Was the North East the catalyst for the English Civil War? – A guest post by Volunteer Kate Buckley

My name is Kate Buckley and I am a volunteer in the Great North Museum: Hancock Library. As a final year History student at Newcastle University it is probably unsurprising that I am interested in the English Civil War. However, I have rarely looked beyond the mainstream rhetoric that we are taught in school. The prevailing image of the English Civil War is of a battle between Royalists and Parliamentarians, which portrays Charles I as a tyrant whom we should be grateful parliament removed from power. Volunteering at the Great North Museum: Hancock Library has highlighted the important fact that we should not always accept the dominant rhetoric – that to understand the significance of an event we should look at the lives of the ‘ordinary people’ (what historians like to call a history from below). The Society of Antiquaries of Newcastle Upon Tyne’s (SANT) collection in the Great North Museum: Hancock Library has a unique collection of original documents pertaining to the English Civil War, but most importantly they concern the role of the North East in this historical event.

The Equestrian Portrait of Charles 1 by Anthony Van Dyck

The Equestrian Portrait of Charles I by Anthony Van Dyck

The above image exemplifies our traditional understanding of Charles I, as an egotistical King, who was out of touch with his people. The portrait enforces this view since it was deployed to present Charles, as a military figure, powerful and heavenly. The letters between Charles I and his former Chaplin Alexander Henderson, certainly reveal Charles’ arrogance. However, the publication titled:

The papers which passed at New-castle betwixt his Sacred Majesty and Mr Alex Henderson Concerning the Change of Church-Government”

which was published in 1646, and is part of the SANT collection, provides an alternative perspective. This book is, in my opinion,  significant as it provides an insight into Charles’s psyche that has changed my opinion on this Monarch.


Alexander Henderson, a Scottish Presbyterian Minister, wrote to Charles I and pleaded with him to negotiate and accept the Parliamentarian’s terms. The King Charles we know has been presented as arrogant and conceited, with a strong belief in the Divine Rights of Kings. This document, however, indicates that there was much more to him than that.  A fierce debater, Charles was a man with substantial intellect in both politics and scripture. The papers contained within the book could be read as a stubborn Charles who refused to listen. With the benefit of hindsight, I believe instead this reveals a complex man – willing to engage in discussion – but his position and upbringing prevented him from adhering to a ‘lesser viewpoint’. However, this is just my opinion. So if you would like to gain an insight into the complex mind of Charles I, it is imperative that a trip is taken to the Great North Museum: Hancock Library to decide for yourself.

Alexander Henderson 1583 - 1646

Alexander Henderson 1583 – 1646

Was the  North East was the catalyst for the English Civil War?

When most people think of the English Civil War, they think of the events which occurred in London, and tend to ignore what occurred in the regions. As a local, I was unaware of the role of the North East in the War; this was perhaps naïve, after all the North East is the frontier land between Scotland and England. Nevertheless, the importance of the North East has become clear, and it is arguable that the North East was one of the sparks for the conflict! The documents highlight the fact that Newcastle was staunchly Royalist and was in an important strategic position since it was a major trading city. Although Charles I strengthened Newcastle’s defences in 1638, the city was defeated by the Scots in Newburn (on Tyneside) in 1640. This is noteworthy as it is said by some that this, combined with Charles’ decision to pay the Scots £60,000 to leave, was a catalyst for the English Civil War. Of course, as with all history, this is up for debate. Nonetheless, it is an interesting viewpoint and it places the North East at the centre of the English Civil War.

I think it is worthwhile to momentarily move away from the historical facts and discuss the argument that the rivalry between Newcastle and Sunderland can be traced back to the English Civil War.  The SANT documents also highlight that Hylton Castle, in Sunderland, provided the base from which Scottish rebels were able to conduct raids into Newcastle and Durham. The use of the grounds of Hylton Castle enabled the Scots to lay siege to the aforementioned areas, ensuring that the King’s noble support in the North East would be subdued. This meant that the King would be deprived of the military support that may have helped him win the war. Arguably the most interesting aspect of this story is the argument that this was the origin of the intense rivalry between Newcastle and Sunderland, with Sunderland as ‘traitors’ who betrayed their fellow countrymen. We cannot know if this is true, however, though I think it is a much better explanation for this rivalry than football, or who has the better accent!


