Who was Robert Stanley Weir?
His name might sound familiar, but if you are Canadian, you have most assuredly sung his words many times. For Robert Stanley Weir composed the English lyrics to our National Anthem, ‘O Canada.’
I suspect much could be said about this anthem writer as an educator, lawyer, judge, and poet. But what remained lost and forgotten, until recently, was his long career as a golf writer of international renown.
My initial acquaintance with Robert Stanley Weir began as the hour was getting late. Gazing vacantly at the computer screen after spending several hours organizing the framework for a book I am working on about my grandfather, Albert Murray, and his older brother Charles, both early pioneers of professional golf in Canada, the article on my screen was from the Canadian Golfer magazine in 1916. It was a piece Weir had penned, Causerie at Kanawaki. In the story, Albert was called in to get his opinion on gripping the golf club. As I refocused, I noticed a small italicized Golf Illustrated, New York, without attribution at the end. I was intrigued.
I accessed the available archives for Golf Illustrated from the United States Golf Association and LA84 Foundation. Most golfers have served time in the woods after a badly hit shot. Crunching your way through the branches and foliage trying to locate your ball, only to spot other balls lost in the nooks and crannies of the underbrush is where, so to speak, I discovered Robert Stanley Weir, what has been lost and forgotten, his long career as a golf writer: a career that spanned 23 years.
Was Robert Stanley Weir Canada’s Bernard Darwin, A.W.Tillinghast or Walter Travis, I wondered? I searched Canadian golf history books and articles for any reference to him and his place in our golf history. I found nothing. Next, I combed online. I found two obscure references to Weir and golf, both American sources. Maybe, it was that of his articles were variously identified – R. Stanley Weir, Mr. Recorder Weir, Robert Stanley Weir, DCL, Hon. Robert Stanley Weir- so they were overlooked as the authors being one and the same person. Was it as simple an oversight as that? Maybe it was that he died in 1926 and his history slowly faded as the decades came and went. I did find after the Canadian Golfer periodical was launched in 1915, Weir had contributed a few short articles over the years that also included several reprints from his writings for Golf Illustrated.
Weir’s First Article
Weir’s first article on golf appeared in the January, 1902, issue of Golf, the official publication of the United States Golf Association. This was two years before the first Canadian Open, nine years before the founding of the PGA of Canada and thirteen years before the first Canadian Golfer magazine. Pioneer Golf in America, is a lively and humorous hole by hole tour and history of the grounds where golf was first played and formally organized as a golf club in North America in 1873. Located below the slopes of Mount Royal, known as ‘Fletcher’s Field’, in Montreal, it was the start of the Royal Montreal golf club.
Albert Murray and Robert Stanley Weir
Albert Murray first met Weir in 1903 as a 16-year-old golf pro, shortly after arriving in Montreal from Toronto. Invited by Weir and his friend J.H. Birks for a round at the Outremont Golf Club where Weir was the founder and 1st Vice-President in 1902 Sir George Drummond was the honorary 1st President- word had spread in golfing circles about this young golf prodigy from the Pro Shop of George Cumming at the Toronto Golf Club.
Albert would later be recruited by Weir and Birks in 1908, as head professional at the Outremont Golf Club, the same year he won his first Canadian Open at the age of 20. A few years later, urban expansion led to pressure for property on the golf grounds at Outremont, so Weir and Birks, along with others, leased several lots of land on Mohawk territory southwest of Montreal and the Kanawaki Golf Club was founded. Albert, and his brother Charlie were given the commission to design the 18 hole layout and Albert became the club’s first head professional. (The 2005 Disney movie, “The Greatest Game Ever Played” was filmed on location there). Their association with each other would continue in the years ahead with Albert often referenced in Weir’s golf articles.
Early Life and Education
Robert Stanley Weir was born November 15, 1856 in Hamilton, Ontario where his parents had emigrated from Scotland in 1852. Not long after they left for Montreal where his father, an iron founder by trade, eventually became the Surveyor of Customs for the Port of Montreal. The family settled in Griffintown, a working-class neighborhood close to the Lachine Canal, which at the time, was mainly populated by Irish immigrant labourers.
