‘His boat flew over the water like a bird’
"When Jimmy settled himself in his boat, took up the oars and began to row, you would never believe the boat was gannin’ through the water. It seemed to fly over the top like a bird on the wing."
When Mr. R. Davidson, of 31 Albany Buildings, Gateshead, repeated to me that description him father gave him of the way the great James Renforth, his uncle by marriage, used to row, I began to understand how he impressed people.
"Flying over the water like a bird on a wing." what a boat rower. No wonder Renforth was a world champion.
No wonder that his memory lasts so well on Tyneside though he died in 1871 that I had a procession of helpful readers calling to identify the puzzle vases in the photograph I published.
Several brought photographs of him to fix the identity. I reproduce on this page the one belonging to Mr. Davidson. It was taken in Canada where Renforth died during a race.
Confirmation of identity came from Mrs. Minnie Renforth, of 23, Salisbury Street, Byker-now aged 77-whose late husband Phillip was Renforth’s nephew, and Mrs. J. Blair of 70. Chichester Street, Gateshead, his great niece and Mrs. Mary Todhunter, of 29, Sandringham Road, South Gosforth, his niece, as well as many friends.
Renforth’s death almost caused an international incident.
In a contest for the river racing championship of the world, held on the Kennebecasis River in Canada he was stroke of a crew which also included James Piercy, Bob Chambers and Harry Kelly.
His crew began in perfect style and at less than 200 yards were leading by half-a-length. Suddenly Renforth began to sway at variance with the perfect rhythm of the perfect rhythm of the other members of the crew.
The other three pulled with added vigour, and for another 200 yards they kept the lead, Kelly calling to Renforth to hold out a little longer.
For a mile and a quarter the English crew battled on. Then the oars slipped from Renforth’s hands, and he collapsed backward into the boat.
The race was over.
While Kelly held the dying champion, Chambers and Piercy rowed slowly back to the warf.
England was shocked at the news. The Press throughout the country lamented Renforth’s sudden passing, and dark suspicions were raised that gamblers had tampered with his food.
Renforth’s body was placed in a lead coffin with a glass panel above his face and on the journey home the world of sport paid homage to the greatest of all oarsmen.
Work was abandoned all along Tyneside on the day of his funeral, and a remarkable monument stands over his grave in Gateshead cemetary.
In his youth Renforth was employed as a smith’s striker. He enlisted in the army and served for a period in India.
It was not until he was about 25 that he took up racing but after a few setbacks, he enjoyed four years of triumph. He won 14 out of 17 individual skiff races, and became champion sculler of the world.
Though Renforth was the greatest boat rower of his time the sport had long been popular on the Tyne and other men had made their names at it, notably the Clasper family of Dunston in the 1840s.
The unlabelled picture I reproduced on this page has been identified by Mrs. Maud John, of 15, Strathmore Road. North Gosforth, as showing her great uncle Harry, the most famous of the five Clasper brothers.
It shows the improved style of outrigger he invented for sculling racing boats, and in wood suspension bridge, built in 1832 about ten years before his rise to fame.
The Clasper brothers beat all comers on the Tyne and then repeated their victories on the Thames and the Clyde.
When Harry died in 1870, it is said his body was taken up the river to Whickham in a skiff as 100,000 mourners watched, and over his grave in the churchyards there a life-sized statue was erected.