Harry Clasper: Still a Hero on Tyneside

HarryClasperPic 1
A rather romantic image of Harry Clasper, a champion oarsman, innovative boatbuilder and pioneer of the leg drive.

Tim Koch writes:

The history of rowing gets very little mention in mainstream broadcasting. Presumably those in charge of commissioning programmes think that only a few oddballs would be interested in, say, ‘Up and down: The development of the sliding seat, 1870 – 1926’ or ‘From leather to lycra: An informal history of rowing shorts’. HTBS readers know that these and similar subjects are endlessly fascinating but those responsible for television and radio production do not seem to agree. For this reason, on the rare occasions when rowing history does momentarily achieve a high media profile, it is worth drawing attention to.

British readers may be familiar with the comedian, Mark Steel. If not, it may be because most of his best broadcast work is on radio not television. Also, some may be put off by the epithet ‘left-wing comedian’ usually associated with him. Stalin may have been the ‘Man of Steel’ but Steel is not a man of Stalin and in the past was a member of the anti-Soviet ‘Socialist Workers’ Party’ (SWP). He left the party in 2007, defying its alleged culture of ‘loyalty beyond logic’. Unlike most of those on the so-called ‘far-left’ (and indeed the ‘far-right’), Steel is a witty and apparently open-minded man with wide and varied interests. Also, unlike many modern comedians, he did not go to private school or to university but, despite this, the broadsheet Guardian and Independent newspapers have employed him as a columnist and the much respected BBC Radio 4 has commissioned several different series from him. The best of these follow the theme of Steel talking about interesting and intelligent topics in an informative and amusing way. His programmes seem to be some of the few that follow all three of the BBC’s original aims, that of ‘to educate, to inform and to entertain’. Some of his work is permanently available to listen to on marksteelinfo.com.

I seem to have deviated from rowing history but, as you can probably tell, I am a fan. Steel’s foray into HTBS territory came in an edition of his award winning series, ‘Mark Steel’s in Town’. The British Comedy Guide   describes ‘in Town’ thus:

Comedian Mark Steel visits a selection of different towns from across the UK and delves into their history, people and idiosyncrasies to try to work out what ingredients combine to make the place distinctive. He creates a bespoke stand-up show for that community and then performs it in front of a local audience in a celebration of the sort of places in Britain which are generally less visited as tourist attractions.

HarryClasperPic 2
Steel on tour.

In 2010, Mark Steel’s in Town visited Gateshead in the North East of England, a town of 80,000 on the south bank of the River Tyne opposite the perhaps better known City of Newcastle. Later, local journalist Peter Jackson noted that the comedian was ‘particularly delighted’ to discover the story of Harry Clasper, ’one of the most famous Victorian sportsmen who made his name by – of all things – rowing’. The Gateshead show can be listened to until the end of March 2015 on the BBC’s ‘on demand’ radio service, iPlayer. Non-British listeners may not understand some of the references but HTBS types will at least be able to follow the part from 18 minutes 30 seconds into the programme. Here Steel says:

The biggest Gateshead hero of the 1800s, and this is an amazing story I think, was someone called Harry Clasper. He had worked in the pits (mines), had been a ship’s carpenter and he became so famous that when he died, 130,000 people came to his funeral. I am just interested to know, do people here know what he did? (Sounds of agreement from the audience) He was a rower, clearly all of you know about this. In the 1840s, rowing events on the Tyne regularly drew crowds of 50,000 to 100,000 and Harry won the Thames Regatta seven times and he was world coxed fours champion which he won in a boat with his three brothers. At this point anyone not from Gateshead listening to this must be like I was when I first heard this and think ‘Rowing….? Gateshead….? 100,000….? Are you winding me up…? ‘Cos you think of rowing as Oxford and Cambridge and rowing lakes at Eton and Henley Regatta…… Harry Clasper redesigned the boat so that the hull was not in contact with the water as much….. he also completely changed the way that rowers rowed because he was the first person to pioneer the idea that you should….. use your legs as part of the act of rowing….

HarryClasperPic 3
A less flattering 1858 picture of Clasper than the painting above but, it is as it says ‘after a photograph’ and is a more accurate representation.

It was interesting to hear that a good part of the audience did know of Harry Clasper and that, in his home town at least, he has not disappeared into total obscurity. I have previously written a little on rowing on the Tyne but the most authoritative recent work is Chris Dodd’s Bonnie Brave Boat Rowers: The Heroes, Seers and Songsters of the Tyne.

It is ironic that Steel has, intentionally or not, done more to disseminate ‘left wing’ and / or liberal ideas than his former comrades in the SWP have ever done, preoccupied as they may have been with arguing amongst themselves over how many dialectical materialists could fit on the head of a pin while passing through the eye of a needle. Should the listeners of BBC Radio 4 ever rise up and storm the Winter Palace (Sandringham House presumably), Mark Steel can claim the credit.

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A picture of Clasper produced six years after the one above – less hair and still not happy.

This summer, a play on the life of Harry Clasper, Hadaway Harry, will tour the North East of England, playing at venues that have ‘a resonance with Harry’s life’. Details are here.

3 comments

  1. For further information on Harry Clasper’s life can I suggest reading “Hero of the North” by David Clasper. There was, of course, another famous rower from Gateshead, James Renforth. An excellent book by Ian Whitehead “James Renforth; Champion sculler of the world” covers his life and too early death.

    • Hi, I am trying to track down a copy of this book but can’t seem to find one anywhere. Do you know where I can get one please?

      • Hello Sam ~ for any rowing book, always first contact Richard Ways Booksellers in Henley-on-Thames, phone: 01491-576663, they have both new and out-of-print books on rowing.

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