Harry Clasper

The Rower
Sat. 9th Nov., 2002

By 1800, competitive rowing had become a very popular form of spectator sport with large wagers changing hands. Today's Tyneside sporting heroes tend to be footballers, but rowing was the great cult sport here in the Victorian era. In Newcastle, between 50,000 and 100,000 spectators would regularly gather on the banks of the Tyne; far more than for any major football game today.

It was against this background that three hugely popular rowing heroes, James Renforth, Robert Chambers and Harry Clasper emerged.

Byker rail, Meto and road bridges entwined
Brige over Ouse Burn
Bottle Lamp

Harry Clasper's great great grandson contacted me recently and following this I began to think of the rower's illustrious life.

He finished his life running a pub called "The Tunnel" on Tyne Street. This alehouse has long gone, but the tunnel after which it was named still exists.

Beneath the soaring rail Metro light transit and road bridges the now diminutive Ouseburn flows to the Tyne. Part of its course follows a 18th century tunnel constructed to allow part of the valley to be filled in and used for housing between Sandyford and Heaton.

Here, below the bridges at the valley floor the remnants of old roads have been converted to a pleasant rural walk. However, until 1970 a group of rather squalid houses stood here.

You can see a couple of views of this location at the bottom of my
Byker page.

Some wag has welded a metal model of a Brown Ale bottle to the lamp standard here. Was he suggesting an old pub here? I think not, for I do not think that there ever was a pub here, the nearest being the still extant "Ship".

If we were on a search for Harry Clasper's old pub, then it clearly was not here.

The little Ouseburn threads from the north through
Gosforth (Goose Ford from Roman times) and Jesmond (Ouse Mouth from mediŠval times), not forgetting the beautiful Dene, through that tunnel and past here towards St. Ann's and the River Tyne near St. Lawrence Road and the site of "The Free Trade" pub.

From here the white beams at the top of the road bridge show the widening that was carried out during the late 1980s. The viaduct was built in 1878 when vehicle width was a function of horse shafts. Today's cars, buses and lorries are wider and for a number of years buses and trolleys were limited to 20 mph (32Kph) over this bridge.

The little stone bridge over the burn has existed since the early 19th century. No vehicles are allowed here now, and part of the Byker City Farm uses this land for grazing, so ponies use these now tranquil cobbled streets.

Below is the road to the rear of "The Ship" and on to Stepney Bank. This route would have been most familiar to the those pre 1970 householders.

Little Bridge and Byker Bridge arches
Rear of the Ship Inn

As well as the pub, there were warehouses, small boatyards, and a whisky distillery active here until the late 1950s.

Until the Second World War there was a thriving Glass industry nearby, although not as large and illustrious as that in Sunderland.

Back to our quest for the site of "The Tunnel" , and a quick aside to the modern fascination for football. Enough has been said elsewhere regarding the gang mentality and the need for men and some women to belong to a tribe or grouping of families. That the football game is now a substitute for tribal battles, and is sometimes an excuse for eruptions of the real thing is well known.

What is perhaps not so well known is that until 1892 there were two Newcastle teams.

The two teams were Newcastle East End and Newcastle West End, reflecting a tribal rivalry that exists still. Things did not go well for the West End team, however, and success on the pitch was not reflected in the finances and the club was virtually bankrupt when it was taken over by East End.

The new club, Newcastle United, was formed and it rented a field, part of St, James' Park, from the City Council, a situation that exists still. The East End had previously played in fields near here.

Pictured here is the southern end of the tunnel carrying the Ouseburn. Those coloured hoardings are part of the Byker City Farm paddock. The original tunnel entrance is there, the entrance seen here was added later to allow road access.

Ouseburn Tunnel Entrance
Shipley Gallery
Wooden figure and boat race flyer

The sport of rowing on the Tyne is being celebrated by the Shipley Art Gallery, Gateshead until January 19th, 2003.

Harry Clasper is remembered here in a wall biography and some small artifacts and photographs. A skiff used during the rowing heyday is currently being restored by museum conservators and is on display in an adjacent gallery.

Displayed here is a small wooden figure of Clasper by Ralph Hedley in 1873 as a study for a larger statue, part of his series of famous people. Ralph Hedley was based in Spital Tongues Newcastle and worked in partnership with James Wishart from 1869. His work is visible in the Victorian restoration of
St. Nicholas' Cathedral.

Tyne Street, Horatio St., and City Road

Harry Clasper, born in Dunston in 1812, began his working life in a coal mine at Jarrow, but later changed career for the fresh air of the river to become a ship's carpenter. Several years later he became a wherryman, rowing people in a small craft from shore to the larger boats moored in the deep channel.

In 1836 he married his cousin, Susannah Hawks, and a year later took up competitive rowing. For a sportsman, 24yrs seems rather old to take up professional rowing, and more amazingly his career lasted into his 50s.

Above is a view of the junction of City Road (right) Horatio Street (left) and Tyne Street in the centre. This street is now just a parking place for the adjacent new and expensive flats. The building on the left is a sailor's bethel designed by Thomas Oliver and opened in April 1877. It has now been converted to offices.

Harry Clasper's pub was in this street but his death predated the little church by seven years. However, there was an older building on this site that Harry would have known.

The view looking east is similar to the vista in Harry's day, and includes the improbable pagoda tower tops of the distant school at the foot of Albion Row. The opposite river view from the same spot would be quite a surprise to Harry. The Baltic has arrived and changed use, the Tyne Bridge and Millennium Bridge have come, and the new Gateshead Music Centre, designed by Richard Rogers, is now taking shape.

As well as the pub Harry ran, another Newcastle pub was named "The Clasper Arms" after the famous champion.

Tyne Street and Sailor's Bethel
Tyne Street looking East
Baltic, new Music Centre, and bridges from Tyne Street
Clasper's grave and monument, Whickham

Harry Clasper teamed with his brothers, Edward, Richard, Robert and William, to form a four-oar crew that quickly became a winning line-up. Once they had beaten everybody on the Tyne, the Claspers travelled to London to race on the Thames. Harry rowed a four oar skiff to victory at the Thames Regatta an amazing seven times. During his rowing years Harry was obsessed with streamlining his oars and boats to gain a competitive edge. He developed the Newcastle Oar with curved blades, and handles that overlapped on the draw gaining a precious inch or two at the catch.

In 1845 Harry constructed "The Lord Ravensworth", a boat to challenge the best of British oarsman in the coxed fours at the Thames Regatta.

With his three brothers and his Uncle, Ned Hawks, the team were victorious by one and a half lengths to claim the world championship. They returned to a massive civic reception in Newcastle. Harry's last Thames victory was in 1859 when he was aged 47!

He never achieved "World Sculling Champion", but during his career he earned over ú2,500 in 130 races. This would make him a millionaire in today's terms.

Harry's death in 1870 was lamented by all Tyneside and his funeral procession was attended by an incredible 130,000 people who crammed the bridges and the banks of the river to watch his coffin being carried by steam tug over the Championship Course for the last time to Derwenthaugh near Blaydon whence it was taken ashore for burial at Whickham.

Harry Clasper sculpture

Click here to see high quality album copies of these and other photographs from the same shoot

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