Dictionary of National Biography, 1912 supplement/Clasper, John Hawks

CLASPER, JOHN HAWKS (1836–1908), boat-builder and oarsman, born at Newcastle-on-Tyne on 13 Oct. 1836, was eldest son of Henry Clasper (1812–1870), oarsman and boat-builder of that place.

The father took to rowing about 1830, while working at the Garesfield coke ovens. He became a practical waterman, and his mechanical skill enabled him to devise for the first time boats of a racing build, those of ordinary traffic having hitherto served for racing purposes. His chief invention was the outrigger, which permitted diminution of beam in the boat without loss of leverage in the oar. His outrigger was first applied to a four-oar in 1844, and was adopted for eights in the university race of 1846. His improvements in boats, combined with his skill in rowing and sculling, brought him numerous aquatic successes. In 1842 he was already undisputed champion of the Tyne, and between 1842 and 1870 he appeared in 120 first-class races. Of thirty-one skiff races he won eighteen; and fourteen pair-oar races out of twenty-five. As stroke in a four he was without equal, being beaten only thirteen times in sixty-three engagements.

The son John began his aquatic career as a coxswain at the age of ten, and in 1852 started rowing and sculling at regattas. In 1854 he was apprenticed to a London waterman and won a sculling race at Richmond. In 1855 he gained a four-oar victory at Wandsworth. In 1856 he twice defeated John Carrol in matches on the Clyde. 1857 was a year full of successes at the regattas of Durham, Thames, Lancaster and the Northern Rowing Club. In 1858 Clasper and his father (they began racing together two years before) beat with Richard and Thomas Clasper (his uncles) the brothers Taylor for 100l. with the championship of the Tyne. Next day (15 June) the success was repeated over the same crew at Durham, where father and son also won the prize for pair-oars. In the winter the son beat George Francis on the Putney to Mortlake course for 40l. In the Durham regatta of 1859 he not only won the open boat sculling race but was in the crew which after winning the Patrons' plate also secured the champion prize at Thames regatta and the Pomona cup at Manchester. 1860 was another year of successes; as a sculler Clasper won at Durham and at Talkin Tarn; with his father he won the pair-oared races at the Manchester regatta and at the Newcastle and Gateshead regatta. He beat Tom Pocock in sculling twice in 1861 on the Thames. Clasper's performance at Manchester regatta in the same year was remarkable as a feat of endurance. He won the Pomona prize, and though beaten in the sculling handicap was only defeated by M. Scott, to whom he gave eleven lengths' start; in the preliminary heat he had beaten a rival whose handicap was six lengths. On 26 May 1861 he beat George Drewitt (for 200l.) on the Tyne.

His triumphs of 1861 mark the climax of his athletic life, but in six subsequent seasons he was still a winner. His four in which his father rowed at the age of fifty won the Durham race in 1862 and the Thames regatta champion prize. As late as 1876 (his fortieth year) he stroked, and won a prize in, a scratch eight at the Oxford regatta.

Clasper had already established himself as an expert trainer of crews and ‘pilot’ of scullers when he began in 1868 to take seriously to boat building at his father's works on the Tyne. He was the inventor neither of the sliding seat, which was an American invention first used by a four-oar on the Tyne in 1871, nor of the keel- less boat, which was due to Mat. Taylor, the professional of the Royal Chester Rowing Club, in 1856. But both inventions owed improvements to Clasper. Like one or two other oarsman he early discovered the advantage to be derived from allowing the body to slide on a fixed seat. Clasper subsequently devoted much time to perfecting the mechanical slide, and experimented with brass slides, glass, and rollers. In regard to the keel-less boats, Clasper worked out and perfected two radical changes of value: one was a lessening of the depth or draught of the boat, thereby reducing the water friction, and the other was the formation, after the analogy of a fish, of what may be called the 'shoulder.' In other words he placed the maximum width not in the centre of the length, but somewhat in advance. He also invented the countervail to obviate the steering difficulty caused by side wind.

John, whose father had never built eight-oared boats, greatly developed his business during the period (1870-4) when Cambridge were enjoying a run of victories over Oxford, and he built the 'eights' which were successful in 1870, 1871, 1872, and 1873. Continuous orders from both universities followed, and Clasper transferred a branch of his building business to the river at Oxford. About 1880 the supremacy in successful construction of racing boats was divided between Swaddle & Winship (a Tyneside firm) and Clasper. One of his best boats was that in which Oxford rowed in 1883. After training in a Swaddle & Winship craft the crew took to a new 'Clasper,' and won with the odds at three to one on Cambridge.

Clasper, whose integrity was recognised among all classes of oarsmen, was long a well-known figure at aquatic meetings, and in middle age was remarkable for his youthful appearance. His rowing weight when stripped was only 8 stone 3 lbs. and his height 5 feet 5| inches. He died on 15 Sept. 1908 at his residence, Lower Richmond Road, Putney. Clasper married in 1871 Elizabeth, daughter of George Rough of Wandsworth Common, and sister of Frederick Rough, boat-builder, of Oxford. His boat-building business is now carried on by his widow, assisted by his younger brother, Henry.

[Field, 1908, cxii. 528, 562; Newcastle Daily Chronicle, 13 July 1870; notes supplied by J. H. Clasper & Co.]

P. W.