I have only mentioned some of the highlights of these documents; there are many more pertaining to the Civil War period in the SANT collection at the Great North Museum: Hancock Library. So if you are interested, and want to uncover some of the secrets hidden in these documents, make sure you come down and browse yourself. There are too many documents to list, but those I personally think are fascinating include:

  • The papers which passed at Newcastle between his sacred majesty and Mr Alex Henderson concerning the change of church and government, 1646 X2
  • Partic. Relation to the taking of Newcastle
  • Siege of Newcastle
  • The Copy of a letter sent from Iohn Lord Finch, late Lord Keeper, to his friend Dr Cozens 1641
  • An exact collection of many wonderful prophesies relating to the Government of England, &  since the first year of the reign if King James I
  • Oppressed Man’s Out-Cry
  • Mr Benjamin Bennet’s Presbyterian Prejudice Further Displayed: OR His Unjust Reflections on Charles I and his doctrine of Resistance Confider’d
  • O Friends! No Friends, To King Church and State 1648
  • A full relation of the Scots besiedging Newcastle…..
  • A Comparison of the Great English and French Revolutions, by William Bainbridge ESQ.

civil war final


The Great North Museum Hancock Library is located on the second floor of the Great North Museum: Hancock.   It houses the collections of the Natural History Society of Northumbria, the Society of Antiquaries of Newcastle-upon-Tyne and Newcastle University’s Cowen Library. For more information please visit https://greatnorthmuseum.org.uk/collections/library-and-archives

Corporal Ian Forsyth and the Liberation of Belsen – by David Weatherstone, Assistant Outreach Officer: Charge! England’s Northern Cavalry

‘There are no extraordinary men… just extraordinary circumstances that ordinary men are forced to deal with.’
Fleet Admiral William Halsey, United States Navy

When researching this month’s blog I was drawn to the idea of ordinary people dealing with extraordinary circumstances. We see and hear examples of it almost every day. Often these days, sadly, it is ordinary people randomly caught up in terrorist attacks, but we are so interested in this concept that we contrive extraordinary situations for our entertainment and somewhat perversely call it ‘reality TV’.

The reason for this particular theme being prominent in my mind is that April is the anniversary of the liberation of Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, and here in the Charge! Gallery at Discovery Museum, we have an unusual and poignant reminder of that momentous event. A bottle of vodka may not be the most obvious exhibit for a regimental gallery, but stay with me on this one.

15th/19th The King’s Royal Hussars landed on Gold Beach on 16 August 1944 eager to play their part in the liberation of Europe and believing their cause to be a just one. By spring 1945, this idealism had largely evaporated and had been replaced by a desperate day-to-day struggle for survival. Their progress through Northern Germany to the Baltic as part of 11th Armoured Division was dogged by fierce German resistance despite the increasing hopelessness of their situation.

A curious event occurred on 12 April as the Division approached the River Aller. The local German commander approached 11th Armoured Division under a white flag and sought a temporary ceasefire. He explained that a little further north was a camp containing thousands of political and criminal prisoners. He went on to say that there was an outbreak of typhus and if the prisoners were to break out there was danger of an epidemic. The officer said the camp was run by the SS and that the Wehrmacht (the German army) had known nothing about it. He offered the British commander safe passage across the Aller if the German forces were allowed to disengage and retreat north. As it transpired, the precise terms of this agreement could not be agreed upon, and in the subsequent action over the next couple of days the 15th/19th sustained a number of casualties.

Being oblivious to this incident, the regiment had no reason to expect that 15 April 1945 would be a day any different from those of the last few months; they made their preparations that morning, unaware of the scenes that they would see later that day, unimaginable scenes that would stay with them forever.

It became clear quite early that their recent routine of pushing forward through Northern Germany clearing up any enemy still fighting wasn’t happening that morning. The roads were unusually busy with traffic and pedestrians, some of the vehicles with white flags. And then there was the smell. The air seemed to have a peculiar smell, greasy, but more than that, which one couldn’t recognise. Eventually, the order came to move, with the added instructions that when they came to the camp they were not to open the camp gates, let anyone out, feed or touch anyone and, if that wasn’t enough to add to the men’s feelings of unease, leave the German guards on duty.

On approaching the camp, their apprehension increased; they could see the barbed wire, then the watch towers still manned by the German guards, and then the inmates. The soldiers stared speechless at the sight before them.

One of these soldiers was 21 year old Ian Forsyth. We are doubly fortunate in that not only is Ian still with us, but that he has committed his testimony to print. In this testimony, he does not actually describe the things that he saw that day in any great detail, and certainly I do not have adequate words to describe the horror. We have all seen the newsreels, and the words of Richard Dimbleby of the BBC are as appropriate as any I have heard:

‘…Here over an acre of ground lay dead and dying people. You could not see which was which… The living lay with their heads against the corpses and around them moved the awful, ghostly procession of emaciated, aimless people, with nothing to do and with no hope of life, unable to move out of your way, unable to look at the terrible sights around them … Babies had been born here, tiny wizened things that could not live … A mother, driven mad, screamed at a British sentry to give her milk for her child, and thrust the tiny mite into his arms, then ran off, crying terribly. He opened the bundle and found the baby had been dead for days.

This day at Belsen was the most horrible of my life.’

What Ian Forsyth does do, with remarkable candid and moving clarity, is talk of the effect this day has had on him and his comrades. Despite orders to the contrary, someone threw some army rations over the wire. How could a human being stand by and do nothing? Those at the back surged forward and trampled on those at the front to get to the food. Those who got the food would almost certainly die anyway, their bodies unable to handle the food. It took the medical authorities some days to establish how best to nourish and feed the liberated prisoners.

