The First Official Boat Race on the Tyne – 1 August 1821

Chart of the River Tyne from Hebburn Quay to Newcastle 1840 – The 1821 crews set off from Hebburn Quay and rowed west to finish at the bridge in Newcastle. The sandbanks and projecting pieces of land, such as Bill Point, were a hazard for shipping but may have made boat racing more exciting. – Adrian Osler 2021, after a chart accompanying the Admiralty’s Second Report of the Tidal Harbour’s Commissioners 1846.

26 July 2021

By Ian Whitehead

On Sunday 1 August 2021, a special event will take place to mark the 200th Anniversary of the first official boat race on the Tyne. Named Tyne 200, it has been organised by the Northern Rowing Council together with the mid-Tyne rowing clubs. See Tyne 200 (nerowing.com) for further information. Rowing historian Ian Whitehead’s contribution to Tyne 200 has been to research further into that first race and the early history of boat racing on the Tyne. The following is the result of Ian Whitehead’s research.

First Attempt

In July 1821, Britain was looking forward to celebrating the Coronation of George IV. The Coronation was to take place on Thursday 19 July 1821 and would be the grandest such ceremony ever staged. In Newcastle, a programme of events had been set out for the day, with one of the highlights being a boat race on the Tyne, supported by both Newcastle Corporation and Newcastle Trinity House. It seems most unlikely that this was the first Tyne boat race of any kind, but the royal and civic connections gave it official status.

The conditions for the race were published in the Newcastle Courant of Saturday 14 July.

At nine o’clock, a boat race will take place on the river; to start from Walker Quay and end at Tyne Bridge, for which the following prizes are to be rowed for by boats not exceeding six oars, viz.: for the first boat 6 sovereigns, 2nd boat 3 sovereigns, 3rd boat 2 sovereigns 4th boat 1 sovereign, to be given by the corporation; in addition to which, a flag will be given from the Trinity House to the first boat. (1)

There was great interest in the race among the “Lads of the Tyne”. A list of 13 boats, with their names, and the places of residence of their owners, and the colours of the coxswains’ caps was printed to enable spectators to identify their favourites. The boats came from different areas along the Tyne and they each made their way to Walker Quay for the start. (2)

Walker Quay c1825 – One of a number of drawings of the River Tyne by J W Carmichael, engraved by William Collard and first published in 1829. The race would have started from Walker Quay if it had taken place on Coronation Day.

The arrival of the North Shields boat, the Experiment, which had been purpose-built for the race, caused a stir. The other crews thought this was unfair, although the only conditions imposed on the boats had been that they were not to exceed 6 oars. The Experiment had not broken any rules, but her opponents remained unimpressed. At 9 am, the signal for the start was given and the Experiment set off, but there was no race because the other boats refused to row against her. The Experiment continued on her way and rowed over the course. Clearly, something about the Experiment’s construction gave her an advantage, but curiously, no hint of what was different about her was published at the time, nor has been since. (3)

Dent’s Hole from the west c1825 – Dent’s Hole was closely associated with the earliest boat races on the Tyne. The Eagle, which is said to have taken part in a boat race c1798, the Monteith, which was the second boat to arrive at the Tyne Bridge on Coronation Day 1821, and a later Eagle, which in 1828 competed firstly as a 6 oar, and secondly as a 4 oar, in two £30 gig matches, were all from Dent’s Hole.

Subsequently, the remaining boats decided to row the course and set off from Walker. Two of them, the Greyhound and the Monteith, pulled smartly up the river. The Greyhound, (the Sandgate boat) was the first to arrive at Newcastle Bridge. She was supposed by the spectators there to be the winner, no doubt, because she was the local boat and was received with vast applause. The Monteith, of Dent’s Hole, followed at a short distance, and the remainder pulled up at their leisure. No award of the prizes was made.

Sandgate Shore c1825 – Sandgate was the home of the keelmen and Newcastle’s waterfront on the Tyne below the bridge. The Sandgate boat, Greyhound, was greeted with loud applause when it was first to arrive at the Tyne Bridge on Coronation Day. Drawing by J W Carmichael.

