John Hawks Clasper, His Father’s Son. Part I: The Professional Oarsman

John “Jack” Hawks Clasper (1836 – 1908) is not as well-known or well-documented as his father, Harry (1812 – 1870), but both were highly successful professional oarsmen and important and innovative boatbuilders. Here, John is pictured aged 26 and set alongside his most obvious lasting monument, the gable end of the Putney boathouse he built in the 1880s, now home to Westminster School BC.

19 April 2022

By Tim Koch

Tim Koch on a man whose considerable achievements have been overshadowed by those of his more famous father.

Early Years: Newcastle, 1836 – 1853

John Hawks Clasper was born in Gateshead on 13 October 1836. The 1851 Census has John, his father, Henry/Harry (38), mother, Susannah (32), and five younger sisters and one younger brother living in High Road, Benwell Parish, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, an area near the River Tyne called (ironically or not) “Paradise”. Like his father, the 14-year-old John is described as a boat builder. Although he could not have had many years of formal education, in later life at least, John was literate, numerate and articulate with a good business sense.

John’s rowing life had begun as a 10-year-old coxswain in 1846. At the age of 13, he steered his father and uncles to win the 1849 Champion Four-Oared Race at the Royal Thames Regatta. In 1850, he coxed the family four in their victory at Talkin Tarn, Cumbria. He steered them again at the 1851 Henley Royal Regatta, the year that the event’s amateur status was briefly suspended and a £100 prize offered so that foreigners visiting for the Great Exhibition could see England’s best amateur and professional oarsmen. 

The Clasper’s 1851 Henley entry produced much North-South rivalry as their main opponents were stroked by Robert Coombes, “The Champion of the Thames.” The Times wrote of, “… the renowned Clasper Brothers of Newcastle-upon-Tyne, whose extraordinary boat and beautiful rowing seven years ago at the Thames Regatta rendered them objects of considerable interest. Large sums of money have been speculated on this event.” Unfortunately, the Clasper boat suffered a broken thowl pin on the second stroke and Coombes’ crew won easily. However, in the rematch, Claspers’ four beat Coombes’ crew for a purse of £40.

Rowing Career, 1852 – 1876

There were two premier “Championship Courses” for rowing events in Britain in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries: The 4 ¼-mile Putney to Mortlake course on the Thames and the 3 ½-mile High Level Bridge to the Scotswood Suspension Bridge course on the River Tyne. John knew them both well. The Newcastle bridges are shown here in an illustration of the Hanlan – Elliott race of 1879, a contest watched by 10,000 people.

John’s career as an oarsman started in 1852, racing in both pairs and sculls. In August, aged 16, he came second for the Youth’s Prize at the Newcastle and Gateshead Regatta. In the 1853 Tyne Regatta, his four won their heat but got beaten by his father’s crew in the final.

According to Doggett’s historian, Robert Cottrell, John moved to London in 1854 and on 12 October was bound as an apprentice Thames Waterman to his master, Thomas Peters. When Peters died in October 1859, Clasper was re-assigned to William Henry Jones but, despite serving five years of a seven-year apprenticeship, John did not finish his time, never “gained his freedom” and thus was not licensed to carry passengers on the Thames.

Usually, the life of an apprentice in any trade was strictly regulated and they had little time to themselves. They had to agree that:

…the said Apprentice his said Master faithfully shall serve……, his Secrets keep, his lawful Commandments every where gladly do; He shall do no damage to his said master nor see it done by others… He shall not waste the goods of his Master, nor lend them unlawfully to any; He shall not commit Fornication nor contract Matrimony within the said Term; He shall not play at Cards, Dice, Tables, nor any unlawful games… He shall not haunt Taverns nor Play-Houses, nor absent himself from his Master’s Service Day nor Night…

A photograph of John Hawks Clasper in racing kit from The Sporting Tyne by Ian Whitehead (2002).

Despite these apparent restrictions, during his apprenticeship (and beyond) John was often “absent from his master’s service” and spent much time racing, sometimes in London (notably winning the Four-Oared Championship of England at the Thames National Regatta in 1857, 1859 and 1862) but frequently away in the North of England. I have to conclude that becoming a waterman was never a serious aim for John.