The 15th/19th Hussars never entered Belsen. They were front line fighting troops and needed to press on. It was left to others in the following days to enter the camp and discover and deal with the full horror of what had taken place there. There was no time to come to terms with or seek counselling for the horror they had witnessed. That wasn’t the way things were done then anyway. One thing that Ian does say is this experience reminded them of the reason they were fighting this war, and a little of the old idealism returned.

The day after the liberation, the regiment were back on operations and Ian and his troop had good cause to regret the failure of the proposed cease-fire. Whilst on reconnaissance in a wood, a job Ian hated, a German column was spotted and orders were given to allow it to pass. A short while later an 88mm shell hit them, destroying one of their tanks and seriously wounding the crew, including the troop leader and a young Jewish front gunner who had come over to Britain on the Kindertransport just before the outbreak of the war and enlisted as soon as he could. At that time, particularly near the end of the war, soldiers could never be sure if their wounded comrades survived or not, as the wounded were evacuated and the surviving troops pressed on.

Ian Forsyth has had to find a way to live with his demons since then. He has done this by facing them and by telling others about them. Without going into detail, he indicates that some of his comrades have been less successful in their struggles with the past. He spent years as a teacher and has recounted his experiences to young and old. He has been back to Belsen on a number of occasions, it draws him like a magnet. He has made friends with former inmates and kept in touch with those that are still alive and the families of those who have passed on.

Bottle of vodka given to Ian Forsyth

Bottle of vodka given to Ian Forsyth

At a ceremony commemorating the 65th anniversary of the liberation he was given a bottle of vodka by a Ukranian woman who told him ‘I have waited sixty five years to meet a liberator and say thank you. You are the first I’ve met, so this is for you’. Ian was never able to open that bottle, indeed he never wants it to be opened. It should be kept as a reminder of why he and his comrades were there in the first place. We are incredibly proud to have it at Discovery Museum.

I spoke to Ian last week to ask him if I could use his story for this blog. In conversation I asked him if he wished fate had not singled him out to be present that day and, after a pause, he said simply ‘it’s haunted me ever since, and it still haunts me today’.


There is a profoundly ironic postscript to this story. Only months after the end of the war, the 15th/19th were in Palestine, fighting against Jewish militant groups who wanted to evict the British authorities from Palestine to allow unrestricted Jewish immigration. Ordinary soldiers have great difficulty in coming to terms with this kind of contradiction, which appears totally illogical to them.

It goes against the grain for an old soldier to disagree with a senior officer, at least in public, but with reference to the quote at the top of the page I would suggest that the good Admiral is wrong. There are many extraordinary people in the world. Ian Forsyth MBE is one of them.


My grateful thanks to Ian Forsyth for granting me permission to write this. Ian lives in Hamilton, near Glasgow, is 95 years old but sounds 25 years younger. His story and the bottle of vodka can be seen in ‘Charge! The Story of England’s Northern Cavalry’ at Discovery Museum in Newcastle upon Tyne.

Defending the Fort

Our first exhibition for the year here at Arbeia is all about the fort defences – the walls, ditches, ramparts, gates and towers that defined the fort. During the research for it we came across old photographs of all the excavations that have been carried out on the defences over the years. The first photograph was taken in 1961 and shows a section of one of the ditches on the east side, carried out by the South Shields Archaeological and Historical Society.


Excavating the east ditch at South Shields Roman Fort in 1961.

The second photo dates from 1977 and shows the remains of the curved wall of the angle-tower at the south-east corner of the fort. Behind the area under excavation is the old Victorian school, before its demolition. Where all the excavators are digging is where the reconstructed Commanding Officer’s house stands today.


Excavations in the south-east corner of South Shields Roman Fort in 1977. In the foreground is a trench leading down into the ditch.

The final photograph comes from the mid-80s and shows the ditches outside the west gate under excavation … and the west gate under construction.


The ditches outside the west gate at South Shields Roman Fort under excavation. Beneath all the scaffolding the reconstructed gateway takes shape.

Strange to think that gateway is now over 30 years old!

The Development of the Racing Shell: Tyne Innovations Part 2 – by Ian Whitehead

In Part 1 I looked at the origins of boat racing on the River Tyne and went on to explore the Tyne contribution to the invention and refinement of the outrigger, the bringing inboard of the keel, single strake (shell) construction and the refinement of foot steering for coxless pairs and fours.

In Part 2 I will move on to look at the development of the sliding stroke, followed by the adoption of the sliding seat, and also to what seems to have been the first bowloader coxed boat, racing in the Tyne Regatta in 1872, 80 years before the generally accepted first appearance of the bowloader, in Germany in the 1950s.