The Newcastle Courant tried to put a positive spin on it:

But though the great body of spectators were disappointed in the race, they could not but be gratified by the appearance of the ships dressed in the gayest colours, and covered with people to their topmasts. The bridge, the shore, and every place within the reach of the eye for a considerable way down the river, also exhibited a concourse numerous beyond all conception. (4)

The Second Attempt
The consequences of the actions of the various parties involved in the race were reported in the Newcastle Courant of Saturday 28 July 1821:

In consequence of the coronation committee of this town having decided that the Experiment of North Shields, (the boat against which the others would not start) was entitled to the highest prize, (6 sovereigns) as she started at the signal given, and walked the course,” the other 12 boats have to row for the minor prizes, including the flag given by the Trinity House, (refused to the Experiment, which claimed it) on Wednesday next, the anniversary of the Battle of the Nile. Excellent sport is anticipated, from the well-known prowess of the sons of the Tyne. The Experiment will not be allowed to start on this occasion.

The first purpose-built Tyne racing boat built on the Tyne was unable to compete in the Tyne’s first official race because of a boycott by the other crews! But by starting on the signal and rowing over the course she was entitled to the first prize of 6 sovereigns, but not the honour of receiving Trinity House’s blue flag. (5)   

On the 1 August 1821, the 23rd anniversary of the Battle of the Nile, only six boats started from Hebburn Quay for Newcastle’s Tyne Bridge, a distance of 5 miles. This was pretty much the same course as before but starting on the other side of the river from Walker Quay.

Newcastle from Gateshead with Tyne Bridge at left – This bridge of 1781 replaced the medieval bridge destroyed by floods in 1771. It was both the finish point of the 1821 race and an excellent vantage point for spectators. Drawing by J W Carmichael.

From the Newcastle Courant of Saturday 4 August 1821:

On Wednesday last, the Boat Race took place on the Tyne, for the undetermined prizes, offered by the Corporation on the Coronation day. Only 6 started, from Hebburn Quay. (6) The Laurel Leaf arrived first at the Bridge, and received the prize of three sovereigns and the Trinity-house flag; the Swallow was the second boat, and received two sovereigns; the Lord Ravensworth third, and received one sovereign. The next in succession were the Dr Syntax, the Spitfire, and the Greyhound. A considerable number of spectators were assembled to witness the race, but the sport was not so gratifying as expected, the boats not coming in very close together. (7)

The Course
It is probable that the course was chosen with a number of factors in mind. The race needed to finish in the centre of Newcastle, where most spectators would gather, the course had to be of sufficient length to provide a true test of boat and crew, and the start should be within comfortable reach of boats from different areas of the Tyne. Finishing at the Tyne Bridge (figure with red flag on chart) allowed spectators to view the climax of the race from the bridge as well as from the banks. Starting from Walker or Hebburn (see figure with green flag on chart) provided a 5-mile race with crews from up and down river able to reach the start without having to expend too much energy. In addition, the state of the tide would also be an important factor.

If the race had taken place on Coronation Day, the start would have been at 9 am. High Water at Newcastle was forecast to be at 6.52 am so by 9 the ebb tide would have been flowing for two hours. This meant the crews would have been rowing against a considerable current of perhaps 2 knots. The day’s activities began at 6 am with a 21 gun royal salute fired from the Castle Keep, and continued throughout the day with the last event being an assembly in the Rooms at Westgate Street beginning at 10 pm. (8) The 9 am start for the boat race was less than ideal since the entire race would be rowed against the tide but the crews had to accept that it was necessary to fit in with the programme.

For the rearranged race on 1 August, High Water at Newcastle was forecast to be at 6.05 am and 6.57 pm. (9) The report of the race gives no indication of when the race was rowed. Since it was not part of a programme, the race could have been started at a more favourable state of the tide for the crews. It was an ordinary working day so maybe they would have waited for the last of the flood tide and started from Hebburn Quay around 6 pm, after people had finished work.

The Boats

Lime Staith, North Shields – The Lime Staith at North Shields was used for the shipment of lime from Whitley Quarries and coal from Cullercoats Main Colliery. Burnt (quick) lime was an important product used for improving agricultural land. Here a lime sloop floats high in the water as she waits for her next cargo at the staith. The rowing interest is in the background (see detail below). Drawn and Etched by T. M. Richardson (sen.), Engraved by T. Sutherland. Date of origin 1811 -1838. Laing Art Gallery, Tyne & Wear Archives and Museums. (TWCMS : H12471)

The boat race gained official status by being included in the Coronation Day programme and also by being supported by Newcastle Corporation and Trinity House, but I think we can be certain that boat racing had been taking place on the Tyne well before this “official” race. Earlier races were likely to have been match races for stake money between fast boats with links to particular districts, perhaps backed by wealthy patrons.

