The 150th Anniversary of the Paris Crew

18 June 2017

Göran R Buckhorn writes:

The vision of the New Brunswick Sports Hall of Fame is to ‘honour our best and inspire the rest’, and it is celebrating the 150th Anniversary of the ‘Paris Crew’, the history of rowing and the 2017 Hall of Famers in new summer exhibitions. The exhibitions opened on 13 June at the New Brunswick Sports Hall of Fame, 503 rue Queen Street in Fredericton, New Brunswick.

On 8 July 1867, oarsmen Robert Fulton, Elijah Ross, George Price and Samuel Hutton (with their spare rower James Price) of Saint John, New Brunswick, surprised the rowing world at the World Amateur Rowing Championship held at the International Exposition in Paris by beating Oxford University and London RC taking the World title in the coxless four. As it was only seven days after the Canadian Confederation, the Paris Crew, as they came to be known, became Canada’s first international sporting champions.

The Paris Crew. Image NB Sports Hall of Fame.

The following year, the Paris Crew overpowered the Republican crew in Springfield, Massachusetts, becoming the champions of America. The crew from New Brunswick would continue to meet with success taking several provincial and international titles. However, in Lachine, Quebec, in September 1870, they met a brilliant four from Newcastle-upon-Tyne – lead by the famous oarsman James Renforth. The two fours rowed different styles, Ian Whitehead writes in his James Renforth of Gateshead: Champion Sculler of the World (2004):

The St John men rowed a short, light elastic arm stroke, which was pretty to look at, quickly got way on the boat, and could be used at rates of up to 50 strokes a minute. The Tyne men pulled a long, even swing, which could not be worked at above 40 strokes a minute without risking becoming so ragged that the boat did not run but jerked its way across the water. However if they could hold in the groove at 38 strokes per minute, the boat could be made to run on in steady unceasing motion.

The four from St John lost the race and the world title. However, the four from Newcastle rowed over to the official steamer, Star, where Renforth was dropped off to collect money for the losing crew. In a very short time, he had collected $250 for the St John crew. What few people knew was that a rift between Renforth and one of his crew mates, James Taylor, had begun prior to the race. When the Tynesiders arrived home to England, the crew split up.

Renforth’s 1871 crew: clockwise: James Percy, Robert Chambers, Henry Kelley, James Renforth and spare man John Bright. Image NB Sports Hall of Fame.

In August 1871, Renforth was back in Canada to give the Paris Crew a rematch for the world title. With Renforth was a new crew, which included his old sculling rival, Henry ‘Harry’ Kelley. At 200 yards into the race, on the Kennebecasis River northeast of St John, the Englishmen had half a length’s lead and although the race was only in its initial stage, Renforth’s crew were sure to win. Then suddenly, Renforth’s oar seemed to lose power. When Kelley in the three seat, called to Renforth in the stroke seat for a spurt of a dozen strokes, his request became unanswered. Renforth started to rock from side to side and without warning he collapsed in Kelley’s arms. The crew stopped rowing and turned the boat to row to shore. Renforth was taken to their headquarters where he later died. The news spread quickly and newspapers all over the world wrote about the tragedy. In 1903, in memory of the English oarsman, the village where the race was held was named Renforth.

The Paris crew continued to race fruitfully until the crew disbanded in 1876. The crew was inducted in Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame in 1956 and in the New Brunswick Sports Hall of Fame in 1972.

New Brunswick Sports Hall of Fame.

Among the ten 2017 inductees are two rowers, Brian and Henry Flood of Renforth. Read more about all the inductees here.

For more information about the New Brunswick Sports Hall of Fame go here.

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