The sliding seat

As early as the 1850s, or most likely before that, Harry Clasper and his brothers were sliding on their fixed seats to give extra length and power to their stroke. Reports of their appearance at the 1844 Thames Regatta refer to “their peculiar style of rowing” (Newcastle Weekly Journal (NWJ) Saturday June 28th 1845) and “with a stroke peculiar to themselves” (NWJ June 29th 1844). To use the sliding motion an oarsman had to sit low in the boat, straighten his legs during the stroke by driving off the footboard, and perhaps most importantly, have his feet firmly strapped to the board so he could pull himself forward at the end of the stroke. This technique contrasted with that of sitting still on the seat, with almost all movement, and most power, coming from above the waist. The sliding on the fixed seat technique quickly became identified as the “traditional Tyne stroke”, but, even on the Tyne, some rowers slid hardly at all, while others, as contemporary reports put it, “made good use of the footboard”. Bob Cooper, “the Redheugh ferryman”, rowed at a high tempo which did not allow for much use of the legs, while the Champion sculler, Bob Chambers, made considerable use of his legs to row a long, powerful stroke.

Model of a fixed seat skiff (single scull) c.1860. This simple, but elegant, solid hulled model is representative of the type of boat used by Harry Clasper, Robert Chambers and James Renforth. TWCMS : B9758 Scale 1:12

Model of a fixed seat skiff (single scull) c.1860. This simple, but elegant, solid hulled model is representative of the type of boat used by Harry Clasper, Robert Chambers and James Renforth. TWCMS : B9758 Scale 1:12

There were a number of attempts to develop a sliding seat in the 1860s. Walter Brown, the American sculler who later beat William Sadler on the Tyne in 1869, tried one in 1861. A Dr. Schiller of Berlin made a slide using small wheels in 1863, but nobody achieved sufficient success to encourage the best oarsmen to switch away from fixed seat rowing.

Indeed, at this time there was not a general acceptance that sliding was superior to sitting still. Followers of rowing could see the benefits of the extra power and length of stroke, but weighed those against the effect on the “run”, or momentum, of the boat when an oarsman pulled his weight towards the stern to get in position to take his next stroke. It was also much harder to keep a crew rowing in time together if they were sliding as part of the stroke. After Harry Kelley of Putney, who sat still on his seat, defeated the North’s beloved Bob Chambers in 1865, those who favoured the straight-backed, non-sliding technique could justifiably claim that their method was as good as, or better than, the sliding technique developed on the Tyne.

Cockpit of a model of a fixed seat skiff (single scull) c. 1860. The seat is the long flat board that was required to use a sliding stroke on a fixed seat, although the footboard is missing. The frame which once held the footboard in position probably came adrift at the same time. Sadly, it appears that somebody has since glued this frame across the cockpit in a position that would have prevented the full-sized boat from being sculled! TWCMS : B9758 Scale 1:12

Cockpit of a model of a fixed seat skiff (single scull) c. 1860. The seat is the long flat board that was required to use a sliding stroke on a fixed seat, although the footboard is missing. The frame which once held the footboard in position probably came adrift at the same time. Sadly, it appears that somebody has since glued this frame across the cockpit in a position that would have prevented the full-sized boat from being sculled! TWCMS : B9758 Scale 1:12

The arrival of James Renforth on the scene quickly began to alter opinion. At first observers declared his stroke ugly – The Daily Telegraph dubbed him the “Radical” oarsman – but they soon recognised the effectiveness of his thigh-thrusting, leg-driving, bottom-sliding technique. His unbroken string of victories in all boats; single sculls, pairs and fours, forced the pundits to accept that Renforth’s stroke was better for winning races than the seemingly more stylish techniques employed by his opponents.

A reporter writing for Bell’s Life after Renforth’s victory over Kelley in November 1868 put it like this:

One very notable feature of his style is the great use he makes of his legs; indeed, we have no hesitation in saying that we never met with a sculler, not even excepting the late Bob Chambers who so fully understood the important art of bringing every muscle together with the full weight of the body to bear on every stroke; and we are satisfied that this is the great secret of his wonderful turn of speed, which enabled him to vanquish such a “flier” as Kelley.”

Having run out of opponents willing to take him on in single sculls, Renforth increasingly rowed as stroke oar in pairs and fours. Men who came into his boat had to adapt to his style.

James Renforth shown on the River Tyne in his skiff. This print was probably produced after his death in 1871. David Clasper

James Renforth shown on the River Tyne in his skiff. This print was probably produced after his death in 1871. David Clasper

Renforth’s dominance had its effect on those who were trying to develop a successful sliding seat. The campaign to North America in 1870 and the victory at Lachine seems to have influenced the Americans, and in particular J C Babcock of the Nassau Rowing Club of New York, a champion oarsman and sculler. Babcock had experimented with a slide in 1857 but did not consider it a success.  In 1870 he tried again and this time was pleased with the results that he obtained with a trained crew. Novices however, found it more difficult than fixed seat rowing.

Babcock’s slide used a seat which was a 10 inch-square wooden frame covered with leather and grooved at the edges to slide on two brass tracks fastened on the thwart, allowing a slide of 10-12 inches. The tracks were lubricated with lard and gave a ‘rowing’ length of slide of up to 6 inches. Babcock wrote a letter about the slide to Waters Balch on 14 December 1870, which shows how Renforth’s 1870 crew was influencing his thinking. It concludes:

The slide properly used is a decided advantage and gain of speed, and the only objection to its use is its complication and almost impracticable requirement of skill and unison in a crew, rather than any defect in its mechanical theory. When we take into consideration that the best oarsmen in the world, the Tynesiders, slide, when spirting, from four to six inches on a fixed seat, the moveable seat can only be considered as a mechanical contrivance, intended for a better accomplishment of the sliding movement in rowing.”

