TOMORROW marks the 150th anniversary of the death of Harry Clasper, the Durham miner who invented the sport of rowing we know today.

His funeral, held five days later, still holds the record for attracting the biggest-ever number of mourners seen on Tyneside as an estimated 130,000 people lined the route from Newcastle, across the River Tyne to Blaydon and up the hill to Whickham where he was laid to rest at St Mary’s Church.

Such was the fervour of people to pay their respects, the eight-mile journey, which started at 2.45pm, took around 12 hours to complete.

Not only a world champion sculler, Clasper was an innovative coach, trainer of future world champions and the inventor of the revolutionary thin racing crafts with the outriggers that we see today on rivers worldwide as well as at the Olympics and the Oxbridge boat race.

Revered nationally and internationally among the rowing fraternity, Harry Clasper is the first name on the timeline at Henley’s prestigious Rowing Museum.

Clasper first came to national and international prominence in June 1845 when he and his three brothers plus their Uncle Ned took on the mighty Thamesmen at Putney, London, and defeated them for the world championship.

Born in Dunston on the south bank of the Tyne in 1812, Clasper was raised in Jarrow where his father was a miner.

Later, as a Durham miner himself, in Hetton-le-Hole, Harry was involved in the Great Strike of 1831, before becoming a professional rower.

Modern cities developed along rivers in the Victorian era, where tens of thousands of people were employed in coal transportation, shipbuilding and the burgeoning engineering and chemical factories.

Every major river produced its champion rower and their favourite rowing team.

From the mid-1840s, the biggest rivalry was between London and Newcastle adn there were well-contested matches between the Thames and the Tyne where Harry Clasper and his team of brothers ruled supreme for more than a decade.

South Shields-based playwright Ed Waugh said: “Rowing, or aquatics as it was known in Victorian times, was the sport of the working class before football came along.

“Upwards of 100,00 people would watch the races on the Tyne and even more in London where they raced from Putney to Chiswick.

“Obviously alcohol and betting were involved, so it was a day out - like horse racing is today, except entry was free.

“Harry was part of teams that by 1859 had won eight world championships on the Thames and his fame spread worldwide, wherever there were rowing clubs.

“The North-East can proudly boast sporting greats and world champions like Alan Shearer, Jackie Milburn, Steve Cram and Glenn McCrory but Harry Clasper was arguably the greatest of them all.”

Clasper’s initial world title happened 175 years ago, on June 27, 1845, and that historical occasion was celebrated in a play by Waugh called Hadaway Harry.

It is thanks to Dave Clasper that the the memory of Harry Clasper has been kept alive.

His great, great grandfather, Richard, was Harry’s brother and the coxswain in the 1845 championship-winning boat.

David, 72, who lives on Tyneside, has collected Harry Clasper memorabilia for the past 55 years and written books about the champion rower.

He said: “It’s been a life-long interest and we’re delighted so many more people are now taking an interest in Harry and the other Geordie rowing world champions like Robert Chambers and James Renforth who were either trained by Harry or inspired by him.”

Harry’s sporting prowess was captured in song by Tyneside Victorian concert hall musical superstars like Ned Corvan and Joe Wilson but it is The Blaydon Races that has the most resonance today.

The song was written and first performed by Geordie Ridley at Harry Clasper’s testimonial in June 1862 at the historic Balmbras Music Hall in Newcastle.

Waugh said: “When Harry died in 1870, aged 58, more than 130,000 people lined the streets of Tyneside to pay tribute.

“Given the population of Newcastle then was probably less than half of that, people must have come from far and wide to see Harry off.”