Friends of Rowing History
The Resurfacing of
by Bill Miller, January 1, 2002
Very recently I was chatting with a gentleman outside Boston, Massachusetts who mentioned that he had in storage a pair of sculls that are labeled "Champion of England" and he said they were owned by someone named Renforth. My reply was "James Renforth!" He said "Yes". They had been stored in his basement all his life and were owned/stored by his family for generations.
A few days later I viewed the historic sculls and two other oars. He also had in his possession a family photo album c. 1870s with a collection of albumen photo cards (see pictures below). After carefully inspecting the sculls and oars it certainly appears as though they are in fact Renforth's 1871 sculls and the two port oars from the Tyne Four of Renforth-Kelley-Chambers-Percy. The package (sculls, oars, family photo album, and family history) tells an interesting story.
James Renforth catapulted to fame by defeating Henry Kelley for the Sculling Championship of England in 1868. In the meantime a four-oared crew from Saint John, New Brunswick had defeated six crews "manned by amateurs of all countries" at the International Regatta, Grand Exposition in Paris in 1867. This Saint John crew arrived at the start without a coxswain, while all other entries had coxswains. This was the first official entry of a coxless four in a championship regatta. The victorious Saint John crew would hereafter be called the "Paris Four".
In 1870 the Newcastle-On-Tyne Four, James Renforth-Champion of England (1968), James Taylor, Tom Winship and John Martin challenged the Paris Four to a race at Lachine, Canada. The Tyne challengers won the race and £500.
The following year the Paris Four wanted a rematch with the Tyne Four on the Kennebeccasis River, New Brunswick. On August 23, 1871 James Renforth, Harry Kelley-Champion of England (1857-1865-1866-1867), Robert Chambers, and James Percy pulled their shell to the starting line. Both crews started together and after less than 200 yards the Tyne four pulled to a 1/2 boat length lead. Suddenly the stroke oar, James Renforth, began faltering. After a few more strokes he collapsed into the arms of Harry Kelley. The Tyne oarsmen abandoned the contest while the Paris Four continued to row to victory. James Renforth was carried ashore and shortly later died. All of England mourned the death of their "greatest oarsman" (The Field, Aug. 26, 1871).
Following the disastrous race in New Brunswick, the three Tyne oarsmen along with substitute, John Bright, raced in Halifax, Nova Scotia on August 31 and in Saratoga Springs on September 11, but without their star stroke oarsman. The best they could do was second to the Ward brothers in Saratoga. The Biglin Four was third.
There were also sculling matches at Halifax and Saratoga Springs and Harry Kelley placed third in Halifax and second in Saratoga Springs sculling in the "James Renfoth" shell built by Robert Jewett of Dunston-on-Tyne. I believe that James Renforth would have competed in these later sculling events as did Kelley. Renforth's neatly inscribed racing sculls and, probably, his single made the journey as well.
At a fascinating and dynamic time in the development of rowing equipment and the immense popularity of racing, a champion and hero's career was cut short after a mere three years of glory.
The Massachusetts Stash
The Renforth sculls are made of one solid piece of lumber - blade and shaft. On the back is the maker's stamp - E AYLING ~ Maker ~ VAUXHALL LONDON. The blade tip has a protective tin retainer and the button is made of built up leather layers. The handle is shaped to contour to the hand grip. The blade is finished clear with the inscription on a painted belt "Champion of England" and in the center of the belt "JR". The sculls are 10 feet-1/2 inch in length.
The Tyne Four oars (2 port oars) are also of solid-one piece lumber and stamped with the same maker as the sculls. The blade treatment and the buttons are constructed the same as well. The handles are straight tapered. Length overall is 12 feet 4 inches. One oar has initials crudely notched "HK". In the Four, Harry Kelley rowed #3 on port (stroke-side) and Renforth stroked from starboard (bow-side).
Accompanying these sculls and oars are eleven albumen photo cards commercially produced. Three of them were photographed in a Boston studio and are most likely family members of the current owner. They are posed seated, shirtless with neck tie. Both oarsmen have the same tie and photographed at the same studio.
The other eight photographs are of the professional crews (see photos). Two of the Renforth photos are marked "The Late James Renforth". Two other photos are of the Biglin Crew that raced in the International Regatta at Saratoga Springs on September 11th. These were photographs sold commercially.
The owner has stored the oars in his basement all his life and can remember them being stored in his parents house as well. There is a connection between the owner's family and the Shawmut Boat Club, South Boston, Massachusetts founded in 1869. The owner states that he remembers that boats from the Shawmut Boat Club were stored in his parents back yard in the early part of the century. The family photo album dating back to tin-type images from the 1860s and albumen photos of the early 1870s also show a connection to rowing through the two oarsman's photos believed to be the owner's great uncles and labeled with family names "Bill" and "George".
How could these sculls and oars end up at the Shawmut Boat Club in South Boston? A great deal of information can be gleaned from the Illustrated Catalogue and Oarsman's Manual of 1871. The Oarsman's Manual, page 317, states that the "Boat rowed by the Ward brothers [Saratoga Springs, September 11, 1871] was the same one used by the Renforth crew in the race with the St. John men, at LaChine, Canada, September 15, 1870 and named by them the Dunston. After the LaChine race she was sold at auction, and a bid off to Mr. Robert Liddell, of Pittsburg, Pa., for $250 gold. She remained in Pittsburg until early in August, when she was sold to the Ward bothers for $350 currency." In other words in 1870, when the Tyne crew had completed their racing, they sold their equipment rather than transport it back to England.
It makes sense that they would do the same thing in 1871 following their last race in Saratoga Springs. It seems that the Shawmut Boat Club representatives, perhaps "Bill" and "George", traveled to Saratoga Springs with the mission to purchase equipment for their new club. While in Saratoga Springs, they purchased a selection of photo cards that would have been sold at the regatta. The Renforth cards were overprinted with "The Late James Renforth". The Biglin Four competed against the Tyne Four only at Saratoga. These wouldn't have been sold at an earlier regatta.
There's no way to determine whether the shells made their way to South Boston as well, but the indications are that the Tyne Four's oars and the James Renforth's sculls did. With the exception of a few chunks of blade missing, the oars and sculls are alive and well cared for in the Boston area. We certainly hope that there will be an opportunity to display these relics for the rowing community at some time in the future.
Cheers - Bill Miller
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