It is difficult to imagine these days (when the overhyped sport of association football so dominates the headlines) that there was ever a time when other athletic pursuits held sway in the public mind. But the fact is that in the decades immediately prior to the birth of organised football, rowing was probably the chief spectator sport. The River Tyne held its first official regatta in 1834 and for a good fifty years thereafter rowing was pre-eminent in the minds of North-East sports-goers.
Arguably the greatest of the many local oarsmen who made it big on the national stage was Harry Clasper. Born in Dunston in 1812, he enjoyed an astonishing career as a rower and boat-builder/designer – in 1845 he and his brothers (and uncle) were declared the four-oared world champions at the Thames Regatta. For the next fifteen years he enjoyed sustained success in various tournaments and challenge races throughout the land – most of the occasions held in front of huge baying crowds.
He coached other up-and-coming rowers, designed and built vessels and ran several pubs thereafter – finally settling at the Tunnel Inn, Ouseburn, in
In July 1870 he died quite suddenly – probably from a stroke – and Tyneside
went into deep, deep mourning for the loss of perhaps the region’s first sporting
Clasper’s funeral was a monster of an affair – an event perhaps only comparable to the huge outpouring of emotion following the death in 1988 of Jackie Milburn. Grown men were seen to cry before, during and long after the half-day procession, which began with a slow march through the streets of
Newcastle from Ouseburn
to Sandhill. There was Harry’s coffin, of course, mounted upon a horse-drawn
hearse with accompanying finery, with
a band leading the way – all of which was followed by two hundred local oarsmen
and members of the Tyne Rowing Club. Then there were several mourning coaches
containing friends and relatives, with more friends walking three abreast
behind this. These were followed by twenty private carriages with the general public
bringing up the rear on foot.
The route was from Tyne Street via New Road (now City Road), Gibson Street, New Bridge Street, Grey Street and Dean Street to the river’s edge where the cortège was taken on-board tug boats to Derwenthaugh, and then on to Whickham for burial in the town’s churchyard. The route – the streets and riverbank – was lined with people all the way, everyone wanting to pay their last respects to a very great man. It was estimated that about 130,000 people had witnessed the proceedings.
And all this fame achieved before the world of mass media…
(N.B. a good deal of the detail from the funeral is taken from an article by John Bage which can be found here)