Keeping it in the Family

A modern (2017) reprint of “Hereditary Genius” by the publisher Blurb.

18 May 2018

Greg Denieffe has found a rowing gem. Greg writes: 

Francis Galton may well have lived by Amy Rand’s maxim – If it’s worth doing, then it’s worth overdoing. He is described on as a ‘Victorian polymath: geographer, meteorologist, tropical explorer, founder of differential psychology, inventor of fingerprint identification, pioneer of statistical correlation and regression, convinced hereditarian, eugenicist, proto-geneticist, half-cousin of Charles Darwin and best-selling author.’

A few years ago, his work in the field of hereditarianism caught my attention and on a recent ‘tidy-up’ I found a copy of a chapter from his book Hereditary Genius (1869). The chapter, reproduced in full below, is called “Oarsmen” and begins on page 305 of the book. The previous 300-odd pages deal with intelligence but then Galton turns his attention to physical prowess and with professional rowing being the prominent sport of the age it is no surprise that he chose it to illustrate his belief that nature tops nurture or to quote him directly:

I PROPOSE to show in this book that a man’s natural abilities are derived by inheritance, under exactly the same limitations as are the form and physical features of the whole organic world.

Early in the book, Galton uses the Oxford and Cambridge Boat Race to make a point about sample selection. Modern training methods may disprove his conclusion. One other point of note is that in the second edition of Hereditary Genius (1892), Galton writes that his chief regret is the choice of the book’s title. There was no intention on his part to use the word ‘genius’ in any technical sense, but merely to express an ability that was exceptionally high, and at the same time inborn; he readily admits that he uses it as an equivalent for ‘natural ability’.

In an effort to make Galton’s work more interesting for HTBS readers, I have inserted pictures of several of the oarsmen he mentions, added captions and a few comments inside [[double brackets]]. 






London: MACMILLAN AND CO 1869.


In illustration of the value of the extreme rigour implied by a selection of one in a million, I will take the following instance. The Oxford and Cambridge boat-race excites almost a national enthusiasm, and the men who represent their Universities as competing crews have good reason to be proud of being the selected champions of such large bodies. The crew of each boat consists of eight men, selected out of about 800 students; namely, the available undergraduates of about two successive years. In other words, the selection that is popularly felt to be so strict, is only as one in a hundred. Now, suppose there had been so vast a number of universities that it would have been possible to bring together 800 men, each of whom had pulled in a University crew, and that from this body the eight best were selected to form a special crew of comparatively rare merit: the selection of each of these would be as 1 to 10, 000 ordinary men. Let this process be repeated, and then, and not till then, do you arrive at a superlative crew, representing selections of one in a million. This is a perfectly fair deduction, because the youths at the Universities are a haphazard collection of men, so far as regards their thews and sinews. No one is sent to a University on account of his powerful muscle. Or, to put the same facts into another form: — it would require a period of no less than 200 years, before either University could furnish eight men, each of whom would have sufficient boating eminence to rank as one of the medium crew. Twenty thousand years must elapse before eight men could be furnished, each of whom would have the rank of the superlative crew.


I PROPOSE to supplement what I have written about brain by two short chapters on muscle. No one doubts that muscle is hereditary in horses and dogs, but humankind are so blind to facts and so governed by preconceptions, that I have heard it frequently asserted that muscle is not hereditary in men. Oarsmen and wrestlers have maintained that their heroes spring up capriciously, so I have thought it advisable to make inquiries into the matter. The results I have obtained will beat down another place of refuge for those who insist that each man is an independent creation, and not a mere function, physically, morally, and intellectually, of ancestral qualities and external influences.

In respect to Oarsmen, let me assure the reader that they are no insignificant fraction of the community, no mere waifs and strays from those who follow more civilized pursuits. A perfect passion for rowing pervades large classes. At Newcastle, when a great race takes place, all business is at a standstill, factories are closed, shops are shut, and offices deserted. The number of men who fall within the attraction of the career is very great; and there can be no doubt that a large proportion of those among them who are qualified to succeed brilliantly, obey the attraction and pursue it.

For the information in this and the following chapters, I am entirely indebted to the kind inquiries made for me by Mr. Robert Spence Watson of Newcastle, whose local knowledge is very considerable, and whose sympathies with athletic amusements are strong. Mr. Watson put himself into continual communication with one of the highest, I believe by far the highest, authority on boating matters, a person who had reported nearly every boating race to the newspapers for the last quarter of a century.

The list in the Appendix to this chapter includes the names of nearly all the rowing men of note who have figured upon the Tyne during the past six-and-twenty years. It also includes some of the rowers on the Thames, but the information about these is not so certain. The names are not picked and chosen, but the best men have been taken of whom any certain knowledge could be obtained.

It is not easy to classify the rowers, especially as many of the men have rarely, if ever, pulled in skiff matches, but formed part of crews in pair-oared, four-oared, or six-oared matches. Their performances have, however, been carefully examined and criticised by Mr. Watson and his assessor, who have divided them into four classes.

