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The Bell Island Regatta of 1912

Story written by Michael Harrington
Article contributed by Barbara McGrath

Offbeat History

A letter to the Evening Telegram a short time ago from James McGrath (PC-St. John's East), (a copy of an original sent to Canada's Postmaster General Andre Ouellet) referred to a new recently issued Canadian stamp commemorating the establishment of the Royal Canadian Henley Regatta, about 80 years ago, as a continuous rowing competition, McGrath drew the minister's attention to the fact that the St. John's Annual Regatta, now in its 157th year, is the oldest annual sporting event of its kind, not only in Canada but in North America.

He felt it was time that such an event be honoured by the issue of a commemorative stamp, a sentiment with which I heartily agree. Indeed, I get vexed every once in a while when I recall the various issues of Canadian stamps that have been printed and circulated since 1949, so few of which have had any Newfoundland connection. But more of that in another time and place.

As far as I can learn the oldest regatta in Canada, outside of Newfoundland, dates back to the 1860s. In this province, in addition to the St. John's affair, there are several other regattas that have been in progress for many years, though not as continuously as the one in the capital. Those other events include the Harbour Grace Regatta, and regattas at Placentia, Mundy Pond and elsewhere. Some of these regattas are rowed in coves and bays of the ocean, with the oarsmen using dories or other craft that are sturdier than racing shells.

One such regatta that had a fairly long history was the Bell Island regatta. I don't think that too many people, other than Bell Islanders, know much about it. I didn't, for one, and so I was quite pleased a couple of weeks ago to be shown a picture, a photograph of the Bell Island Regatta Committee of 1912. It was lent to me by a former resident of Bell Island, Dr. Louis E. Lawton, now a resident of St. John's. The photograph accompanies this column, along with the names of most of the members. Some readers may be able to fill the gaps.

But, having got the picture into my possession, I did not quite know where to start to secure information to go with it. I tried most of the standard source books, but was unable to find anything, not even the month and particular day in 1912, which would have helped a lot. However, through a lucky coincidence that involved the interest and cooperation of a gentleman who remains anonymous, the following nearly complete story of the 1912 Regatta was secured. If the person I speak of happens to read this I would appreciate it if he would identify himself so that I could thank him personally.

I gather, or assume from the information I have received, that the Bell Island event existed some time before the First World War. The "king of sports" at Bell Island was football (soccer) and baseball had managed to secure a foothold by 1912; in fact the first game with a visiting team was held that summer. It was probably a team from St. John's. Cricket and tennis were also popular.

However the main event of the sporting season was the annual regatta and the most significant and attractive feature of it was that it consisted of a series of salt-water contests. Hundreds of spectators went to The Beach to see the oarsmen row their boats in Conception Bay. But the start of the war put a stop to the event. When the races were revived for a time after the war they were rowed on a pond created by one of the dams near the mines. Unfortunately, I don't know much about them either.

There were two companies working the iron ore mines at Bell Island in those days, familiarly known as the Scotia and Dominion companies. Teams of men from each company took part in all the athletic contests and there was, naturally, a great rivalry between them that extended into the regatta. The Dominion workers formed a rowing club in May of 1912.

They elected Angus McDonald as president; F. F. Jardone, vice-president; J. M. Greene, secretary, and J. J. Miller, treasurer. J. M. "Joe" Greene, later a well-known St. John's businessman, father of city lawyer James M. Greene, was the MHA for Bell Island in the late 1920s. R. T. Pine was financial secretary.

The club immediately placed an order with the fabulous boat builder of St. John's, Bob Sexton, who built the famous Blue Peter, in which the Outer Cove crew set a record in 1901 that stood the test until 1981. Their new raceboat was named the Eclipse. Not to be outdone, the Scotia Company ordered one as well, to be named the Doctor. Both were four-oared boats, 82 feet long, built of Canadian cedar. The two boats were apparently built in record time, being brought to Bell Island on July 23 and used for the first time at the Regatta four days later, July 27.

The preparations for the event only began on July 8. A meeting was held at the Dominion Fire Hall and the following were elected: C. F. Taylor, president; C. Main, vice-president; J. M. Greene, secretary; R. Proudfoot, treasurer. The then president of the St. John's Regatta Committee, A. Hiscock, was made an honorary member and invited to attend. A donation of $25 was received from Colonel Thomas Cantley, general manager of the Scotia Company, to start the ball rolling.