By 1871 American professionals were successfully using slides of the Babcock type in races, notably at Saratoga, and at Halifax, Nova Scotia, where they competed against Winship’s crew and Chambers’ crew, which was made up of the remaining four from Renforth’s crew, following Renforth’s untimely death. The Biglin crew competed using slides at Saratoga in both the fours and the sculls races. They did not win, but then neither did either of the English crews. Ironically the fours race was won by the Ward brothers, rowing in Dunston-on Tyne, the Jewitt-built fixed seat boat in which Renforth’s crew had triumphed at Lachine the previous year.

After competing in regattas at Saratoga, Longueil, Halifax and Quebec, the two predominantly Tyneside crews – Joe Sadler was the Londoner in Winship’s crew, and Harry Kelley rowed in the Chambers crew – returned to England. They received great receptions, with an estimated 10,000 people turning out to greet the Chambers crew at Newcastle. Hostilities resumed almost immediately. A four-oared race for £400 (the 2017 equivalent might be as much as £330,000) was set to take place on the Tyne on Wednesday 22nd November and both crews went back into training. The races in North America had not conclusively proved which was the better of the two. The only way to decide was in the traditional manner, with a match over the Tyne Championship course.

Photograph of the Winship Four 1871 taken in the USA or Canada when this crew competed in a number of regattas during the summer. From the left, Thomas Winship (stroke), Robert Bagnall (3), Joseph Sadler (2) and James Taylor (bow). Gateshead Libraries

Photograph of the Winship Four 1871 taken in the USA or Canada when this crew competed in a number of regattas during the summer. From the left, Thomas Winship (stroke), Robert Bagnall (3), Joseph Sadler (2) and James Taylor (bow). Gateshead Libraries

When the two crews appeared at the start the Winship four, rather surprisingly, were rowing with slides. These worked on the same principle as those of American design they had encountered across the Atlantic, but they had front and back stops to prevent the seat from becoming detached from the slide, and the slides were made of steel. The crew had only used them for the first time the day before the race, but they had obviously concluded that the risk of using the sliding seats was worth taking, despite their lack of practice with them. One detects the hand of James Taylor, the inveterate experimenter, in the decision to row with slides but there is no mention in the race report that he was behind this bold choice. It seems exceptionally bold when one considers the huge sum of money riding on this one race.

Robert Bagnall, then aged 22 and, following the death of Renforth, the best Tyneside sculler in training, rowed behind Winship at 3. The seat and slide which he used in this historic race is on display at Discovery Museum, Newcastle.

This is the seat that Bagnall used when part of the Winship crew that took the four oared Championship of the Tyne on 22 November 1871. Bagnall was 22 years old, weighed 10 stone 7 lbs and was 5 feet 8 inches tall. TWCMS : E7199. Discovery Museum

This is the seat that Bagnall used when part of the Winship crew that took the four oared Championship of the Tyne on 22 November 1871. Bagnall was 22 years old, weighed 10 stone 7 lbs and was 5 feet 8 inches tall. TWCMS : E7199. Discovery Museum

In the event they won the race, completing the destruction of the former Renforth crew and ensuring that oarsmen throughout Britain would swiftly adopt the use of sliding seats. Tynesiders had probably been sliding on their seats since the 1840s, but henceforth they would be sliding with their seats. They could also look forward to less trouble with boils on their buttocks – something that Percy had suffered from in the run-up to this race.




The Newcastle Daily Chronicle of Thursday November 23rd 1871 in its conclusion to the race report put it thus:

The result of this contest will most probably be the adoption of the sliding seat, at least in fours, and perhaps in pairs and skiffs as well.

Although this reflects a rather Tyne-centred view of the rowing world, the success of Renforth and his companions over the previous three years did seem to justify opinions such as these.

The development of a practical slide is quite rightly assigned to Babcock. However, Renforth’s success with a stroke which manifestly involved sliding considerably, albeit on a seat rather than with a slide, encouraged Babcock and his contemporaries to press on with their experiments. Renforth was so dominant after November 1868, in all boats, that his technique was recognised as providing significant extra power from the legs. The Tyne has no claim on the invention of the slide but Babcock’s letter of 1870, acknowledging that the Tynesiders were the best oarsmen in the world, and that he was only trying to achieve mechanically what they did when they slid on their seats, shows the influence that Renforth and his crews had on Babcock’s thinking.