I have marked the names of the lowest with brackets [ ], and have attached to them the phrase “moderately good.” These are men who have either disappointed expectations founded on early promise, or have not rowed often enough to show of what feats they are really capable. No complete failure is included. Few amateurs can cope with men of this class, notwithstanding the mediocrity of their abilities when judged by a professional standard.

The next ascending grade is also distinguished by brackets [ ], but no qualifying expression is added to their names. They consist of the steady reliable men who form good racing crews.

The two superior grades contain the men whose names are printed without brackets—whom, in short, I treat as being “eminently gifted.” In order to make a distinction between the two grades, I add to the names of the men who belong to the higher of them, the phrase “very excellent oarsman.”

It is not possible to do more than give a rough notion of the places into which these four grades would respectively fall in my table (p. 34) of natural gifts. I have only two data to help me. The first is, that I am informed that in the early part of 1868, the Tyne Amateur Rowing Club, which is the most important institution of that kind in the north of England, had been fifteen years in existence and had comprised, in all, 377 members; that three of these, as judged by amateur standards of comparison, had been considered of surpassing excellence as skiff-rowers, and that the best of these three was looked upon as equal to, or perhaps a trifle better than, the least good of the brothers Matfin, who barely ranks as an “excellent” rower.

The other datum is the deliberate opinion of the authorities to whom I am indebted for the materials of this chapter, that not 1 man in 10 will succeed as a rower even of the lower of the two grades whose names are marked in my Appendix by brackets, and that not 1 in 100 rowers attains to excellence. Hence the minimum qualification for excellence is possessed by only 1 man in 1,000.

There is a rough accordance between these two data. A rowing club consists in part of naturally selected men. They are not men, all of whom have been taken at haphazard as regards their powers of rowing. A large part are undoubtedly mere conscripts from the race of clubable men, but there must always be a considerable number who would not have joined the club save for their consciousness of possessing gifts and tastes that specially qualified them for success on the water. To be the best oarsman of the 377 men who are comprised in a crack rowing club, means much more than to be the best of 377 men taken at haphazard. It would be much nearer the truth to say, that it means being the best of all who might have joined the club, had they been so inclined and had appeared desirable members. Upon these grounds (see also my remarks in p. 12) it is a very moderate estimate to conclude that the qualifications for excellence as an oarsman, are only possessed by 1 man in 1,000.

The “very excellent” oarsmen imply, I presume, a much more rigorous selection, but I really have no data whatever on which to found an estimate. Many men who found they could attain no higher rank than “excellence,” would abandon the unprofitable pursuit of match rowing for more regular and, as some would say, creditable occupations. We shall not be more than half a grade wrong if we consider the “excellent” oarsmen to rank in at least class F of natural gifts, with respect to rowing ability, and the “very excellent” to fall well within it.

I do not propose to take any pains in analysing these relationships, for the data are inadequate. Rowing was comparatively little practised in previous generations, so we cannot expect to meet with evidence of ancestral peculiarities among the oarsmen. Again, the successful rowers are mostly single men, and some of the best have no children. It is important, in respect to this, to recollect the frequent trainings they have gone through. Mr. Watson mentions to me one well-known man, who has trained for an enormous number of races, and during the time of each training was most abstemious and in amazing health; then, after each trial was over, he commonly gave way, and without committing any great excess, remained for weeks in a state of fuddle. This is too often the history of these men.

There are in the Appendix only three families, each containing more than one excellent oarsman; they are Clasper, Matfin, and Taylor, and the total relationships existing towards the ablest member of each family are, 8 B and 1 S. There appears to be no intermarriage, except in the one case that is mentioned, between the families of the rowers; indeed there is much jealousy between the rival families.


“I have not picked and chosen, but have simply taken all the best men I could hear anything certainly [[sic]] about.”— Extract from MR. WATSON’S Letter.

The 18 men whose names are printed in italics are described below as examples of hereditary gifts. The remaining 3 are not. Candlish; Chambers; 5 Clasper; Coombes; Cooper; Kelly; Maddison; 2 Matfin; Renforth; Sadler; 5 Taylor; Winship.

Candlish, James; a Tyne man, married sister of Henry Clasper, has no children.

[B.] Thomas; a good but not a great rower; has always pulled as one of a crew. Unmarried.

[B.] Robert; moderately good; has not rowed very often.

Henry (Harry) Clasper (5 July 1812 – 12 July 1870). Ian Whitehead states in “The Sporting Tyne” (2002) that this photograph was probably taken after Harry’s seventh appearance as a stroke of the winning four at the Thames Regatta of 1859, aged 47.

