taken the first two steps in converting the heavy work boat into the light racing boat. Matt Taylor, a ship's carpenter from Ouseburn. brought the keel inboard in 1854. Harry Clasper of Dunstan, cinder burner and wherryman, was already fitting reliable outriggers to boats in the 1840s. The year after Renforth's death, the sliding seat was perfected in America, the most significant technical development for rowing.

Taylor, Clasper, Swaddle and Winship, and Jewett became household names in boatbuilding, and several moved to the Thames where the market was larger.

These men raced the boats they made on the tricky tidal course under the bridges of Newcastle. World championship matches attracted stars from Australia and America.

The crew which Renforth stroked was the best the Tyne could produce, the stake was 500 sovereigns, and the significance of the opposition was that St John's fishermen had turned up at the fashionable Paris International Regatta of 1867 with a seagoing boat fitted with self-steering gear. They won all their races almost contemptuously without employing a coxswain and later invited the Newcastle men to cross the Atlantic to race them.

Renforth collapsed into Kelley's arms during the race. Some accounts allege that he was poisoned, for he had shown sign of neither sickness nor weakness. "The oar dropped from his stricken hand, his brawny arm fell like a withered branch in storm," said one contemporary report.

Famous oarsmen were honoured in song when they lived and masonry when they died.

Robert Chambers, Clasper's protege, turned professional from being an ironworks labourer. He followed Renforth, winning world championship matches seven times and 89 of his 101 races in 10 years.

Chambers's is the largest monument in the cemetery in Walker, Newcastle. When he died of tuberculosis it was said that "a more honourable man never sat in a bout" because he once allowed a friend of a rival to try out his boat before the match took place.

Harry Clasper stands under a canopy embellished with aquatic plants and boatbuilders' tools in Whickham cemetery, from where he can see the curve of the Tyne where he rowed and built boats. Close by is a relative’s grave fashioned in the shape of the bow of a racing shell.

Renforth's memorial card said: "He nobly played his part 'til death unshipped his oar". His nephew, Joseph Renforth. said at the unveiling: "It is fitting that his mernory will he brought back to life while the British rowing team is in the limelight. They have all done us proud."