The accounts say the Regatta was moved ahead to July 27 because of the expectation of stormy weather in August. Since weather forecasting, as we have today, was unknown in 1912, I don't understand how they knew this unless it was based on past experience or the knowledge and records kept by old-timers who could read the signs. Regatta Day, of course, was a general holiday, the only such holiday, other than Good Friday and Christmas Day, in the working schedule of the mines.

The course for the boat races was one and one-eighth miles, and stretched from The Beach to the Dominion Pier and back again. St. John's Regatta President Hiscock and his vice-president, W. J. "Billy" Higgins (later Judge Higgins), were the honoured guests at the event.

The program for the races was as follows: Amateurs: - Three crews Wabanas, Dominions and Scotias. The latter crew brought the Doctor in first. Time, 9.24 2/5. Winners: A. Murphy (Cox); J. Connors, D. Parmiter, G. Badcock, E. Rees.

District Race: Bell Island defeated the crews from Portugal Cove, Broad Cove, Topsail and Wabana. Winning boat was the Eclipse and her time was 8.11 1/5. Winners: E. Butler (Cox), D. Dwyer, J. Kelly, W. Fitzgerald, P. Kelly.

Football Race: Scotia versus Dominion. The Doctor proved too fast for the Eclipse and her time as 8.32. Winners: A. Murphy (Cox), E. Butler, G. George, T. Woods, A. Cahill.

Juveniles: Again won by the Doctor in the time of 9.47. Winners: A. Murphy (Cox), W. Rees, P. Kent, W. Connors and R. Rees.

Surface Miners: The Scotia boat came out on top again in the company "struggle." Time, 8.29 2/5. Winners: A. Cull, (Cox), P. Kent, P. Hayes, R. Kent and J. Gosse.

Underground Miners: Again the husky Scotia crew brought the Doctor in first. They also made the best time for the day, 7.58 1/. Winners were E. Sweeney (Cox), A. Metcalfe, J. Rideout, W. Metcalfe and J. Crann.

Mechanics: The Blanche was in this race as well as the Eclipse and the Doctor. But again the fast Scotia boat eliminated the Dominion crew and the Wabanas. Winners: R. Kent (Cox), E. Murley, J. Fitzgerald, J. Kent and W. Cochrane.

The crew from Portugal Cove carried off the honours in the All-Comers Race. Once more it was the Doctor that crossed the finish line first. Time 8.43 - 8.42.

It is very interesting to note that, while Bob Sexton built both the Eclipse and the Doctor, the latter was, obviously, a faster, perhaps a better-built boat, for some reason or other. Maybe it was the craftsmen who worked on the boats; perhaps it was the wood. But I am inclined to wonder if the coxswain had anything to do with the Doctor's success. In at least three of the races she won, the coxswain was A. Murphy. Maybe some regatta enthusiast could offer an explanation.

Anyway, that, in brief, is the story of the Bell Island Regatta of 1912. Now I come to the members of the successful committee who arranged it and made it the success it obviously was.

The picture, as the reader can see, was taken on The Beach, with the steep cliff face of Bell Island in the background.

Standing (l-r): Nath Sheppard; J. H. Bennett; T. Blackwood; Peter Fitzgerald; L. J. Lawton; J. R. Stewart; Lauchie McLean; C. Main; R. Proudfoot; D. Carnochan; D. F. Taylor; D. Ireland; J. J. Bates; Angus McDonald; Joe Greene; Dick Kent; Jack Kavanagh; D. J. Jackman.

Sitting (l to r): Dan Steele; William Bennett; Jimmy Kavanagh; C. B. Archibald; R. Burnham; J. T. Meaney; Jim Fitzgerald; Peter Kennedy; W. J. Higgins; (unknown); Michael Dwyer, Sr.; (?) Burton; Reg Dowden.

I have a feeling that there are more representatives from the St. John's Regatta Committee than the newspaper account says, in addition to W. J. Higgins. A note on the back of the picture, acco saying the names of those portrayed, refers to J. J. Bates as "president of the St. John's Regatta Committee" while the account reports the name of A. Hiscock. Perhaps he was unable to attend and Bates took his place.

The "L. J. Lawton" in the photo is, of course, the father of Dr. Lawton and the others of that well-known and successful Bell Island family. Mr. Lawton, for most of his business life was a reputable druggist and proprietor of his own drugstore. The photograph of the Regatta Committee at Bell Island in 1912 hung on the wall of his office until the business closed.


Contributed and Transcribed by: Ivy F. Benoit July 29, 2001
Revised: July 2002 (Terry Piercey)

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