James Renforth of Gateshead Champion Sculler of the World

In 2002 Ian Whitehead, Keeper of Maritime History at Tyne & Wear Museums, published The Sporting Tyne – A History of Professional Rowing, in which he told the story of the greatest oarsmen on the River Tyne: Harry Clasper, Robert Chambers, and James Renforth. This latest offering is a biography of just one of those men, James Renforth, born in Newcastle upon Tyne in 1842. With no school education, Renforth became a smith’s striker, and in early 1866 started ferrying the workers demolishing the old Tyne Bridge. Later that year, he won his first sculling race.

Rowing was a growing sport in the mid-1800s, and professional rowing caught the eye of the working class, especially for placing bets. As Whitehead puts it ‘professional rowing was all about money’. Renforth quickly showed that he was among the best and became a popular sporting hero. In November 1868, just two and a half years after his novice race, he defeated Harry Kelley – the champion and top London sculler – for the Championships of the World; for the Tynesiders there was a special joy that the loser was a ‘Cockney’ from the Thames. The stake was £200 – equivalent to £40,000 today!

At the Paris International Regatta in 1867, a Canadian four won a race in great style, but in 1870 the same crew – known as ‘the Paris four’ – lost a race for the World Championships to Renforth and his crew. After the race, Renforth fell out with his fellow oarsmen, and he turned to his great rival, Harry Kelley, to row a pair instead; it was a rare Tyne-Thames alliance.

In a re-match with the Canadians on 23 August 1871 on the Kennebeccasis River at St John, New Brunswick, Renforth stroked a new crew that included Kelley, to an apparently easy victory. But suddenly, in mid race, Renforth called out ‘Harry, Harry, I have had something!’. He collapsed at his oar, the crew rowed ashore, and hours later the most distinguished rower of his time was dead; he was just twenty-nine.

Stories of this race have been told many times, but one great value of this book is that Whitehead discusses why Renforth died – was he poisoned or did he die of natural causes? With so much money involved, professional rowing was known for its ‘dirty tricks’. Whitehead also brings up a third possibility: drug abuse. He dismisses this, however, as there is no evidence of drug-use in Renforth’s life. But the rower did suffer from epilepsy and it is likely that his ‘sudden unexplained death’ was a complication of that illness. The champion’s fate came as a tremendous shock to the Tynesiders. Some lines in a contemporary music hall song go: ‘We’ve lost poor Jimmy Renforth,/ The Champein of all Champeins,/ The hero of all rivers, far an’ near.’

Ian Whitehead is to be congratulated for his excellent, well-written, and nicely illustrated biography of the most prominent oarsman of the era. It is to be hoped that it reflects a renaissance in a wider interest in professional rowing and sculling.

James Renforth of Gateshead, Champion Sculler of the World by Ian Whitehead; published by Tyne Bridge Publishing, 2004.

This review was published in Maritime Life and Traditions, No. 26, Spring 2005.

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