15 July 1881
‘St. Swithin’s day if thou dost rain’
July month in Newfoundland was the month for the ‘excursionists’. It was the month when most established organization’s would be in the process of planning excursions ‘around the bay’ for their members. The date on the calendar that the organizers for these excursions were watching was July 15.
July 15 in Newfoundland was traditionally known as St. Swithin’s Day, (or more properly, Swithun) a day on which people watch the weather for tradition says that whatever the weather is like on St. Swithin’s Day, it will continue so for the next forty days.
The residents of St. John’s, many of English ancestry were very familiar with the Elizabethan weather-rhyme:
‘St. Swithin’s day if thou dost rain
For forty days it will remain
St. Swithin’s day if thou be fair
For forty days ’twill rain nae mair.’
The excursions were holiday outings by coastal vessels to the Newfoundland outports, the most popular being Renews, Placentia and Trinity. Upon arrival in these villages the ‘townies’ would be greeted by the locals where they would be treated to a breakfast “after which the sports of the day would commence.” Some of the ‘sports’ included horse races, foot, hurdle and sack and wheelbarrow races, shooting matches and in the evenings dramatic entertainment and lantern shows .
Organizers for the excursions were disappointed to find on July 15, 1881 that it was a wet day. The local St. John’s paper, The Evening Telegram reported.
“A wet St. Swithen’s Day. Oh, whatever trials are yet in store for excursionists this season.“
Organizers of the excursions were well aware that individuals would be less reluctant to reserve a spot on an excursion if inclement weather was anticipated.
Who was St. Swithin?
St. Swithin (or more properly, Swithun) was a Saxon Bishop of Winchester. He was born in the kingdom of Wessex and educated in its capital, Winchester. He was famous for charitable gifts and building churches. A legend says that as the Bishop lay on his deathbed, he asked to be buried out of doors with the poor where he would be trodden on and rained on. For nine years, his wishes were followed, but then, the monks of Winchester attempted to remove his remains to a splendid shrine inside the cathedral on 15 July 971. According to legend there was a heavy rain storm either during the ceremony or on its anniversary.
This led to the folklore tradition that if it rains on St Swithin’s Day (July 15th), it will rain for the next 40 days in succession, and a fine 15th July will be followed by 40 days of fine weather.
How did the tradition get to Newfoundland?
Beginning in the early 17th century, immigrants from the West of England (mainly from Wessex) began to settle in Newfoundland. By the early 1800s they had founded numerous fishing villages and towns and comprised about 60 percent of the resident population. The Wessex component was the largest ethno-European group to settle Newfoundland and Labrador. Most of these immigrants (80-85%) originated in the counties of Devon, Dorset, Hampshire and Somerset, with notable additions from the adjacent counties of Wiltshire, Gloucestershire, and Cornwall.
Recommended Website: http://www.math.mun.ca/~wessex/wordpress/
Recommended Song: Billy Bragg, St. Swithin’s Day: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ljJl-E5bzm4
Old English words: dost = does; thou = you; nae mair = no more.