Clasper, Henry; very excellent oarsman. Is the most prominent member of a large and most remarkable family of oarsmen. He was for many years stroke of a four-oared crew, and frequently the whole crew, including the coxswain, were members of the Clasper family. For eight years this crew won the championship of the Tyne. Six times Henry Clasper pulled stroke for the crew winning the championship of the Thames, and Coombes declared that he was the best stroke that ever pulled. Up to the year 1859, when he was 47 years old, he had pulled stroke 78 times in pair- or four-oared matches, and his crew had been 54 times victorious. He had also pulled in 32 skiff matches and won 20 of them, and had been champion of Scotland upon the only two occasions on which he contested for it.

Nearly all these matches were over a 4 or 4½ mile course. He invented the light outrigger, and has been a very successful builder of racing boats.

The Clasper Family Tree – from the First Edition of “HEREDITARY GENIUS” (1869).


John Hawks Clasper (13 October 1836 – 15 September 1908). Photo: “The Sporting Tyne” by Ian Whitehead (2002).
  1. John Hawks Clasper; very excellent oarsman. Has rowed more skiff matches than any man living. When he had contested 76 races, he had won 50 of them. He has brothers, but they are too young to have shown their powers.
  2. Richard Clasper; very excellent oarsman, known as the “Little Wonder.” Was, when 37 years old, only 5 feet 2 inches high, and weighed 8 stone 6 lbs. In spite of this he was bow-oarsman to the brothers’ crew, and a rare good one. He has rowed many skiff races with first-class men, and has scarcely ever been beaten, but is too light to contend for the championship.
  3. John Clasper; very excellent oarsman; was drowned when young (æt. 19). He had won several small matches, and one important match with a man called Graham, and his fine style and excellent performances (considering his age) caused him to be looked upon as a rower of extraordinary promise.
  4. Robert Clasper; able oarsman.

[N.] Son of the above; is a good rower.

[B.] William; never pulled but as one of a crew; he was recently drowned.

[B.] Edward; has the disadvantage of having lost a leg.

[B.] (half-brother). Thomas; moderately good.

[u.] Edward Hawks; a fair rower.

The father of the Clasper family was a keelman.

[[In the Clasper family tree, Harry’s children, other than John Hawks, are not named. I include the following photograph (believed to be 1859) as a sample of his sons who were too young to have shown their powers when Hereditary Genius was published in 1869.]]

Harry’s son, Robert Clasper, aged 11, photographed in what looks like the same studio as his father (see above) in 1859 and probably holding the same rudder used as a prop in the earlier photo. Photo: “The Sporting Tyne” by Ian Whitehead (2002).

Coombes, Robert; very excellent oarsman.

[S.] David; a good match rower.

[B.] Thomas; has always pulled as one of a crew.

Cooper, Robert.

[S.] He pulls well, but is not old enough for matches.

Maddison, Antony.

[B.] James; a good rower.

Matfin, Thomas. Unmarried.

  1. William. Unmarried.

[[The name Renforth is probably the most well-known name associated with the rowers of Tyneside. James Renforth’s untimely death in 1871 ensured that he would never be forgotten; he is remembered everywhere from Saint John, Canada, to St James’ Park, Newcastle. His brother, Stephen, is less well known but Galton includes him in his appendix. Was this so that he could include James and claim they had a hereditary gift? More curious is the reason James did not warrant the phrase ‘very excellent oarsman’ seeing as he was the current world sculling champion when the book was published.  You can read more about Stephen (and James) by following this link: Old Gateshead No. 322, December 19, 1952.]]

James Renforth (7 April 1842 – 23 August 1871).

Renforth, James; Champion rower of England. Unmarried.

[B.] Stephen; a fair rower. Unmarried.

The Winship Four of 1871. From left, Tom Winship, Robert Bagnall, Joseph Sadler, James Taylor. Surprisingly, Galton gives no information on Joseph Sadler who was at one time, the champion sculler of the world. All but Bagnall are included in the index. Photo: “James Renforth of Gateshead” by Ian Whitehead (2004).

Sadler, Joseph. Unmarried.

[B.] William. Unmarried.

James Taylor. Photo: Tyne & Wear Museums.

Taylor, James; very excellent oarsman, the ablest of a remarkable family. He has rowed 112 races, alone and in crews; 13 of these were skiff matches, and of these he won 10.

  1. Matthew; a good rower. (He has a son who is a clever rower, but not old enough for matches.)
Matt Taylor with his keel-less four, “Victoria”. Photo: North East Rowing.

3 B. Thomas, William, and John; all good rowers; they have only pulled in crews. All unmarried.

Edward Winship. Photo: “Rowing: A Way of Life – The Claspers of Tyneside” (2003) by David Clasper.

Winship, Edward; very eminent oarsman. He is not a skiff rower, but always rows in two- or four-oared races. He was one of the crew who won the “Champion Fours” at the Thames National Regatta in 1854, 1859, 1861, and 1862, and the “Champion Pairs” at the same Regatta in 1855, 1856, 1860, 1861, and 1862.

Tom Winship looking remarkably like his brother Edward. Photo: “James Renforth of Gateshead” by Ian Whitehead (2004).

[B.] Thomas; a good rower, also in crews.

The full text of Hereditary Genius can be found here.

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