 A Tyne bowloading coxed four 1872

A modern bowloading coxed four

A modern bowloading coxed four


It has been generally accepted in the rowing world that the first boats to feature a coxswain positioned in the bow were pair oars, developed by Georg von Opel in Germany in the 1950s. The new arrangement was immediately successful and the practice soon spread to fours. However, while looking at contemporary news reports of the Tyne Regatta of July 1872 I came across an account of a bowloading four that won the professionals race and a prize of £50 (worth perhaps £5,500 today (2018). The boat had to win a heat before progressing to the final, so it was no fluke, and there was serious money at stake! But, just as interesting as the victory itself is the sequence of events that led to the decision to position the cox in the bow.

You may recall from part 1 of this blog that the Canadian St. John crew won the amateurs race at the Great International Regatta in Paris in 1867 in a foot-steered, coxless four. James Taylor was a member of the Tyne four that won the professionals race at the same regatta so had an opportunity to observe the steering mechanism. Eighteen months later Taylor fitted foot steering to a pair and, rowing with James Renforth, defeated Matthew Scott and Andrew Thompson on the Tyne for a stake of £50 a-side.

When, in 1870, the St John crew challenged the Tyne Champion Four to a race in Canada the match was made in coxless fours. The Tyne men won, but a new challenge came from St John in 1871 and once again the match was made in coxless fours. The Tyne Champion Four lost the race when James Renforth collapsed shortly after the start of the race and died a few hours later. However, following this tragedy, the rest of the crew and another crew made up three Tyne men, James Taylor, Robert Bagnall and Tom Winship, plus the Londoner Joseph Sadler, contested coxless fours races at Saratoga, Longueil, Halifax and Quebec. Thus, the top Tyne professionals became familiar with racing in coxless boats in North America. When the Taylor – Winship crew returned home and agreed articles to race against Renforth’s old crew for the Championship of the Tyne the match was made in coxless boats. Both crews had matching new boats built by Robert Jewitt. The Taylor-Winship boat, The Adelaide, was built with no room for a cox in the stern and it was fitted out with sliding seats. The other boat was named The Renforth.

The Taylor-Winship crew duly won the Championship of the Tyne on Wednesday 22nd November 1871 and in its closing remarks the Chronicle predicted, It is in every way likely that the Renforth four will now dissolve partnership.

The successful Taylor-Winship crew remained together for the 1872 season and at the beginning of July were preparing to race at the Tyne Regatta. As expected, the Renforth four had broken up, but a new four had formed around two of its former members, the veteran Harry Kelley in the 3 seat and James Percy in the bow seat. This was known as the Blenheim crew, named after the public house that Harry Kelley was now running in Newcastle.

Photograph of the Renforth Four (with spare man) 1871. Clockwise, from left, James Percy (bow), Robert Chambers (from Wallsend) (2), Harry Kelley (3), James Renforth (stroke) and John Bright (spare man). The Blenheim crew that contested the fours race at the Tyne Regatta included James Percy (bow) and Harry Kelley (3) but Thomas Matfin replaced the late James Renforth at stroke, and Ralph Hepplewhite was at (2) in place of Robert Chambers. David Clasper

Photograph of the Renforth Four (with spare man) 1871. Clockwise, from left, James Percy (bow), Robert Chambers (from Wallsend) (2), Harry Kelley (3), James Renforth (stroke) and John Bright (spare man). The Blenheim crew that contested the fours race at the Tyne Regatta included James Percy (bow) and Harry Kelley (3) but Thomas Matfin replaced the late James Renforth at stroke, and Ralph Hepplewhite was at (2) in place of Robert Chambers.
David Clasper

These two crews were the favourites for the regatta’s prime race for professionals.

“ NORTHUMBERLAND STAKES, a four-oared race, with coxswains, open to all. Prizes: First boat, £50; second boat, £20; third boat, £10. Entrance, 2s. 6d. per oar. Distance one mile and a quarter.”

The Northern and Albion Rowing Clubs had also entered crews so four boats would be competing for the £50 prize.

The Tyne Regatta was largely administered and managed by senior figures from the Tyne Amateur Rowing Club. This provided an intriguing aspect to this contest, because, at a time when amateurs and professionals were increasingly going their separate ways, two hardened professional crews would compete according to rules set and interpreted by amateurs. Six of the eight members of the top crews had raced for the Tyne Championship in coxless boats less than a year previously, with the match rules set out in the articles they had signed. Now they would have to abide by the rules of the Tyne Regatta. A few days before the race, James Percy, Renforth’s old bow man, and a member of the Blenheim crew, smelt a rat, and gave voice to his suspicions at a meeting of the regatta committee.

The Newcastle Daily Chronicle’s description of the meeting explains the issue clearly:

In answer to a question from James Percy, the committee decided that the coxswain might be carried upon whatever part of the boat the crew thought fit, only he must use the lines and steer, and be six stones in weight; or provided that he is not that weight, he must carry the requisite amount of lead upon his seat only. The question by Percy was prompted by “information received”, that the Taylor-Winship four, who intend to row in the boat they occupied when they won the championship last November, and which, it will be remembered, has no coxswain’s seat, propose to put the steering-boy at the fore end of the craft instead of the aft.”