It is also difficult not to wonder about John’s reasons for taking up a London waterman’s apprenticeship in the first place. Earning a living as a waterman was precarious whereas working as a boat builder with the name “Clasper” would have surely been a safer and more financially rewarding option? However, becoming a successful professional oarsman was the most lucrative option of all – the price of a house could be won in a single race.

John’s entry in the 1912 Dictionary of National Biography summarises his competitive rowing and sculling career, a very successful one despite his weight of only 8 stone 3 pounds (52 kg) and his height of only 5 feet 5 inches (165 cm):

In 1854, he was apprenticed to a London waterman and won a sculling race at Richmond. In 1855, he gained a four-oar victory at Wandsworth. In 1856, he twice defeated John Carrol in matches on the Clyde. 1857 was a year full of successes at the regattas of Durham, Thames, Lancaster and the Northern Rowing Club. In 1858, Clasper and his father (and uncles won) the championship of the Tyne. Next day… the success was repeated over the same crew at Durham, where father and son also won the prize for pair-oars. 

One of John’s first cups, won at Richmond, south-west London, in 1854. It is currently held by the National Rowing Foundation’s John H. Clasper Collection in the USA.

In the winter (of 1858, John) beat George Francis on the Putney to Mortlake course… In the Durham regatta of 1859, he not only won the open boat sculling race but was in the crew which after winning the Patrons’ Plate also secured the champion prize at Thames Regatta and the Pomona Cup at Manchester. 1860 was another year of successes; as a sculler Clasper won at Durham and at Talkin Tarn; with his father he won the pair-oared races at the Manchester Regatta and at the Newcastle and Gateshead Regatta. 

A medal given by the Northern Rowing Club to John for defeating 19 other competitors in a sculling race on 6 April 1858. Picture: National Rowing Foundation’s John H. Clasper Collection.

Clasper beat Tom Pocock in sculling twice in 1861 on the Thames. His performance at Manchester Regatta in the same year was remarkable as a feat of endurance. He won the Pomona Prize, and though beaten in the sculling handicap was only defeated by M. Scott, to whom he gave eleven lengths’ start; in the preliminary heat he had beaten a rival whose handicap was six lengths. On 26 May, he beat George Drewitton the Tyne.

A letter to The Field of 23 April 1910 from CR Carr, President of Oxford University Boat Club in 1864, noting Clasper’s seatless use of the slide in 1859 or 1860, before the introduction of sliding seats. This technique was not unique to him, but John clearly used it very effectively.

Clasper’s triumphs of 1861 mark the climax of his athletic life, but in six subsequent seasons he was still a winner. His four (in which his father rowed at the age of fifty) won the Durham race in 1862 and the Thames Regatta Champion Prize. As late as 1876 (his fortieth year) he stroked, and won a prize in, a scratch eight at the Oxford regatta.

Another summary of JH Clasper’s remarkable competitive rowing career compiled for a magazine sometime after 1893 using the Lock to Lock Times and the Illustrated London News as its sources. Image courtesy of Bill Miller.

In his book, The Sporting Tyne (2002), Ian Whitehead suggests that John could have done even better had he not had health problems, possibly as a result of being overtrained by his father:

Harry (Clasper) was without doubt a successful coach… However, as is not uncommon with high achievers in sport who go onto coach their own offspring, he seems to have blind to his own good advice, “to tailor the training to the man”, when it came to his eldest son, John Hawks (Jack).

A reporter on the Newcastle Daily Chronicle, in looking forward to the rowing season of 1866, was open in his criticism: “… And had he not been so severely trained when in his teens, (John) at the present day would have been all but at the top of the tree…”

I would have thought that John’s lack of height and weight were the main factors in him not quite reaching “the top of the tree”. However, what we now call “overtraining” probably had more serious long term consequences in the days when people were susceptible to a whole plethora of ailments that modern medicine has all but eradicated. 

Throughout much of his life, John also “steered” scullers in races, was a formidable coach to both amateurs and professionals, and was a popular judge and umpire. He steered (or “piloted”) the winner of the Wingfield Sculls in 1880, 1884, 1885, 1886 and 1893.

On 7 June 1862, The Illustrated Sporting News published this illustration and gave this account of the then 26-year-old’s impressive rowing career.

Part II, which will be published on 25 April, will look at John Hawks Clasper, the boat builder. (A previous version of Part II was published on 20 April, but it has now been removed by an updated version on 25 April.)

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