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Letter: Regatta’s start date isn’t certain

The first race of the 199th running of the Royal St. John's Regatta Wednesday at Quidi Vidi Lake.
Scene from the Royal St. John’s Regatta 2017 at Quidi Vidi Lake. — Telegram file photo

When I began researching Regatta history 30 years ago, I was actually collecting the then existing and accepted history of the St. John’s Regatta because of the captivating sagas that established it as a Newfoundland institution.

It was filled with truths, anecdotes and countless beyond belief-type tales and yarns. The result was three books of Regatta history.

Unfortunately, like the committees and historians since 1871, I relied mistakenly on the widely distributed word-of-mouth items as a source for my writings. This led to my first three books, “Up the Pond,” “Stroke of Champions” and “Day at the Races.” However, the more I learned of its history, the more I wanted to fill in the missing gaps by carrying out extensive research, particularly into the first 50 years.

The records, unfortunately, to my disappointment, provided there is no basis whatever for claiming 1818 as the founding year of the Royal St. John’s Regatta.

The records do support a tradition of rowing and sailing contests on the harbour. But these were the traditions of naval and fishing vessels competing with each other, and separate completely from such races held by the residents of St. John’s. These races were initiated by the British Navy, which held them in whatever port and whatever country they visited, mainly to provide relaxation and relieve boredom among the men.

Originally it made sense to me to bring together the stories that made the Regatta a charming, enchanting and extraordinary Newfoundland institution. However, the process raised many unanswered questions about its actual starting date which, when more deeply researched, led to my fourth book on Regatta history, entitled “The New Regatta,” which was released days before this year’s Regatta.

The records, unfortunately, to my disappointment, provided there is no basis whatever for claiming 1818 as the founding year of the Royal St. John’s Regatta. In addition to that determination, his book preserves many of the tales that have evolved into Regatta legends and deserve to be passed on each year.

As embarrassing as this finding may be to the Regatta Committee, it is not without precedent. The history of our Regatta is rampant with erroneous “starting dates.” Earlier committees were faced with the challenge of dealing with each error as additional history was revealed. An example of this took place in the mid-1940s when Telegram sports editor and serious Regatta historian John T. Rabbits discovered the earliest surviving record of the Regatta was found in The Mercantile Journal of August 1826. Prior to that date the committee had adopted 1828 as the earliest known record and then recognized 1826 as the first Regatta.

After almost 200 years of Regatta history, the public understands the difficulty of chronicling the history of a sporting organization so old that volumes of its records were scattered and some lost in the fires that destroyed St. John’s.

The newly completed research into the first 50 years confirms and limits the founding date to one of two years, 1825 or 1824, while eliminating the year 1818 as having any connection with the St. John’s Regatta, except as influencing the succeeding start date. Some weight is given to 1824 as the start date because of its significance as the year Britain officially recognized Newfoundland’s colonial status.

Several years ago, Dee Murphy suggested that I meet with a provincial archivist for the purpose of settling the founding date question. I was quite willing but unfortunately the meeting never took place.

The challenge for each annual Regatta Committee was the difficult job of organizing it and raising the funds to assure its success. In that they were outstandingly successful. This is particularly true when one considers the several occasions in the last hundred years when it was teetering on collapse and not forgetting that there was a time when the committee members pledged their own credit to finance the Regatta and were individually responsible for any loss. It is to these men that the credit should go for the Regatta surviving to celebrate an anniversary and making 2018 the best year on record. However, future committees, like those of the past, will have to eventually deal with up-to-date history, just as previous committees did.

Meanwhile, even the issue of where and how so many committees got it wrong for so long is explainable by the methods used to pass the original history down through an era spanning three centuries. That was done by three methods: newspapers, written records and word of mouth. It was the unreliable word of mouth that provided the foundation for the 1818 argument and exaggerated many outstanding achievements.

Jack Fitzgerald

St. John’s

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