Newcastle Daily Chronicle Monday July 15th 1872

The Taylor-Winship crew would row in The Adelaide, and the Blenheim crew would use The Williamson, a Jewitt-built four belonging to South Shields ARC. The Chronicle says the boat was a little small for them, and I think one must assume that the Blenheim crew had not able been able to secure the use of The Renforth for this race.

The first heat for the Taylor-Winship crew was against the Northern Rowing Club four and the positioning of the coxswain in The Adelaide was attracting a great deal of interest from the spectators.

The object of all the attention was the peculiar mode of carrying the coxswain adopted by the Taylor-Winship crew. Little Wilson, [Thomas] instead of being seated in the usual coxswain’s seat, was accommodated in the forward part close to the bow oar, but looking to the stem of the boat. “The Adelaide” was built, it will be remembered, for use without a coxswain, and the means adopted to comply with the regulation of the committee, it was observed, were such that Taylor touched the coxswain with his back at the finish of nearly every stroke, so that in consequence the general verdict was against the efficiency of the new plan.”

Newcastle Daily Chronicle Saturday 20th July 1872

The coxswain, Thomas Wilson, was well known to rowing supporters on both Tyne and Thames. In November 1869, he had brilliantly steered Renforth’s champion four to victory over the Thames men twice in matches, first on the Thames and two weeks later on the Tyne. At that time Wilson was aged 14 and weighed in at 54 lbs for the first match and 56 lbs for the second. (Whitehead, I, James Renforth etc. P75 – 80) Now aged 17 he might have reached the minimum 6 stone (84 lbs) weight specified by the committee, but if not, he would have had to make up the weight with lead positioned on his seat. James Taylor was a key member of Renforth’s champion four in 1869 and would have been confident in Wilson’s ability to adapt to his new situation.

Rowing Colour of the Tyne Champion Four 1869. This colour was issued to mark the home and home races of the Tyne Crew, against a London crew, in the autumn of 1869. It features the Newcastle coat of arms and lists the Tyne Crew, (James) Taylor, (Thomas) Winship, (John) Martin, (James) Renforth (Stroke), (Thomas) Wilson (cox). The Tyne men won both races with the boy coxswain Wilson distinguishing himself on each occasion. TWCMS : 2011.3448. Discovery Museum

Rowing Colour of the Tyne Champion Four 1869. This colour was issued to mark the home and home races of the Tyne Crew, against a London crew, in the autumn of 1869. It features the Newcastle coat of arms and lists the Tyne Crew, (James) Taylor, (Thomas) Winship, (John) Martin, (James) Renforth (Stroke), (Thomas) Wilson (cox). The Tyne men won both races with the boy coxswain Wilson distinguishing himself on each occasion. TWCMS : 2011.3448. Discovery Museum


Whatever the “Chronicle’s” view of the general verdict against the efficiency of the new steering arrangements, the Taylor-Winship crew won their first heat, defeating the Northern Rowing Club easily by four lengths. As was expected they later contested the final against the Blenheim crew. Once more they gained a comfortable victory, winning by a margin of four lengths. On this evidence one wonders why the bowloader didn’t catch on in the 1870s, or at any time after that until it resurfaced in the 1950s.

Maybe it was because the circumstances of its appearance were rather unusual. James Taylor and Thomas Winship both raced regularly in coxless fours in America in 1870 and 1871. Back on their home river they won the Championship of the Tyne in the coxless four, The Adelaide, in November 1871. The Adelaide was at their disposal to use at the Tyne Regatta, but the professional race was for coxed fours. They didn’t want to give up the chance of racing in their winning boat so they adapted it to accommodate the trusted and resourceful coxswain, Thomas Wilson.

There is the possibility that the bowloader did catch on before the 1950s, but was not widely known about. After all, I only came across its appearance on the Tyne in 1872 when it caught my eye while I was researching something else. Does anybody out there know of a reappearance of the racing bowloader before its introduction in Germany in the 1950s?




Clasper, David, Harry Clasper Hero of the North, Gateshead, 1990.

Clasper, David, Rowing: A way of life, The Claspers  of Tyneside, Gateshead 2003

Dillon, Peter, The Tyne Oarsmen, Newcastle 1993.

Dodd, Christopher, The Oxford and Cambridge Boat Race, London, 1983.

Dodd, Christopher, The Story of World Rowing, London, 1992

Whitehead, Ian, The Sporting Tyne, A history of professional rowing, Gateshead 2002

Whitehead, Ian, James Renforth of Gateshead, Champion Sculler of the World, Newcastle 2004

Herbert George Columbine VC – by David Weatherstone, Assistant Outreach Officer

The last three and a half years or so have seen many events commemorating the centenary of The Great War and of battles and great events associated with it. The sheer weight of numbers means that many other actions and incidents that are worthy of recognition go without acknowledgement.

One such event that is very dear to us here at Discovery Museum is the action which took place at Hervilly Wood on the Western Front on 22 March 1918, which led to the award of the Victoria Cross to a soldier of the 19th Hussars, one of the regiments that, in later years, would become The Light Dragoons.

