John Hawks Clasper, His Father’s Son. Part II: The Innovative Boat Builder

John Hawks Clasper pictured in racing kit alongside a modern image of his final boathouse in Putney.

20 April 2022 (Updated version: 25 April 2022)

By Tim Koch

In Part I, Tim Koch covered John Hawks Clasper’s career as a professional oarsman. In Part II, he looks at how John became one of the most innovative and successful racing boat builders of the last quarter of the nineteenth century.

Newcastle, c.1860 – 1863

The 1861 Census sees the 24-year-old boatbuilder John Hawks Clasper as head of a house in Waterside, Elswick Parish, Newcastle-on-Tyne. Living with him are three of his sisters, Jane, Elizabeth and Ann, brother Robert, nephew John and Ann’s husband, George Strong. John married his first wife, Ann Bilton, in July 1861 in Newcastle and they had two daughters, Elizabeth and Susanah. Teresa Stokes proved me with much of the genealogy and census information used here and she notes that “…other family trees give John a son called Henry, carelessly added because Henry appears on (the 1871 Census) with John’s family, but in fact Henry was a younger brother, not his son.” 

Durham 1863 – 1867

I cannot establish if John was boatbuilding in business for himself or for his father when he returned to Newcastle from London around 1860, but his entry in the 1912 Dictionary of National Biography says that “Clasper had already established himself as an expert trainer of crews and ‘pilot’ of scullers when he began… to take seriously to boat building at his father’s works on the Tyne.” However, it is certain that he established his own boatyard in Durham, 20 miles from Newcastle, in 1863.

Reporting on the Durham Regatta in June 1863, The Newcastle Journal wrote:

Newby’s crew of Durham have had a new four-oared boat built for them by John Hawks Clasper who is now located there… and commenced business for himself.

Image from Rowing: A way of life by David Clasper.

In his book, Rowing: A way of life. The Claspers of Tyneside (2003), David Clasper wrote:

John bought for himself a two-storied house on the banks of the River Wear named “Paradise House.” The first floor and part of the ground floor were used as living accommodation; the remaining part of the ground floor was used as workshops. 

Paradise House in the 1860s. Picture from Rowing: A way of life.
Paradise House in the early 1960s, by then long known as “Brown’s Boathouse.”
Brown’s Boathouse in the 1970s. Also shown is the mostly 13th-century Elvet Bridge, Durham Cathedral dating from 1093 (left) and Durham Castle dating from 1072 (right).
Brown’s today. Although most of the building is now, inevitably, a restaurant, locally made wooden skiffs are still available to hire from Brown’s Boats. Sadly, the man who made most of them, Erik Whiteley, died in 2018 aged 85. Picture: Jason Wong (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0).
Some of Brown’s hire boats moored by the Elvet Bridge. Wikipedia says, “The bridge is reputed to be the narrowest row-through bridge in Europe.” Wiki says “citation needed” but I have steered a four through it (while hungover) and I am sure that must be true.

The Newcastle Guardian and Tyne Mercury of 12 January 1867 reported on a dinner and presentation given by “the friends of Mr JH Clasper” noting that, “Mr Clasper and his relations are about to remove to London, where it is their intention to take up permanent residence”. He was given a purse of gold and a gold watch (value 25 guineas) inscribed, “Presented to J. Clasper… for his skill as an oarsman, and also for his uniform upright character…” 

Wandsworth, London, 1867 – c.1883 

In its report on the 1870 Boat Race, the Oxford Journal wrote, “The winners rowed in a beautiful new boat built in Wandsworth by JH Clasper… and she was universally admitted to be a credit to her designer.” The 1871 Boat Race report in the Daily News called JH Clasper of Wandsworth “a young and rising builder, who has recently been very successful in turning out some first-class racing craft.”

The Claspers had long had connections with the Salter family of Wandsworth. Wandsworth adjoins Putney on the Surrey bank of the River Thames, and the Salters ran a boatbuilders adjoining The Feathers pub on the River Wandle and this is where John was working from. Those who row between Putney and Wandsworth Bridges today will be familiar with the waste depot stacked with large yellow containers that now occupies the site.

“The Feathers” pictured in the 1870s.

The 1871 Census recorded John (34) as head of the house at Waterside, Jew’s Row, Wandsworth, London, living with his second wife, Elizabeth (20), and children from his first marriage, Elizabeth and Susanah, plus his younger brother, Henry. John’s first wife, Ann, had died in the first quarter of 1870 and he married his second wife, Wandsworth-born Elizabeth Rough, in the first quarter of 1871. A hasty remarriage perhaps, but it was at least a practical arrangement as John had two girls aged 5 and 7 to look after.

