During the days when such a thing as a "professional" rower existed (and was invariably gambled on), the Newcastle Christmas Handicap race was a premier event, and one for the times – as portrayed in British Rowing Journalist Chris Dodd's new book, it was a seeming maelstrom of tricks and double-crosses that seemed almost as important as the outcome of the actual rowing races.
Dodd's "Bonnie Brave Boat Rowers: The heroes, seers and songsters of the Tyne" opens with a vivid portrayal of the preparations and skullduggery (sorry, couldn't resist) surrounding the Christmas regatta. The book, centered on the Tyne river in Newcastle, England, spans the last half of the 19th and the early part of the 20th century, and delves into (as the books' subtitle lets on) the stories and histories of the rowers of that time.
Dodd's familiar light touch with a good anecdote and the fine details of rowing history offers readers a good sense of the social and cultural import of rowing in the English northeast. Along the way, we meet the rowers and scullers of the Tyne; the boatbuilders, many of whom were creating the innovations used in the sport to this day; and some of the early international heroes of rowing, probably none more poignant than the mighty James Renforth, a towering figure in local rowing who died mid-race while representing Newcastle and the Tyne Rowing Club in a regatta in Canada.
row2k caught up with Chris Dodd in early November for a quick conversation about his book.
row2k: What first led you to become interested in the rowing history of Newcastle? Where does Newcastle and the Tyne fit within the grand scheme of British rowing history?
Chris Dodd: In around 1980 a proposal came from British Rowing (then the Amateur Rowing Association) to write a book for its centenary (1982). I spent a 4-day weekend in Newcastle for a pilot chapter where I interviewed amateurs and professionals about the Christmas handicap and professional activity on the Tyne in 19th and 20th centuries. All I knew at the time was that the area produced several world champion professional oarsmen and several innovative boatbuilders.
Tyneside and Teesside (Newcastle, Durham, Stockton, Gateshead and other small towns) probably produced the best pros in Britain in the late 19th century and the most innovative boat design – they can claim the outrigger, the keel-less ‘shell' and they almost got the sliding seat ahead of [the USA's] Babcock. So they were important in British rowing history and beyond, especially with the Canadian connection through St John and Renforth.
Apart from that, although I have scarcely spent two weeks in the North East in my life, it is a wonderful area with fabulous scenery and lovely people, and should be on anyone's Visit Britain list. It's outstanding, and it's good to find that there are people and places to eyeball London and the Thames when it comes to rowing history.
One incidental find in 1980 was the minute book of Tyne Amateur RC's dance committee of 1937 that met every week for a year and never discussed the dance, but described each pub they met in. Brilliantly funny – there are a couple of extracts in a little book of mine called Boating (1983). The dance made a profit.
row2k: Your book, once again, covers many aspects of rowing; the personalities, technology, history. Are there any areas that you find more interesting than others? Was there anything you were surprised to learn?
Dodd: It's not so much preferring history to technology to personality as telling stories through people. One refreshing thing about "Bonnie Brave Boat Rowers" was that the height of the vaudeville goings on in Newcastle coincided with the zenith of rowing there. Also, as the intro explains, it was great to find that a lot of information had come to light in books since my expedition in 1980. I've tried to pull this together in ""Bonnie Brave Boat Rowers" as a sort of wake-up call for a piece of history in danger of sinking.
row2k: You draw skillful portraits of many of the personalities involved in Newcastle rowing in that era--the portion on Renforth is especially arresting, do you have any favorites?
Dodd: Well, I'd have to single out Hopper because he was very interesting in spilling the beans on the tricks that professionals could get up to (and the cause of reviving the book when Roger Bean wrote to me about his boat – I had long put the manuscript in a drawer and forgotten about it); Renforth because of his prowess and tragic end; perhaps above all Harry Clasper because of his enterprise and longevity in the game – rowing and boat building.
row2k: In plotting the evolution of rowing from the gambling/gamboling professional rowing days of the 19th Century through today, what parallels can be drawn, and what have we "forgotten" about the act and the art of rowing, as it were, since then?
Dodd: There are two surprising things to me. One is that although very little has changed in design of boats since the sliding seat (and composite materials changing precision and construction methods), there remains to now plenty of experiment and small changes in design (largely brought about by aforementioned material science). The second is that there is so much rowing today, given the leisure sports and activities that followed rowing. In Tyne rowing's heyday, there was no football or courts games, only some pedestrianism and pugilism. Of course the professional rowing died because the money went elsewhere, but the sport has survived, and thrives on the Tyne and the Wear and the Tees.
row2k: How have the historical strands you write about survived in the Newcastle rowing of the present day?
Dodd: There's still a healthy rowing scene, the strength being in the universities of Newcastle and Durham. I don't know how aware they might be of their past.
Incidentally, a good pivot for some of this is the Paris International Regatta in 1867 when the St. John/Newfoundland men came with their coxless boat, the watermen from London and Newcastle I think were present as well as leading amateurs, and Thomas Eakins may have been there as well!
"Bonnie Brave Boat Rowers" can be purchased via the River and Rowing Museum's online store here: http://rrm.co.uk/product/bonnie-brave-boat-rowers