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Page last updated at 15:12 GMT, Tuesday, 27 April 2010 16:12 UK
University boat race honours Tyne rowing heroes
Conditions on the Tyne were not always ideal for rowing - as this painting shows.

On Sunday 9 May 2010, Newcastle and Durham University Boat Clubs will meet on the River Tyne to compete in the 14th annual University Boat Race.

Newcastle are the reigning champions after winning the overall title for the first time last year.

These days, a rowing competition is a rare event on the river - but it wasn't always that way.

In the mid-19th Century, the Tyne was on a par with the Thames for its association with the sport.

And four of the best-known rowers from that time are honoured in trophies handed out at the University Boat Race.

Celebrity status

The names of Harry Clasper, James Renforth, Bob Chambers and Matthew Taylor may not be widely known now but they were in their day.

Ian Whitehead, keeper of maritime history at Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums, said rowers like Clasper and Renforth had celebrity status.

Image of rower Harry Clasper. Courtesy of Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums
Born in Dunston in 1812
Worked at Jarrow Pit and later as a ship's carpenter and keelman
Began rowing competitively in 1837
Designed and built boats that were forerunners to the modern racing boat shell
Won races on the Tyne and the Thames
Took part in 130 races and won more than £2,500 during his career

"If you read the newspaper reports of the time it's like reading about someone talking about a young actress or something," Ian said. "They'd even comment on their weight.

"Rowing was huge. The reports on a big race would run to 12,000 or 16,000 words.

"There were also songs. You hear about the rowers' clothing, what jobs they did before. There were fiddle tunes, horn pipes, all kinds of things.

"The rowers were well known but sadly lots of them, once they finished their careers, went back to being poor."

Gambling attraction

The first rowing races on the River Tyne took place in the 1820s.

However, Ian explained the sport's real heyday was from 1844-1871.

That was the era of Clasper, Chambers, Renforth and Taylor (the last of whom was actually more well-known as a boat builder).

Large crowds would turn out to watch the big professional races - especially those between single sculls, which went from the High Level Bridge to the Scotswood Bridge.

"People would be on the bank all the way up [the river], and on the Scotswood Bridge, and they would follow [the rowers] with spectator boats too."

Image of rower James Renforth. Courtesy of Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums
James Renforth from Gateshead was the first world sculling champion

Gambling was also a major part of the attraction and the best rowers often had backers - or "friends" - who supported them financially so they could race and train.

"Huge sums of money were gambled on the results of the races," Ian said.

"They might be racing for £400 [stake] a side and then on the side there may have been thousands of pounds gambled on it - which at today's rate would be hundreds of thousands of pounds."

And rowing wasn't only the preserve of the professionals. There are records of races between all kinds of people - from lawyers and actors to tanners and trimmers.

"It was a big thing," Ian explained. "Instead of challenging someone to a game of football, like you might do today, you'd challenge them to a [rowing] race."

Active clubs

The death of James Renforth in 1871 marked the start of the long decline of rowing on the River Tyne.

Rowing boats on River Tyne
The first Newcastle-Durham University Boat Race was in 1997

Nowadays races are few and far between and attract much less attention, however there are still some enthusiasts.

There are two active rowing clubs on the river at Newburn - Tyne United and Tyne Rowing Club - and several professional coaches working in north-east England.

Ian thinks society has changed so much that the longer races of past days would probably never be popular again.

But he hopes maybe, one day, shorter events like those in the Olympics could be run on the River Tyne again.

The University Boat Race takes place on Sunday 9 May 2010. Entertainment begins at noon and the first race is at 1pm. For more information click here.

Top three images courtesy of Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums.

Ian Whitehead is author of The Sporting Tyne: A Professional History of Rowing and James Renforth of Gateshead, Champion Sculler of the World.

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