John’s Wandsworth business expanded greatly during the 1870s when he built the winning Cambridge eight for four consecutive years, 1870 to 1873 – even though his father had never built eight-oared boats. 

In the 1873 Boat Race, John built both boats, and this was also the first year that sliding seats were used.

Boat Building Partnership, Lambeth, early to mid-1860s – 1868 

A sign in Upper Fore Street, Lambeth, South London, photographed sometime between 1860 and 1865. Soon after this picture was taken, the area was swept away and replaced by the Albert Embankment.

As evidenced by the picture above, the Claspers seems to have had their names attached to a boatbuilding business in Lambeth, South London, in the early to mid-1860s. However, newspaper reports of his activities seem to indicate that they were living and working in the north of England around this time. I reasonably speculate that H and JH Clasper did not actually work in Lambeth and that the business there was run by a partner, Robert Bain. Throughout his life, the hard-working and enterprising John seems to often have had more than one business operating at any one time. Attaching any Clasper name – but particularly Harry’s – to a boat building business must have been good for trade.

By January 1868, there is a record of a partnership between Robert Bain and John Hawks Clasper, “Clasper and Co, Boat Builders of Lambeth and Westminster,” being dissolved.

Wandsworth and Oxford, 1871 – 1880s 

Continuous orders from both universities followed and by 1871, John had set up a boatbuilders in Oxford under his new brother-in-law, Frederick Rough.

The Oxford Journal of 14 Jan 1871 noted that:

Mr John Hawks Clasper, a son of “Auld Harry Clasper,” of Newcastle-on-Tyne… had lately taken boat-building premises on the banks of the Isis (the Thames at Oxford). Young Clasper, formerly known as the “Little Wonder,” has himself stood in the foremost ranks of scullers, and as a boat-builder he has earned a world-wide reputation.

An advertisement for Clasper’s Oxford boatyard from A New Map of the River Thames by Henry Taunt (1873). The offer to fit sliding seats as early as 1872 shows how up-to-date John was.

The Oxford Journal report on the Boat Race of 28 March 1872 noted, “The winners rowed in a boat built by JH Clasper of Oxford and Wandsworth…” On 15 June 1872, the same newspaper, writing on the London RC victory over the American Atalanta Club, said that, “The winners rowed in a new boat with sliding seats built by JH Clasper of Oxford…”

The Sportsman newspaper of 3 August 1878 carried the news that JH Clasper had taken ownership of the Feathers Tavern and Boathouse in Wandsworth “in conjunction with his Oxford establishment”.

John had been working out of The Feathers since c.1867 but, in those first ten plus years, it had actually belonged to Harry Salter, an established coach and trainer. Salter’s parents, James and Elizabeth, had taken over the pub in 1836 and, by the middle of the century, had made it into a centre of rowing.

Harry Clasper and his brothers treated The Feathers as their London headquarters when competing on the Thames in the 1840s and 1850s and, in 1849 – 1850, Harry Salter’s younger brothers, John and Stephen, worked in Harry Clasper’s Newcastle boatyard to gain valuable boatbuilding experience. After returning to Wandsworth, the racing boats that Salter’s produced achieved considerable success and, in 1857, they built the eight used by Cambridge in that year’s Boat Race. In 1858, John and Stephen bought Issac King’s Oxford boatyard and established J & S Salter Boat Builders, a firm that has dominated boating in Oxford ever since. 

In the 1881 Census, John, his wife Elizabeth, two daughters, a sister and brother, his father-in-law, George Rough, his apprentice and two lodgers are all living in Wandsworth in “The Feathers” pub – and presumably running it alongside the boatbuilding business. According to a website on pub history, The Feathers closed in 1888 but the building remained until 1959, standing inside the waste depot that now occupies the site.

A newspaper report from January 1879 showing the cutting edge work that John was doing.

Some sources say that Frederick Rough set up on his own in Oxford in the 1880s. Any split with Clasper may have been amicable as, in 1886 or 1887, Rough had his oldest son Christened “Jack Clasper”. Both Clasper and Rough would produce many more boats for Oxford and Cambridge in the years before the 1914 -1918 War.

