Old Gateshead No. 322, December 19, 1952

James Renforth: A mystery that is unsolved

By Clarence R. Walton

James and Stephen Renforth, born on the Rabbit Banks, Gateshead, both earned fame in the closing years of the last century. James became champion sculler of the world. Stephen became a university coach.

Nearby Pipewellgate was a hive of industry when they were lads. Manufactories were everywhere on the hillside, brass and iron founders, makers of bricks an tiles, glass and glue, pipes and boats.

There were blacksmiths, tinsmiths and shipsmiths. And various other tradespeople, all serving a congested community.

It was in this atmosphere of smoke and noise that Renforth lived. Young James, as a boy, earned a living as a smith's striker, going his rounds for several employers.

Entered the army

At the age of 21, however, inspired no doubt by the colorful uniforms of the time, he enlisted in the Army and served in India. On his return to Gateshead and the banks of Tyne he became, like so many who lived by the water, a waterman.

But not for long. A powerful swimmer, he soon attracted attention as an aquatic performer. He was 25 when he took to boat-rowing, and from that day to his sudden and mysterious death he enjoyed almost uninterrupted success.

He won 14 out of 17 individual skiff races, becoming world sculling champion, and was a member of several four-oared crews who repeatedly rowed to victory.

August 23, 1871 was the day

What was the cause of his sudden death at the early age of 29, at the height of his fame and achievement? The world will never know the full facts, since Renforth's dying words were not entirely compatible with the medical verdict.

On August 23, 1871,James Renforth, Robert Chambers, James Piercy and Harry Kelly took to the water on the Kennebecasis River, New Brunswick, to challenge a St. John's crew of four for a world honours.

A Press report written at the time says: "Everything being in readiness, both crews dashed to their oars into the water at the same moment, and amidst the hushed suspense of the crowd, started on their journey...

"At the third stroke the Tyne crew showed three feet ahead, and as they gradually settled down to their work, and pulling in their grand usual style, at less than two hundered years they had increased their lead to fully half a boat's length".

In Trouble

Then something happened. The practiced eye of the riverside watcher could see that Renforth was in trouble. He was faltering and pulling out of stroke-unaccountable for the great Renforth.

The irregular rowing continued and the Canadian boat slipped gently past.

But still the English crew kept on its course. By this time Renforth was swaying and obviously in distress. Kelly called for a renewed effort, and a gallant attempt was made to catch up with their opponents.

They could not maintain the added exertion. Renforth suddenly dropped an oar and sank back in his seat. Turning to his friend Kelly he stammered "Harry, I have had something". Then he fell back into the boat.

"What will they say in England?"

Piercy and Chambers rowed the boat back to Appleby's Wharf, where Renforth was found to be unconscious. He was driven a mile and a half to Claremont House, their training quarters, and a messenger was sent in search of a doctor.

On regaining consciousness Renforth declared, "It is not a fit I have had - I will tell you all directly".

But no explanation of accusation came. He began to froth at the mouth and his limbs turned cold and pulseless.

"What will they say in England?" are said to have been his last words.

James Renforth was brought back to Gateshead, the town of his birth, and buried in the East Cemetery, where there is a handsome monument to his memory.

A Life Saver

Stephen Renforth did not gain the world-wide publicity of his famous brother, but he earned distinction as a trainer and was publicly commended for the many lives he saved from drowning.

When only 12 years of age he jumped into the Tyne and rescued a man named Conway who had fallen in near Redheugh Bridge. He grew up like James, a very powerful man, making the river his source of livelihood.

Stephen soon made a name as a life-saver. In 1869 he leaped from the quay of the White Lead Works and saved a woman who was attempting to commit suicide. He got no thanks from her, but had the satisfaction of knowing he had done something good.


He had an uncanny ability for finding dead bodies. In 1874 he discovered the body of a boy who had been missing six weeks. It was found in a treacherous spot known as the "Wick Hole".

Shortly after this he jumped from a two-storied house and rescued a boy named Cairns who had fallen between a ship and a quay. He had trouble in finding him by means of artificial respiration.

Three would-be suicides rescued

A number of people must have been falling into the Tyne about this time, either by accident or design, for a report tells us that a week after the Cairns incident Stephen again plunged into the water to save a man named James Boyle.

A few days later he pulled out another man, James Shield, and within a few weeks had rescued three would-be suicides from spots near High Level, Redheugh and Swing Bridges.

Stephen seems to have been in great demand; it is fortunate he was always at hand when needed.

A University coach

It is strange that having a keen interest in rowing, he never plied a successful oar like his brother.

Nevertheless, he was an expert in the structure of racing craft and an authority on the various styles of oarsmanship.

His services were sought by many clubs and eventually he made a name in rowing circles.

Material success came when he was invited to become trainer for the Clyde Rowing Club and, later coach to Glasgow University.

Rowing clubs still have a healthy following on Tyneside. Two members of the Renforth family are today keeping up the family tradition.