A sculpture of two seated rowers in a racing boat posed as if in a Pieta, Renforth slumped against the bearded Harry Kelly. Both men are bare-chested. The boat in which they sit rests on a sarcophagus decorated on each face with laurel garlands, with a roundel relief profile of Renforth on the reverse. Supporting the sarcophagus is a pedestal decorated with relief stars and rampant lions (symbols of Canada and England).
George Burns's elaborate monument is similar in its treatment of the figure to his earlier monument to Robert Chambers at Walker (TWGA36, q.v.). After it was vandalised in the mid-1980s it was removed from Gateshead Cemetery East by Gateshead Council and put it in storage. A number of sites were then considered including one at Dunston Staithes where the 1990 National Garden Festival was held. Eventually it was installed in front of the Shipley Art Gallery in 1992 in what was decribed as 'a protected but visually pleasing location'.(3)
James Renforth (1842-1871) was born at Rabbit Banks, Gateshead. A tall, muscular man, he first found employment as a smith's striker on Tyneside and a soldier in the West Indies before becoming a boatman and professional sculler. In November 1868 he enjoyed his first great victory, over Henry Kelly of Putney in the World Sculling Championship. Two years later his four beat a crew from St John's in Canada on the St Lawrence River winning for themselves a stake of £1000. As a song of the time put it, 'An 'Renforth, a brave hardy Son o'the North's / Browt the Championship back to the Tyne.'(1)
The next summer, after being seen off from Newcastle Central Station by a crowd of 3000, Renforth again crossed the Atlantic to take on a North American crew, this time on the Kennebaccasis at New Brunswick. However, tragedy struck. During the race he collapsed into the arms of his crewmate, Henry Kelly, and died soon afterwards. 'The oar dropped from his stricken hand, his brawny arm fell like a withered branch in a storm'.(2) With huge prize money and bets at stake there was much talk of foul play, prompted in part by his dying words, 'It's not a fit, Harry. I've had somethin'. In fact, however, he died of a heart attack and the great oarsman's words were a reference to the epileptic attacks from which he suffered. His body was brought back to Gateshead and buried in Gateshead East Cemetery, over 100,000 people lining the route of the funeral procession.
Incised in Roman letters on the base of the north face of the statue: IN THE MIDST OF LIFE, WE ARE IN DEATH.
Incised in Roman letters on the north face of the pedestal: ERECTED / BY PUBLIC SUBSCRIPTION / TO THE MEMORY OF / JAMES RENFORTH, / OF GATESHEAD; CHAMPION SCULLER OF THE WORLD / WHO DIED AUGUST 23RD 1871, AGED 29 YEARS, / WHILE ROWING IN AN INTERNATIONAL BOAT RACE / BETWEEN THE ENGLISH AND AMERICAN CREWS / ON THE KENNEBECASSIS RIVER NEAR ST JOHNS.N.B.
Incised in Roman letters on the base of the south face of the statue: KENNEBECASSIS
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