Two rowing heroes have found fame on stage. Chris Dodd was on the edge of his seat.
Ed Waugh is on a mission. His play Hadaway Harry is galloping round Tyneside to reinstate Harry Clasper to his rightful place as an A1-with-knobs-on super-sporting hero. Clasper who revolutionised boat design with his Five Brothers and Lord Ravensworth. Clasper who knocked off the world pro coxed fours title and battled with London watermen for a quarter of a century. Clasper whose skill at scull and oar was honoured by Geordie Ripley’s Blaydon Races. Clasper whose son, John Hawks, moved the business to Putney and carried on where his father left off. Ed reckons that Harry Clasper, oarsman, boat builder, publican and hero, should rank where he once did, alongside the Geordie super heroes like Alan Shearers and Bobbie Robsons of present times.
Jamie Brown is Harry in Ed’s roisterous drama. He is a solo tour-de-force, bringing the rawness of the working class life in Newcastle and the relentless training round the clock to life. When it comes to racing the London Championship Course of 4 1/4 miles from Putney to Mortlake, he has you on the edge of your seat while attached to an oar by your fingernails for every stroke.
I joined Ed for a day in his quest. He had very kindly arranged a promotion tour for my book Bonnie Brave Boat Rowers (‘Brilliant’ – C Dodd) that covers some of the ground of Hadaway Harry and shares an aim to ignite the memory of high days and phenomenal achievement on the Tyne.
The London train slid into the grand Central station across the High Level Bridge with its breath-taking view of other crossings spanning the gorge twixt Newcastle and Gateshead backed by the city’s steep Georgian and Victorian skyline. First whistle-stop at BBC Newcastle where Jon Harle interviewed me for his ‘driving home’ show.
Then to South Shields library near the mouth of the Tyne. The long conference table’s sole occupant was Catherine, a member of the Clasper tribe, a family whose size is largely down to Harry fathering 12 kids. Every time he won a big race, a new bairn came along.
Eventually a second punter turned up off the North Shields ferry. Martin told us he was about to take a rowing tour in Russia if he gets a visa. It’s a big If: the application procedure is now labyrinthine in retaliation for sanctions against Putin and his works. Martin also told us how Tyne United RC had split from Tyne Amateur and set up directly on the opposite bank at Newburn. Rejoice! Politics in rowing lives!
South Shields Library was an excellent start. An audience of two; two books sold.
And so to St Bede’s World in Jarrow, where the large lecture hall was similarly packed. Two brothers from Tynemouth RC who are collecting stuff for their club’s 150 birthday in 2017. An hour of hero and rowing talk. And a sales breakthrough, for they bought one each, and the museum took two more.
To the hotel for a lick and a promise and over the road to the vast Great Hall of Newcastle’s Discovery Museum, which used to be a Co-op Wholesale warehouse. This magnificent chamber had been hung with splendid trades union banners to muffle the echo. A couple of dozen playgoers joined me for a chat before the performance, including more Claspers and a family of Renforths, descendants of James Renforth who took Tyne prowess to Canada, and died at the oar there.
The day’s book sales had doubled before Hadaway Harry appeared on stage and began his story to a few bars from the Blaydon Races, the national anthem of Geordieland. Ed’s day as a cat on a hot tin roof was rewarded by an audience of 100 plus at the largest venue for his play. They were treated to a day at the races like never before. An exposé of how the boat designers of the Tyne took on the Thames. A reawakening of lost rivalry between the champion oarsmen of two great rivers, with grit and with jokes, with songs and with puppets. Very clever stuff.
Good on you, Ed and Jamie, and good on director Russell Floyd, designer Aaron Nergaard and puppet maker Alison McGowan. Hadaway Harry has toured to the compass points of industrial revolution and strife in England’s Northeast – Durham, where Clasper began his working life as a miner, Jarrow, North and South Shields as well as Newcastle. It deserves to row on to other waters, where audiences will have the opportunity to learn some Geordie too.
Shortly before my expedition to Newcastle I saw another drama at another stunning venue. Picture the dripping-with-chandeliers banqueting hall of the Fishmongers’ Company, overlooking London Bridge. Thomas Doggett, Deceased by the late Felicity Browne, adapted and directed by Giles Havergal, is the story of the Irish comedian and theatre manager who, in 1715, founded the Coat and Badge Wager that tests the sculling and watermanship abilities of apprentices in their first year of freedom. Over five miles plus from London Bridge to Chelsea. The August 1’s race will be the 301st Doggett’s, which makes it the oldest continuous sporting event in Britain.
Thomas Doggett, Deceased was an arousing performance ‘in the round’ by a cast from the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA), starring Adam Levy as a very believable Doggett. Doggett’s life of acting, singing, stand-up, theatre, coffee house and inn personified the relationship between the entertainment industry – theatres, bear pits, pleasure gardens, houses of iniquity – and the watermen who rowed actors and audiences to and fro’ between the City and Westminster on the north bank of the tidal Thames and Southwark and Lambeth on the South. There is a famous line in the movie Shakespeare in Love when bard Will steps aboard a wherry with a ‘take me to the Globe’, whereupon the waterman says ‘I had that Kit Marlowe in my wherry last week’.
The play starts with the song:
Let your oars like lightning flog it,
Up the Thames as swiftly jog it,
An you’d win the Prize of Doggett
The glory of the River!
Bending, bowing, straining, rowing,
Perhaps the wind in fury blowing
Or the Tide against you flowing
The Coat and Badge for ever!
…and goes on to laud the prowess of watermen, as well as introducing us to Thomas, his character, stage highlights, attire and the one play that he wrote, The Country Wake.
‘When I was alive my home was in Chelsea,’ Doggett says. ‘And to get to Drury Lane every day – over four miles each way – of course I went by river. And I never had to wait, not with hundreds of watermen in their wherries plying for hire. So one evening I left Drury Lane and headed down to the river. Terrible evening it was – rain, hail, wind – and the river dark, black dark and swollen…’
All save an apprentice refused to take him. The apprentice got him home, and the idea for the wager was sown.
Ever since, like once-upon-a-Tyne winners of the Christmas Handicap through the bridges of Newcastle, Doggett’s winners through the bridges of London have been the pride of the Thames:
I was the pride of the Thames,
My name was Natty Jerry,
The best of Smart and flashy dames,
I’ve carried in my Wherry.
For then no mortal soul like me,
So merrily did jog it,
I lov’d my wife, my friend, d’ye see,
And won the prize of Doggett.
In Coat and Badge so neat and spruce,
I row’d all blithe and merry,
And every Waterman did use
To call me Happy Jerry.
All brought about by an Irish comedian, as the Prime Warden proclaims in the play:
Tom Doggett, the greatest sly droll in his parts,
In Acting was certain a master of arts;
A monument left – no herald is fuller –
His praise is sung yearly by many a sculler.
Ten thousand years hence, if the world last so long,
Tom Doggett will still be the theme of their song.
The riveting tale at Fishmongers’ Hall was followed by a plate of the Company’s famous fish pie and a walk home across London Bridge where Doggett’s night of ill weather began and where his Coat and Badge race begins each year. Giles Havergal, like Ed Waugh, is a man with a mission. Thanks to them both, Harry Clasper and Thomas Doggett and their worlds have come to life once again.
Christopher Dodd’s Bonny Brave Boat Rowers is available from good bookshops, ebook or print-on-demand.