Herbert George Columbine VC

Herbert George Columbine VC

Herbert George Columbine was born in London on 28 November 1893 and wanted to become a soldier from the day in January 1900 that he saw his father depart to South Africa as a member of the Lincolnshire Regiment to fight in the Boer War. The death of his father in action at Silkaatsnek in July of that year seemed, if anything, to make him more determined than ever to join the army, no doubt to his mother’s dismay.

Herbert and his mother moved from London to the pleasant Essex coastal resort of Walton-on-the-Naze when Herbert left school at 12. His resolve to join the army never wavered, however, and at the age of 17 he caught a train to Colchester and joined the 19th Hussars, probably because they had recently served in the area and he would have seen them. He would not be the first, or the last, young lad to be enticed by the elegant uniforms of the cavalry.



The 19th Hussars were stationed at Aldershot when Herbert joined them and after basic training he became a machine-gunner, a fateful decision given the events of a few years later. When war was declared on 4 August 1914, Herbert was a soldier of some experience, at least in terms of training and service if not operational experience. The 19th Hussars mobilised as part of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) and in less than three weeks were dug in at Mons awaiting the arrival of the German Army. He took part in the retreat from Mons, the Race to the Sea and the Second Battle of Ypres in May 1915.

In an effort to improve the efficiency of their use of machine guns, which was some way below that of the German Army, the British decided, in 1915, to form the Machine Gun Corps (MGC). Regimental Machine Gun crews were transferred to the new Corps and in June 1916 Herbert was one of seventy men of the 19th Hussars compulsorily transferred to the MGC.

By March 1918 Herbert had been in action on the Western Front for three and a half years apart from the odd brief period of leave and some training, and he must have been one of the few remaining from the original BEF. The Germans launched a desperate offensive designed to try and finish the war before the entry of the United States tipped the balance conclusively in favour of the Allies. The German attack was launched in the area of St Quentin by the biggest artillery bombardment ever seen and then at 9.35am half a million German soldiers advanced.

By the following day all Allied reserves had been deployed to halt the attack. Herbert and his Squadron moved to a location just south of Hervilly, seven miles north-west of St Quentin. They had not been there long when the German infantry attacked and before long they threatened to overrun the position. Herbert and some comrades moved forward to take command of a machine gun post where the crew had been killed. As the attack continued and casualties mounted Herbert and his two remaining comrades became isolated from the rest of the squadron. Eventually, realising the hopelessness of their situation, Herbert urged his companions to ‘save yourselves, I’ll carry on’. He continued to repel attacks on his own until the Germans brought up air support and bombed his position. Herbert had held up the German advance for four hours and gave the retreating Allies time to regroup and consolidate their defensive positions.

Herbert Columbine has no known grave. His name is commemorated on the Pozières Memorial, Panels 93 and 94.

For his actions on 22 March 1918 Private Herbert George Columbine was awarded the Victoria Cross. The citation reads as follows:

‘For the most conspicuous bravery and self-sacrifice displayed, when, owing to casualties, Private Columbine took over command of a gun and kept firing it from 9.00 am till 1.00 pm in an isolated position with no wire in front. During this time, wave after wave of the enemy failed to get up to him. Owing to his being attacked by a low flying aeroplane, the enemy at last gained a strong footing in the trench on either side. The position being untenable, he ordered the two remaining men to get away, and though being bombed from either side, he kept his gun firing and inflicted tremendous losses. He was eventually killed by a bomb which blew up him and his gun. He showed throughout the highest valour, determination and self-sacrifice.’

Columbine statue

A memorial bust to Herbert was unveiled at Walton-on-the-Naze on Sunday 21 November 1920 and now stands in the Leisure Centre in Walton that bears his name. A statue funded by public subscription and with Dame Judi Dench as patron was erected on Walton sea front and unveiled by Field Marshal Lord Guthrie on 1 August 2014 with the Light Dragoons and the Band of The Royal Signals in attendance. His medals, including his Victoria Cross, are on display at the Essex Regiment Museum in Chelmsford.




I am reminded of a quote about courage, although I can’t quite recall its origin. To paraphrase, it talks about types of courage, be it the red mist adrenalin-fuelled actions of an individual caught up in great events or the ice-cold calculations of an individual who is very aware of the situation, and of the danger to their life, but goes ahead anyway. Each are remarkable in their different ways and it would be crass to differentiate between the two. Herbert’s actions seems to me to be of the second type and it seems extraordinary to the vast majority of us who have never had to test ourselves in such situations that such courage can be displayed.

In 1922 the 15th and the 19th Hussars amalgamated to form the 15th/19th The King’s Royal Hussars and adopted the motto ‘Merebimur’ which translates from Latin as ‘We shall be Worthy’. I can think of nothing more fitting than this for Herbert Columbine.


I am indebted to the eminent author and military historian Carole McEntee-Taylor for permission to utilise the research and information contained in her outstanding book ‘Herbert Columbine VC’. The book is widely available in bookshops and through her website http://www.carolemctbooks.info/herbert-columbine-vc/ which also contains further information about the Herbert Columbine Statue project and the author’s other works.