A study by Dr Simon Wenham titled The history of racing boat building is available online. It includes a table based on the winners of the Oxford-Cambridge Boat Race showing the leading racing boat builders between 1829 and 1976, a period that Dr Wenham calls “the wooden era”. He notes, “Other firms occasionally won races, but the table shows the dominant constructors…” 

Wenham’s study shows the John Hawks Clasper was the dominant builder of University Boat Race craft for 28 years, 1870 – 1898. As he could also take some credit for Rough’s success, it could be said that his influence continued until 1914.

Putney, 1883 onwards

The Daily News of 2 March 1883 had the news that, “Clasper of Oxford… has recently taken a new boathouse at Putney, next to the headquarters of the Leander Club.” This was not the nearby building still with Clasper’s name picked out in brick and occupied by Westminster School BC since 1921. It would have formerly been the premises of William East’s boatbuilding business and, after Clasper, another boatbuilder, Boyers and Phelps, operated from there. The site is now occupied by a 1960s construction first used by Barclays Bank RC and nowadays housing King’s School, Wimbledon, BC.

Clasper moved into his first Putney boathouse (marked “x”) in 1883. This picture was taken in 1882, five years before the present road was laid in 1887.
A picture taken in 1906, still with Clasper’s first Putney boathouse marked but several years after he had moved a few buildings along the Putney Embankment to the boathouse that still bears his name.
Clasper’s second and final Putney boathouse still stands today, occupied since 1921 by Westminster School Boat Club. It is home to the Oxford men’s crew during trails, fixtures, Tideway Week and on Boat Race Day.
A letterhead from 1895 reads “Putney – and at Cambridge” but I can find no other reference to Clasper at Cambridge. Perhaps he had a share in a business there. Image courtesy of Bill Miller.

A Lifetime of Boat Building Innovations

Clasper’s entry from the 1912 Dictionary of Nation Biography (DNB) says of his boat building innovations:

(JH Clasper) was not the inventor of the sliding seat, which was an American innovation first used by a four-oar on the Tyne in 1871, nor of the keel-less boat, which was due to Matt Taylor, the professional of the Royal Chester Rowing Club, in 1856. But both inventions owed improvements to Clasper. Like one or two other oarsmen he early discovered the advantage to be derived from allowing the body to slide on a fixed seat. Clasper subsequently devoted much time to perfecting the mechanical slide, and experimented with brass slides, glass, and rollers. 

John (marked “X”) directs operations in his Putney boathouse in 1897.

In regard to the keel-less boats, Clasper worked out and perfected two radical changes of value: one was a lessening of the depth or draught of the boat, thereby reducing the water friction, and the other was the formation, after the analogy of a fish, of what may be called the ‘shoulder.’ In other words he placed the maximum width not in the centre of the length, but somewhat in advance. 

An aside: The DNB’s assertion that the keel-less boat “was due to Matt Taylor, the professional of the Royal Chester Rowing Club, in 1856” would have had John spinning in his grave as he claimed that his father Harry built and raced both a keelless scull and a four in 1844. Taylor may – or may not – have later produced the first keelless eight in 1854 (not 1856). However, George Pocock claimed that it was in fact his great-uncle Bill that built the first boat with an inboard keel, done while he was coaching at Westminster School, and that Harry saw and copied his idea. The arguments will continue.

The DNB also notes that Claspe r“invented the countervail to obviate the steering difficulty caused by side wind.” We know the countervail as the fin.

A model scull sporting a fin now in the National Rowing Foundation’s JH Clasper Collection. It is surprising that such a seemingly simple and obvious device had not been patented before 1881.

The Newcastle Daily Chronicle of 27 March 1909 wrote on the problems of balancing a cambered bottomed boat. It credits Clasper with developing the fin as we know it by 1881. He referred to the device as “a sliding keel for side winds” or “the patent countervail for side winds” though the Rowing Almanack described it as “a patent fin, which dropped through the bottom of the boat like a centre board.”

John Hawks Clasper in old age.

John died at his home at 154 Lower Richmond Road, Putney, on 15 September 1908, aged 72. When the property was put up for auction four years later, it was described as a “Good old-fashioned house, tea rooms and out-buildings, long garden.” At a time when skilled men’s earnings were about £100 a year, his estate was valued at £1,253. Although he was relatively well-off, his financial position at the time of his death in no way reflected the immense value of John Hawks Clasper’s contribution to the sport of rowing.

A single scull built for Rupert Guinness by JH Clasper in Putney in 1894. Guinness used it to win the Diamonds in 1895 and 1896. It is compared with a Ray Sims boat of 1994. Guinness’ boat was five feet longer than the modern plastic shell – but only four-and-a-half pounds heavier. It is a remarkable tribute to a remarkable boatbuilder.

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