Now and Then explores the stories behind Toronto’s historical plaques and monuments.
It was lonely being a boating enthusiast in early 19th century Toronto. Lake Ontario is on our doorstep, but a yacht fan would have nowhere to turn for companionship. That is, until 1852—when the Toronto Boat Club was started. Two years later, it was renamed the Royal Canadian Yacht Club after receiving a royal charter from Queen Victoria, and it still has the same name today.
Throughout the 1850s, the club would post advertisements in the Globe to call members to meetings and to inform them of the elected officers each year. In October 1858, the club held a regatta with prizes totalling $600, also reported in the Globe. The Globe reporter at the scene was taken by the sight of the boats and described the regatta, saying, “for a lover of aquatics, it was interesting in the extreme.”
The club established the oldest freshwater racing trophy, the Prince of Wales Cup, in 1882, and was a founding member of the Lake Yacht Racing Association, formed in 1884, which created set rules for the sport. The Ontario Heritage Trust plaque about the club recognizes it for “the promotion of yachting and naval interests” and notes the many members who have gone on to win accolades in the sport.
By 1862, the club had also started an armed naval company, which drilled three times a week. According the club’s current website, it was formed as both a group for yachters and as an “unofficial auxiliary of the Royal Navy in the defence of the waters of Lake Ontario.”
In 1881, the club moved from the Toronto waterfront to the Toronto Island, where it built a new clubhouse with a view of the green island and the lake. Ivy grew up along the porch eventually. Sadly, this first island house was destroyed by a fire in August 1904. A second one burned in 1918. The current building, started in 1919 when Edward Prince of Wales laid the cornerstone, is still the club’s summer base.
In 1885, the club held its annual ball at the Horticultural Pavilion, which the Globe described as “large and brilliant.” They counted 700 attendees, and the evening was a “gratifying success.” In 1891, the Globe declared the ball “thronged with guests” as “a social triumph” and “the finest in their history,” and noted that the Governor General had attended. The 1904 fire at the island clubhouse started during one of the weekly dances. The Globe noted that the dancers were alerted to the blaze as they were in the middle of a waltz. The Globe reported that the steward noticed the fire while checking on his daughter, Bobbie, in bed. The Star reported that it was his son Bobbie, but given the Globe‘s on-the-ground reporting, it seems likelier that Bobbie was the steward’s daughter.
In 1895, some club members branched out and started a cycling club for the “wheeling members,” as the Toronto Star called them.
The Prince of Wales visited the club on his tour of Toronto in the summer of 1919. He took a boat out to the island, where he apparently spent half an hour, after being cheered by thousands at the Ex, according to the Globe‘s breathless report.
The current Prince of Wales, Charles, has yet to visit the club, although he did visit Toronto on the Royal Yacht Britannia with Princess Diana, Prince William, and Prince Harry in 1991.
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