Rowing was a growing sport in the mid-1800s, and professional rowing caught the eye of the working class, especially for placing bets. As Whitehead puts it ‘professional rowing was all about money’. Renforth quickly showed that he was among the best and became a popular sporting hero. In November 1868, just two and a half years after his novice race, he defeated Harry Kelley – the champion and top London sculler – for the Championships of the World; for the Tynesiders there was a special joy that the loser was a ‘Cockney’ from the Thames. The stake was £200 – equivalent to £40,000 today!
At the Paris International Regatta in 1867, a Canadian four won a race in great style, but in 1870 the same crew – known as ‘the
In a re-match with the Canadians on 23 August 1871 on the
Stories of this race have been told many times, but one great value of this book is that Whitehead discusses why Renforth died – was he poisoned or did he die of natural causes? With so much money involved, professional rowing was known for its ‘dirty tricks’. Whitehead also brings up a third possibility: drug abuse. He dismisses this, however, as there is no evidence of drug-use in Renforth’s life. But the rower did suffer from epilepsy and it is likely that his ‘sudden unexplained death’ was a complication of that illness. The champion’s fate came as a tremendous shock to the Tynesiders. Some lines in a contemporary music hall song go: ‘We’ve lost poor Jimmy Renforth,/ The Champein of all Champeins,/ The hero of all rivers, far an’ near.’
Ian Whitehead is to be congratulated for his excellent, well-written, and nicely illustrated biography of the most prominent oarsman of the era. It is to be hoped that it reflects a renaissance in a wider interest in professional rowing and sculling.
James Renforth of Gateshead, Champion Sculler of the World by Ian Whitehead; published by Tyne Bridge Publishing, 2004.
This review was published in Maritime Life and Traditions, No. 26, Spring 2005.