Events on the day, and the language of the newspaper reports, support that view. The Experiment claimed the top prize of 6 sovereigns, but only after she had started at the given signal and, as the Newcastle Courant put it, “walked the course”, which suggests that some formal rules of racing were being followed. The Courant goes on to say of the rearranged race, due to take place on the 1 August: “Excellent sport is anticipated, from the well-known prowess of the sons of the Tyne.” (10)

One can make allowances for local pride, but the obvious interpretation is that Tyne men were well-known for their boat racing skills, and that would surely mean that boat racing had been happening on the Tyne well before 1821. There is a tantalising but vague reference to an early race between two Tyne boats in a newspaper account of a race between two six oared gigs on the Tyne on Saturday 28 June 1828.

The 1828 race was between the Eagle of Dent’s Hole and the Diamond of Ouseburn, which was won by the Eagle. The report goes on to say:

It is a circumstance well worthy of remark, that about 30 years ago, two boats, named the Eagle and Diamond, belonging to Dent’s Hole and Ouseburn, rowed a match on the river Tyne, when the Eagle proved the victor; and when, as in this case, the Diamond was the favourite. (11)

Thus far I have been unable to find another reference to the c1798 race.

In May 1829, Laurel Leaf, the winner of the rearranged 1821 race, was present at the annual Ascension Day inspection of the jurisdiction of the River Tyne, when the day’s activities included races for 6- and 4-oared gigs.

Eagle of Dent’s Hole won the 6-oared gig race from Robert Bell of Shields. Laurel Leaf of Blaydon (Stella is in Blaydon), and Greyhound of North Shore (Sandgate is in North Shore) “filed oars at the commencement of the race, and declined further contest”. (12) Greyhound was the boat that was greeted as the winner when she rowed up to the Tyne Bridge on Coronation Day, and also took part in the rearranged race, although then she came last! Although the boats that contested the 1821 race were not explicitly identified as gigs in newspaper reports, their appearance at the Ascension Day races confirms them as such.

6-oared Thames wherry – London 1827 – The characteristic overhanging bow enabled passengers to step ashore without getting their feet wet. (Thomas E. Weil Collection)

We know that Eagle defeated Diamond in the race of 1828 mentioned above, and also that Diamond won a gig race on the Tyne in 1827, on that occasion rowing four oars against another Tyne gig, Fancy. Bell’s Life in London and Sporting Chronicle helpfully provided a full report of the race, which included something about the preparation of the boats.

Both the boats had been considerably lengthened, and had undergone other important alterations; and nothing that art could devise, touching their improvement, was left unaccomplished.

Later in the report Diamond is said to be thirty-eight feet in length and Fancy thirty-five and a half feet. There was also some added detail for readers familiar with Thames wherries, but not Tyne gigs.

A match has been for some time pending between the Diamond and Fancy (two of the crack boats technically called gigs, and which are made somewhat after the fashion of London wherries). (13)

The winner of the 1821 race, Laurel Leaf, was described, in a newspaper article of 1859, thus,

Length, a little over thirty feet; breadth 6 feet; and height about 30 inches; a craft considered at the present day nearly large enough for a coal wherry. (14)

The lengthening of Diamond and Fancy for their 1827 race is perhaps an indication of the development of longer, narrower, racing boats on the Tyne.

Lime Staith, North Shields (detail) – 4-oared gig crossing the bow of a Dutch fishing vessel (with leeboard). The almost straight stem is an obvious point of difference from the long overhang of a Thames wherry. Richardson has not drawn the oars, but the way the rowers’ bodies are bent forward for the “catch”, accentuated by their reflection, creating a double image, is a convention often seen in contemporary prints of Oxford College racing boats. Laing Art Gallery, Tyne & Wear Archives and Museums. (TWCMS : H12471)

One can draw a direct line between the race of 1821 and the gigs competing in races on the Tyne in 1827, 1828 and 1829. In the same period there is evidence of 6- and 4-oared gig racing on the River Wear both at Durham, (15) and at Sunderland. (16)

The History of Durham Rowing passages are particularly illuminating. The introductory chapter was originally written by Lieut.-Col. W D Lowe as an article for the Arena magazine in 1912. Lowe refers to two 4-oared wherries that were racing in 1838, St. Cuthbert and St. George, (17) but later MacFarlane-Grieve lists the seven names of the crew of St. George at the 1838 Durham regatta, indicating that in 1838 these boats were racing as coxed sixes (18).

