The rise of shipbuilding on the Tyne during the nineteenth century had created thousands of skilled oarsmen. This created much rivalry between the boatmen on the Tyne and those of the River Thames and professional rowing events had become a common event on the Tyne by the mid nineteenth century. Many rowers such as Harry Clasper, Robert Chambers, and James Renforth achieved national fame and were immortalised in local songs and poems. This song refers to the death of famous Tyneside rower, James Renforth. Renforth's career was short and tragic. Between 1868 and 1871 Renforth won 39 races before he collapsed and died over his oars in Canada in 1871.
This song was written by William Dunbar and printed in 1874. Dunbar began his life in the service of Gateshead painter and glazier, Mr. Romanis. After working for a short time in the service of a Felling cartwright, he spent the remainder of his life in the coal pits. He varied the monotony of the pit life by appearing at amateur concerts at which, although not much of a singer, he was always well received. Along with his talent for composing, Dunbar had a decided taste for drawing and spent much of his spare time producing water-colours and pencil sketches. During the last few years of his life he spent most of his time writing pieces for the local annuals, published by J.W. Chater of Newcastle. He won a number of medals and competitions and on his death in 1874 was fondly remembered with a number of tributes in Chater's publications.
'The Deeth o' Jimmy Renforth' forms part of a small song book published by Stevenson and Dryden of Newcastle. It contains over 40 pages of local songs composed by Dunbar, along with extracts from 'Chater's Diary and Local Remembrancer'. Most of the songs are given the tune to which they were intended to be sung and are classified into 'local', 'motto', or 'comic' song types. The book was published in 1874, probably on the death of William Dunbar.