150 Years Since the Death of Rowing Legend Harry Clasper

An early picture of Tyneside sculler and boat builder, Harry Clasper (1812 – 1870).

12 July 2020

Today is exactly 150 years ago the Tyneside sporting hero Harry Clasper died.

On 12 July 1870, Harry Clasper, professional rower and boat builder, died at his Newcastle Quayside pub.

Clasper’s funeral, held five days later, still holds the record for attracting the biggest-ever number of mourners seen on Tyneside, as an estimated 130,000 people lined the route from the Tunnel Inn (today flat land where the River Ouse enters the Tyne) to Newcastle Guildhall (Sandgate), across the river to Blaydon and up the hill to Wickham where Clasper was laid to rest at St Mary’s churchyard.

Such was the fervour of people to pay their respects, the eight-mile journey, which started at 2.45 p.m., took around 12 hours to complete.

Not only a world champion sculler, Clasper was an innovative coach, trainer of future world champions and the inventor of the revolutionary thin racing craft with the outriggers that we see today on rivers worldwide as well as at the Olympics and the Oxbridge Boat Race.

Revered nationally and internationally among the rowing fraternity, Harry Clasper is the first name on the timeline at the prestigious rowing museum in Henley.

Clasper first came to national and international prominence in June 1845 when he and his three brothers plus their Uncle Ned took on the mighty men of the Thames at Putney and defeated them for the world championship.

Born in Dunston on the south bank of the Tyne in 1812, Harry was raised in Jarrow where his father was a miner. Later, as a Durham miner himself, in Hetton le Hole, Harry was involved in the Great Strike of 1831, before becoming a professional rower.

Modern cities developed along rivers in the Victorian era, where tens of thousands of people were employed: keelmen, who delivered coal; wherrymen, who delivered livestock and ferried humans; shipbuilders and the burgeoning engineering and chemical factories.

Harry Clasper – Rowing historian 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.

Every major river produced its champion rower and their favourite rowing team.

From the mid-1840s, the biggest rivalry was between London and Newcastle. This was personified by well-contested matches between the Thames and the Tyne where Harry Clasper and his team of brothers ruled supreme for more than a decade.

South Shields-based playwright Ed Waugh explained: ‘Rowing, or aquatics as it was known in Victorian times, was the sport of the working class before football came along. Upwards of 100,00 people would watch the races on the Tyne and even more in London where they raced from Putney to Chiswick.’

Playwright Ed Waugh

Waugh continued: ‘Obviously alcohol and betting were involved, so it was a day out – like horse racing is today, except entry was free. Harry was part of teams that by 1859 had won eight world championships on the Thames and his fame spread worldwide, wherever there were rowing clubs.’

Clasper’s initial world title happened 175 year ago, on 27 June 1845, and that historical occasion was celebrated in a play by Waugh called Hadaway Harry which was so successful it toured the North East and transferred to London in 2017 before selling out a run at Newcastle’s prestigious 1200-seat theatre Royal.

It’s thanks to David Clasper that the Harry Clasper historical flame has been kept alive. David’s great-great-grandfather, Richard, was Harry’s brother and the coxswain in the 1845 championship-winning boat.

David, 72, who lives on Tyneside, has collected Harry Clasper memorabilia for the past 55 years and written books about the champion rower.

‘It’s been a life-long interest and we’re delighted so many more people are now taking an interest in Harry and the other Geordie rowing world champions like Robert Chambers and James Renforth who were either trained by Harry or inspired by him,’ David Clasper said.

The sporting prowess of Harry and other Geordie rowers was captured in song by Tyneside Victorian concert hall musical superstars like Ned Corvan and Joe Wilson, but it is The Blaydon Races that has the most resonance today.

Written and first performed by Geordie Ridley at Harry Clasper’s testimonial in June 1862 at the historic Balmbras Music Hall in Newcastle, The Blaydon Races is today the unofficial Geordie ‘national anthem’ and still sung with gusto by watery-eyed Tynesiders and 50,000 fans at St James Park, home of Newcastle United.

‘Wouldn’t it be great if everyone who sang the song thought of Harry? Sadly, North East history isn’t taught in schools in the region; it’s a London-centric curriculum based on kings and queens rather than the working class,’ Waugh said. ‘When Harry died in 1870, aged 58, more than 130,000 people lined the streets of Tyneside to pay tribute. Given the population of Newcastle then was probably less than half of that, people must have come from far and wide to see Harry off.’

Waugh added: ‘The North East can proudly boast sporting greats and world champions like Alan Shearer, Jackie Milburn, Steve Cram and Glenn McCrory, but Harry Clasper was arguably the greatest of them all. However, being a working-class athlete in the Victorian era, his story was never properly documented.’

He continued: ‘We do know that throughout this life Harry ran around a dozen pubs along the Tyne, which he combined with his boatbuilding commissions. Sadly, the only remaining pub is the dilapidated Barley Mow in the Milk Market on the Quayside. It is scheduled to be demolished and built upon soon. We would like to think the new owners and developers would be enthusiastic about a time capsule in the foundations dedicated to Harry Clasper and the other great Geordie rowers. Working with Newcastle City Council, we got a blue plaque placed on the Quayside in 2017, but if anyone deserves a statue in Newcastle, it’s Harry.’

Actor Jamie Brown, ‘Hadaway Harry’, at the unveiling of the Blue Plaque honouring Harry Clasper in 2017. Photo: Ewan Waugh.

Hadaway Harry, starring Jamie Brown, was due to tour nationally in June this summer, but the Coronavirus outbreak meant it will tour in June 2021 instead. The Hadaway Harry script will be included in a forthcoming book of plays by Ed Waugh. David Clasper’s books Harry Clasper: Hero of the North and Rowing: A Way of Life are available here.

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