In the early part of the 19th century, the great rivers of the Thames and the Tyne were bustling with constant activity. The sport of rowing flourished, as did the gambling that went with it. Up on the Tyne, Harry Clasper (1812–1870) became the great hero. When he died, more than 100,000 people lined the seven-mile funeral route.
Starting work as a miner, Clasper later became an apprentice to a ship’s carpenter. He gained valuable learning in boat design and construction which he put to good effect. His boat was successful locally but could not beat the London watermen. Harry Clasper was convinced that a more streamlined vessel was the answer, he set off on a radical re-design. He was amongst the first to develop a keel-less boat for greater speed and to row with outriggers (the V-shaped struts that go out from the side of the boat to hold the oars) and curved blades. In effect, Clasper designed the prototype for modern racing boats.
Triumph came in June 1845 when his new boat, the Lord Ravensworth, crewed by Clasper and four family members, won the Champion Fours at the Thames Regatta by beating the London watermen.
Harry Clasper died in 1870. Clasper was laid to rest in a tomb on which stands an elaborate sandstone statue by George Burn. The Newcastle Daily Chronicle, in its obituary, summed up Clasper’s legendary standing. He was “but a lowly artisan” but he “took his tools, and his strong arm and honest heart, and hewed himself a pathway to fame and a sepulchre kings might envy".