JAMES RENFORTH of Gateshead: Champion Sculler of the World by Ian Whitehead, (City of Newcastle Libraries and Information Service, £7.99)

BETWEEN 70,000 and 100,000 people lined the streets for his funeral. Canadians named a town after him. His fellow Tynesiders once pulled his cab in triumph through the streets of Newcastle. But who now has heard of James Renforth, the greatest oarsman in a period when the sport equalled football in popularity, not only in Britain but abroad? Some 20,000 spectators saw a four-man crew headed by Renforth beat a Canadian four by 200 yards over six miles on Lake St Louis, New Brunswick. This victory was the more remarkable because Renforth's boat was brought to a halt by ice, and in negotiating this obstacle he and his crew rowed further than the home crew.

A blacksmith's striker by trade, Renforth discovered a talent for rowing when ferrying men to work on demolition of the old Tyne bridge in 1866. Thickset, though not tall, he was soon so superior to rivals that it became difficult to find challengers for an individual match. But it was by decisively beating the acknowledged Thames champion on the Londoner's own water that he became the acknowledged English champion, earning that remarkable cab ride on his return to Tyneside.

But his tragic end came with a return match against the Canadians in 1872 for what was regarded as the world Fours championship. With his boat in the lead, Renforth collapsed, dying soon afterwards in the arms of his friend and crewmate, the former London champion. Rumours abounded that Renforth had been poisoned, perhaps with a toxic substance smeared on his oars. But Whitehead believes his death was due to the epilepsy from which he suffered, a condition better understood now than then.

Out of respect for Renforth, the local shops (in Canada) closed for two days, and his hosts also sent a memorial tablet in local stone, which survives in St Mary's Church, Gateshead. Twenty-two years later memory of him remained bright enough for a new resort village to be named in his honour. Meanwhile, back home, an elaborate sculpted memorial depicting his death had gone up at his grave. Recently restored, it now stands outside Gateshead's Shipley Art Gallery.

Whithead's book is largely a blow by blow - or pull by pull - account of Renforth's rowing feats, with his domestic life - wife and child - only lightly sketched. But besides giving him the prominence he deserves, it mirrors the astonishing fervour that once surrounded rowing.

Renforth himself emerges as an exemplary sportsman. Though twirling an upraised hand at the moment of triumph, he was never boastful in victory, and he found it difficult to speak in public. What perhaps raised him above other oarsman was his novel habit of sliding in his seat, thus gaining power from his legs. Disliked by traditionalists, this led to the sliding seat, integral to competitive rowing ever since.

Hail James Renforth.

Published: 16/11/2004