James Renforth was born in Gateshead in 1842, and started work as a foundryman before joining the army and serving abroad, which was clearly uncongenial because his father bought him out. He returned to the Tyne and became a waterman, ferrying workers out to the old Newcastle Bridge which was being demolished.
In 1868 Renforth became Champion Sculler of the World by beating Londoner Henry Kelley on his home waters, the Thames at Putney.
Renforth was a giant of a man with a huge lung capacity and was regarded as unbeatable - it had a severe impact on his income, as nobody was willing to race him.
Rowing was becoming international in the latter half of the 19th century, and Renforth was invited to put together a four to race a champion Canadian crew on the St Lawrence River in 1870. The crew was split over which boat to use, and when he wass challenged to defend the title he called on his old Cockney rival Henry Kelley to turn out.
The race was held on the Kennebecasis River in 1871. The Tyneside crew started well, according to the Newcastle Daily Chronicle:
"At the third stroke the Tyne crew showed three feet ahead, and as they gradually settled down to their work, and pulling in their usual grand style, at less than two hundred yards they had increased their lead to fully half a boat’s length. A few strokes after, to the practised eye of any one familiar with boat-rowing there was manifestly something wrong with Renforth. He appeared to falter and to pull out of stroke. The other members of the crew held gallantly on, and for the next two hundred yards they, notwithstanding Renforth’s irregular rowing, maintained their lead of half a length. By the time this point was reached Renforth’s condition had told its tale, he was swaying from side to side of the boat. The St. John crew were soon level, and pulling their usual short, rapid stroke with great regularity and precision, they began to forge ahead, and by the time the boats had gone half a mile the Tyne men were nearly three lengths behind.At this point Kelley called on Renforth to make an effort, and the gallant fellow rowed on with great resolution, but evidently in a sinking condition, till one mile and a quarter of the course had been covered. The oar then dropped from his hand; turning to Kelley he said ‘Harry, I have had something,’ and then fell backward into the boat. Kelley held the poor champion, while Percy and Chambers rowed the boat to Appleby’s Wharf."James Renforth died shortly after. He was just 29 years old.
There was a lot of money riding on the race, so there were accusations that Renforth had been poisoned in some way, possibly by smearing the oars with some noxious substance. However, he was an epileptic and may have had congestion of the lungs as well.
The news came as a great shock to Newcastle. Local songwriter Rowland Harrison wrote:
Ye cruel Atlantic cableHe is commemorated by a touching monument in Gateshead, showing him expiring in the Kelley's arms.
What's myed ye bring such fearful news?
When Tyneside's hardly yeble
Such sudden grief to bide.
Hoo me heart it beats - iv'ry body greets,
As the whisper runs throo dowley streets,
"We've lost poor Jimmy Renforth,
The Champien o'Tyneside."
a pair of Renforth's sculls were rediscovered in Boston a little while back, together with the port oars from the 1871 Tyne crew including the one used by Harry Kelley.
Made by Ayling, Renforth's sculls have a painted belt with the inscription 'Champion of England' and JR in the middle.