20 February 2017
After having witnessed Ed Waugh’s play Hadaway Harry at London Rowing Club, Greg Denieffe writes:
Serendipity struck on Saturday when I got to attend one of three London performances of Hadaway Harry. Hosted by London Rowing Club on Putney Embankment, the Ed Waugh stageplay about Harry Clasper, the champion rower, coach and master boatbuilder, first saw light of day during the summer of 2015 in and around Tyneside. Unfortunately, I missed out then and fully expected to regret not taking the time to make the trip north to enjoy what HTBS contributor Chris Dodd described at that time as a “roisterous drama” and a “tour-de-force”.
Since Dodd’s review appeared on this site, Waugh has kept us informed of his plans for the play and fully embraced our raison d’être “to cover all aspects of the rich history of rowing, as a sport, culture phenomena, a life style, and a necessary element to keep your wit and stay sane.” Therefore, the past few months have seen several posts about the London staging of the play and banter between those of us on this side of the pond lucky enough to be sitting in the second-chance-saloon and those of us “enjoying” the Northeast American winter.
Ticket bought, train booked, I thought I would give the handsome Jamie Brown a run for his money in the Harry Clasper look-a-like competition and grow a Clasper chin strap. Jamie plays Harry during the ten-year period leading up to June 1845 when Harry and his Derwenthaugh crew defeated the ‘unbeatable’ Cockneys, over four-and-a-quarter miles from Putney to Mortlake to claim the Championship of the World title for the Geordies.
Henry ‘Harry’ Clasper was 32 when he and his three brothers: William, Robert and Richard (coxswain) along with his uncle, Edward ‘Ned’ Hawks finally beat the Thamesmen. Hawks joined the crew following the death Harry’s 25-year-old brother Edward, less than three months before the 1845 Royal Thames Regatta.
Clasper truly is the ‘Hero of the North’ and when he died in July 1870 at the age of 58, 130,000 people turned out to honour him. He is remembered in several songs for his achievements and Waugh’s play takes its name from one of them, Harry Clasper, by local music hall artist, J. P. Robson.
“Ah well, I’m a rower not a singer”
‘Ov a’ yor grand rowers iv skiff or iv skull
There’s nyen wi’ wor Harry has chance for to pull;
Man he sits like a duke an’ he fethers se free,
Oh! Harry’s the lad, Harry Clasper for me!
Haud away, Harry! Canny lad, Harry!
Harry’s the king of the Tyems an’ the Tyne.
Clasper won £2,600 (£400,000 at today’s prices) in prize money during his career and throughout out his life he owned ten pubs, one of which, the Clasper Hotel, was presented to him as a testimonial on 27 November 1862. For this occasion, held at Balmbra’s Music Hall, John Taylor wrote Harry Clasper’s Testimonial and George ‘Geordie’ Ridley The Blaydon Races which features heavily throughout this Russell Floyd production and why not, since a song about a horse race, written for a champion sculler and kept alive by the St. James’ Park Faithful whenever Newcastle United play at home is the stuff of legend. It bridges the timeline from the 1840s when rowing and not football was the most watched spectator sport in England.
Ah me lads, ye shud only seen us gannin’,
We pass’d the foaks upon the road just as they wor stannin’;
Thor wes lots o’ lads an’ lasses there, all wi’ smiling faces,
Gawn alang the Scotswood Road, to see the Blaydon Races.
London Rowing Club’s hosting of the show brings the story back to where Harry Clasper’s fame really took off. For not only did he and his crew claim the championship, but Harry remained in London for a few days, selling their boat, the Lord Ravensworth, to Lord Kilmorey and picking up orders that established him as one of, if not the best boat builder of the time. If performing the play beside the stretch of the Thames on which the famous race was rowed is not bringing the story full circle enough, Ed Waugh made his own discovery in London Rowing Club that certainly does:
We have made appeals nationally for memorabilia of Harry Clasper and we couldn’t believe it when we looked at the images above where we are creating a stage. There, on the wall, is a picture dated from 1848 of Harry leading his team to win the qualifying heats for the World Championship.
It’s an incredible coincidence to think the play will be re-tying the knot of history in Putney and that we’ll be performing the show under a historical picture of Harry and his team.
They did re-tie the knot but there is much more to Hadaway Harry than a simple tale of a four-oared race that took place 172 years ago. Waugh’s canny writing also gave the appreciative audience a social history lesson which Brown and Wayne Miller (who plays all the additional characters) deliver seamlessly as a clever double act. Miller pops up from behind a lectern, changing costume and accent to suit, whilst he and Brown deliver dates and facts a Mastermind contestant would struggle remembering.
The second act is notable for Jamie’s real time commentary of the final of the 1845 race between the crews of Robert Coombes, Harry Clasper and Robert Newell. Lasting for what seems like forever and all the time mimicking the rowing stroke, Brown has the audience on the edge of their seats especially as the crews near the finish.
This weekend the play moves back to Newcastle to the Theatre Royal for three performances and I can only imagine how a partisan audience will react when just before curtain down The Blaydon Races gets a reprise. The intimate setting of London Rowing Club held about 100 people for each performance but the Theatre Royal holds 1,200 and all three shows are practically sold out. All together now:
Aa went to Blaydon Races, ’twas on the ninth of Joon,
Eiteen hundred an’ sixty-two, on a summer’s efternoon;
Aa tyuk the ‘bus frae Balmbra’s, an’ she wis heavy laden,
Away we went ‘lang Collin’wood Street, that’s on the road to Blaydon.