Early on, Weir distinguished himself academically, graduating from McGill Normal School as a teacher at 16, then at 19, appointed principal of a large public school in Montréal. In 1882, he married Margaret Douglas, the daughter of a wealthy Montreal businessman. They had 6 children (2 sons, and 4 daughters).
Fluently trilingual, (English, French, and Latin) Weir continued his studies at McGill University. He was called to the bar in 1881, and subsequently earned his doctorate in Civil Law in 1897. His dissertation was on “The Administration of the Old Regime of Canada”.
Weir had a remarkable legal career. Renowned as an expert in Municipal law, he wrote the Legislative Acts for Education, the Municipal Code, and the Code of Civil Procedure, among other legal treatises for Quebec. Appointed “Recorder” in 1899 (British term, in this case, referring to a Municipal Court Judge) and later an Honorary Recorder (senior judge), Weir was assigned to the Exchequer Court of Canada (federal court) in 1925.
Along the way, he was a professor at the Congregational College, affiliated with McGill, and published two books of poetry. He also wrote on music and literary subjects for Harper’s in the U.S. and other magazines in Canada. An accomplished musician on the piano and organ, Weir preferred playing piano to a small circle of close friends and the organ in his church.
Weir found refuge from his legal responsibilities and the burgeoning metropolis of Montreal- the economic hub of Canada at the time- in his beloved summer residence, “Cedarhurst”. Located in the Eastern Townships of Quebec, close to the US Border, Cedarhurst was once a 17-room hotel in the hamlet of Cedarville. Cedarhurst was the idyllic location to raise his children. But equally important, it offered Weir solitude in his crammed full library overlooking Lake Memphremagog with a view of the Green Mountains of Vermont off in the distance. I imagined him by the quietly crackling fireplace, his favourite fountain pen in hand, thinking this is where he found his pleasure and muse. It was reported that Cedarhurst was where he wrote the lyrics to “O Canada”.
Weir becomes Smitten with Golf
Weir was 17 when Royal Montreal came into existence in 1873. He recounted first seeing golf played below the slopes of Mount Royal in the early 1880’s where he had witnessed Sir George Drummond, Alexander Dennistoun, and the Sidly brothers on “club days where it was ‘de rigueur’ to present themselves in red coats and white unmentionables” when playing.
It’s not exactly clear when he became smitten and took up the game but by 1904, Weir was “one of the foremost players in Montreal golfing circles, and has been twice champion of his own club” touted the editor of Golf.
Three years later George Wright, a future Baseball Hall of Famer and avid golfer had prevailed on Weir to attend a special exhibition team match he was organizing at the Wollaston Golf Club in Massachusetts for “old-timers”. Other players from Oakley, Brae Burn and The Country Club attended. These are “men who have been identified with the game for a majority of the years since the Royal and Ancient pastime was introduced in this section of the world”, Wright said.
Weir Finds His Focus
Perhaps, not surprisingly, with his academic background, a lawyer’s logic, and keen observational skills in the era of applied science, Weir became fascinated with “elucidating that most elusive of all things, the theory of the Why and Wherefore of Golf”, the editor of Golf magazine wrote in 1904. Weir would contribute feature articles on the subject over the next two decades. His Golfers in Action series profiled early amateur and professional champions, now legends in the game. Profiling players like Walter Travis, C.B MacDonald and Willie Anderson among others, Weir began to analyze their swings with systematic observation of their differences and similarities. He also became aware of the importance of the mental side of the game and listed “equable temperament” as the first order of need. The golfer “who is irascible by nature is foredoomed to failure,” he scribed.
The Why and Wherefore of Golf
Long before video, high-speed photography and the like, Weir, relying solely on personal observation, books, magazines and photos- the mass media of the day- tried to disentangle the physics and forces of a struck golf ball: positioning, grip, the swing and follow through were the components Weir pursued in search of their fundamental laws to become a competent golfer.