The report of the 1844 Durham regatta says that a Challenge Cup for University 4-oared boats was won by St George, beating St Cuthbert, showing that by 1844 these two boats were racing as fours. As happened on the Tyne these boats could be raced with either 4 or 6 oars and might be described as boats, gigs or wherries depending on the writer and the audience. (19)

A quote, almost certainly from a contemporary newspaper report, says of the regatta of 1850

The procession started, as usual, on each evening from the Museum, preceded, by the band, although as far as the brilliancy of the pageant is concerned, it has of late years being woefully shorn of its attractions. This falling off is principally attributed to the total disuse of the noble old six- and eight-oared gigs, which, in addition to their gaily dressed occupants, were wont to do duty on this occasion and served to swell the flaunting gaiety of the scene. (20)

The 1843 Ascension Day boat races on the Tyne only featured events for 4-oared gigs and for pilot cobles – by then there was no race for 6-oared gigs. (21).

Conclusion
The Tyne boat race of 1 August 1821 has long been recognised as the first official Tyne race and after only a few years was being fondly remembered as a special day in the history of the sport. In reality, organised boat racing seems to have been going on for at least 20 years or more before the 1821 race.  

Between 1820 and 1840, in parallel with developments on the Thames, 6-oared boat racing fell out of favour in the North East, with 4-oared racing replacing it. The boats used were known as gigs, with that term being in common use, at the latest, by 1827. During the period of transition, boats such as Diamond and Eagle on the Tyne, and St Cuthbert and St George on the Wear, raced sometimes with 6 oars and sometimes with 4. Northern gigs were similar to Thames wherries and there is some evidence to suggest that the different names reflected regional language usage rather than major differences in construction.

Footnotes and references

  1. Newcastle Courant Saturday 14th July 1821
  2. Newcastle Courant Saturday 21st July 1821
  3. Newcastle Courant Saturday 28th July 1821
  4. Newcastle Courant Saturday 21st July 1821
  5. Newcastle Courant Saturday 28th July 1821
  6. A race in June 1828 between the 6-oared gigs Diamond (Ouseburn) and Eagle (Dent’s Hole) from Hebburn Quay to Newcastle’s Tyne Bridge was started thus, “They started by signal from a boat anchored between them, from Hebburn Quay” (Bell’s Life 6th July 1828)
  7. Newcastle Courant Saturday 4th August 1821
  8. Newcastle Courant Saturday 14th July 1821
  9. Newcastle Courant Saturday 28th July 1821
  10. Newcastle Courant Saturday 28th July 1821
  11. Bell’s Life Sunday 6th July 1828
  12. Newcastle Courant Saturday 30th May 1829
  13. Bell’s Life Sunday 30th September 1827
  14. Newcastle Daily Chronicle 30th July 1859, A Tyne coal wherry was the clinker-built successor to the keel, typically 50 feet long with a breadth of 20 feet, and at first propelled by sails and oars. Later they were often used as lighters with strings of them towed by paddle tugs. There is a good deal of exaggeration in the Chronicle’s comparison to Laurel Leaf!
  15. Macfarlane-Grieve, A. A, A History of Durham Rowing, Newcastle 1922 P5-27
  16. Durham Advertiser 25th July 1834
  17. Macfarlane-Grieve, A. A, P5
  18. Macfarlane-Grieve, A. A, P20
  19. Macfarlane-Grieve, A. A, P25
  20. Macfarlane-Grieve, A. A, P27
    21. Newcastle Courant 26th May 1843, Newcastle Journal 27th May 1843

2 comments

  1. A very important contribution to rowing history, for which the author deserves much thanks. Well done!
    William O’Chee

Leave a Reply to HTBS Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.