The Canadian Magazine

An Aquatic Reminiscence

By George Stewart, D.C.L.

Click here to see full size. The Famous New Brunswick "Four" which won from all competitors at the Paris Exposition in 1867

Click here to see full size. The English or "Renforth" crew which defeated the New Brunswick or "Paris" crew at Lachine in 1870, but were defeated the following year, one of the crew falling dead.

It is not the intention of the present writer to write from the beginning the history of the Paris crew, a quartette of oarsmen who, a quarter of a century ago, achieved a sweep in aquatic circles which made New Brunswick famous on two continents. The story of its career, however, would afford an interesting chapter in the annals of International rowing.

The crew gained its name for its triumphs at the French capital in 1867, on the Seine, when it defeated, with apparent ease, all competitors in the series of races organized by the Regatta Committee of the great Exposition. Robert Fulton, stroke; George Price, bow; Elijah Ross, aft-midship, and Samuel Hutton, fore-midship, wearing their laurels, modestly returned to St. John, N.B., the heroes of the hour and the idols of the people.

Their next great race was with the Ward Brothers, of Springfield, Mass., on the 21st October, 1868, whom they defeated without difficulty also.

At Lachine, Quebec, however, in the memorable International encounter in 1870, this hitherto invincible crew met its Waterloo, at the hands of a crew composed of English watermen from the banks of the Tyne. The course was six miles, with a turn. The Canadians were over-confident. They were heavily backed by their friends. But, apparently, they were no match for Renforth, Winship, Martin and Taylor, then in their prime, who won with ease in 40 minutes, 59 seconds.

Though somewhat crestfallen at their defeat, they plucked up sufficient courage to challenge the Tynesiders to another bout, to take place in the following year on the Kennebecasis, one of the loveliest streams in the Province of New Brunswick, and the scene of many a hotly contested match.

At Lachine the Englishmen, with every spurt, slid in their seats. The sliding seats came after. They were well equipped with sponges and washboards. The Canadians had none of these appliances, and as the river was rough, they rowed over the course with their light shell more than half-filled with water. The English boat, on the contrary, was dry.

On the Kennebecasis the New Brunswickers were better prepared for emergencies, and when the morning dawned the weather was fine, and the noble sheet of water was as smooth as a pane of glass. The race took place on the 23rd of August, and it was the last important contest that the "Paris" crew was engaged in, though, five or six years afterwards, it took part in minor events.

The death by drowning of Hutton, recalls that race, and the awful tragedy which accompanied it. I reported the event for the New York Herald, and it is as vivid to me now, so long afterwards, as it was on the day that it occurred.

The Englishmen had reorganized their crew, and when it arrived in St. John it was found that of the original four, in 1870, Renforth alone remained. His companions were Percy, Chambers and Harry Kelley.

The course was six miles, with a turn. The stake was five thousand dollars, each crew contributing one-half.

Both crews appeared in fine form as they pushed from the shore, and as they dipped their oars the applause from the thousands of spectators who lined the banks of the river was deafening. The favourites, of course, were the local men, and whenever odds were given they were in their favour.

It was twenty minutes after seven in the morning when the signal to go was given. The Canadians got first water, and went off with a spurt, leading easily for the first hundred yards. Eight minutes later the Tynesiders forged ahead and took the lead, making 42 strokes to the minute, while the Paris crew kept the pace at 43 strokes.

Suddenly, some commotion was observed in the Englishmen's boat. Kelley shouted to Renforth, "Come, Jim, give us a dozen."

In vain the champion put on all his force for a mighty effort, but, at the sixth stroke, he said "I can't do it," and then fell back into the arms of Kelley.

The Tynesiders pulled for the shore, while the startled crowds on the banks and in the boats and tugs, thinking that a trick had been played them - for when Renforth threw up his hands the New Brunswickers were leading by two lengths -gave vent to their feelings by hisses and shouts and execrations.They did not want the race unless they could win it fairly, and their first suspicion was that Renforth had purposely broken an oar, preferring the contest to go by default than to being defeated by the Colonials. The mad cries of the spectators changed speedily to moans of woe when the fearful truth was known, and then a hushed silence prevailed all round. Renforth was carried to his quarters, breathing heavily.

In a few minutes he died, his last words being "Good-bye, Annie," referring to his wife in England. The Canadians went round the course alone in 39 minutes, 20 seconds. They stood the ordeal well, and at the conclusion were nowise fatigued, nor was their appearance anything but fresh.

Renforth's friends, at the first moment of the excitement, declared that he had been poisoned. The charge was unjust, and it was promptly resented. The post mortem examination, moreover, proved the falsity of the allegation which had so thoughtlessly been made.

The oarsman owed his death to a mental shock. He had not overtrained. He was a man of great muscular strength and high courage. But he was also an epileptic, and careless about his living. He was peculiarly sensitive to excitement of any kind, and his temperament was highly nervous.

The impression among many who witnessed the sad sight was that Renforth had not taken as good care of himself as he ought to have done, and when the shock came he was totally unable to cope with it. It was said at the time that even the Englishmen had not been properly trained for a race of six miles, their course at home being much shorter, and that they had undertaken the work in hand without proper superintendence.

Renforth himself gave his weight at 11 stone, but a chronicle of the time sets it down at l2. The post mortem revealed the fact that no vessel or vital organ had been injured.

The death of Renforth caused general sorrow, and no demonstrations of any kind were indulged in.