Weir’s ideas were not without controversy. His rejoinder to Harvard professor, E.M. East, who took great exception to Weir’s feature article entitled, Mr. Scott’s Analysis Reviewed is priceless. Weir starts off,” It is quite clear that ‘Prof. E. M. East, Harvard University’ has lost his temper; something no golfer should do, whether pen or niblick be in his hand.” His review of the early Canadian golf professional, Launcelot Cressy Servos’ book, Practical Instruction in Golf, brought a long rebuke from Servos who was furious Weir had gone public with his criticisms and suggested in other circumstances he would have challenged Weir to a fight.
Golf Illustrated, New York
By late 1912, Max Behr had assumed editorial responsibilities for Golf magazine. But the Yale educated competitive amateur golfer, writer and course architect had other plans. To match, or rather surpass, the United Kingdom’s edition of Golf Illustrated, Behr founded a U.S. version of Golf Illustrated in April, 1914. It had all the gloss and sophistication New York publishers of the day had to offer in design, layout, photography and illustration. The time was ripe as golf had reached the tipping point of wider popularity in North America.
Behr recruited writers at the forefront of the game for the first issue: The iconic British golf journalist, Bernard Darwin; golf writer, Horace H. Hutchison; multiple Open and Amateur Champions, Harold H. Hilton, Jerome Travers and Francis Ouimet; America’s first syndicated golf columnist and player, John G. Anderson, and his Hon. Robert Stanley Weir.
Shortly after Behr handed Weir responsibility for reviewing all new books on golf instruction. ”He probably has the most complete knowledge of any writer in America of the various theories of play”, Behr stated. Bernard Darwin said Weir “has an intelligible way of explaining something, which is horribly difficult to explain”.
With his richly textured and eloquent prose- and for the reader, aided with a dram of patience and a dictionary at hand for the historical and literary references- Weir contributed other feature articles on a range of topics.
His reportage in the first issue on the 1914 Amateur Championship when a young Francis Ouimet wins at the Walter Travis layout, Ekwanok, is a personal and evocative account of an era. His haunting The Plains of Abraham, where a golf course had settled on grounds once a bloody battlefield is a powerful anti-war poem, issued early in WWI. His waggish The Golfer in Winter or Latin on the Links is most worthy of a read and a chuckle. In Curling: The Roaring Game, Weir finds the amusing contrasts between the two games. In his Vanity Fair article, Gentleness of Golf, he takes on the stereotype of the ill tempered and foul-mouthed golfer.
His second to last feature article in 1924 and his seminal essay Alternate Subordination of the Elbows won praise as “singularly never yet been presented …in any textbook on golf. “The first time in our knowledge that it ever has been expounded upon”. Included was a bolded open letter from legendary American golfer Charles ‘Chick’ Evans praising Weir’s findings.
Golfers Magazine, Chicago
America’s fourth magazine devoted to golf that began as ‘Western Golfer’ in 1897 was published by U.S. amateur golfer, Charles ‘Chick’ Evans and editor, C.W. Higgins. Weir contributed at least 10 articles but the available magazine archive is limited, not yet fully digitized, with remaining physical copies, very scarce. A beautifully illustrated magazine, Weir continued his study on the mechanics of the golf swing in his essays.
Death and Legacy
The Hon. Dr. Robert Stanley Weir passed away on August 20th 1926 in his 70th year, about 15 days after falling ill with pneumonia. Was Weir Canada’s Darwin, Tillinghast or Travis? Perhaps, but at the very least he deserves recognition in our country’s rich and deep golf history for his early contributions to the development of game in Canada with his writings.
What I am most confident about though is that Weir, as a proud Canadian, would most certainly be delighted his golf writings were located after such a long time, hidden in the underbrush.
I am indebted to Karen Hewson, Executive Director, The Stanley Thompson Society, and Meggan Gardner, Director, Heritage Services at Golf Canada for their invaluable assistance and collaboration.
Writings of Robert Stanley Weir