Harry Godfrey

CVA 99-35 harry godfrey (1913)
Harry Godfrey, 1913

HARRY ROWELL GODFREY
(August 14, 1880 – April 12, 1941)

Vancouver Lacrosse Club (ca.1904-1913)

One of the most prevalent – and at the same time, for the modern historian, one of the most daunting and frustrating – aspects of researching lacrosse history in Canada is the sport’s heavy reliance on oral history. Stories which have been passed down word-of-mouth between the generations which are then later documented to paper as ‘fact’ – and then trying to sort out the inconsistencies that then arise when these stories don’t match.

Film footage of lacrosse is almost non-existent with only a single-known, brief, blurry clip dating from before the 1920s. Otherwise we are forced to rely on the words of newspaper reports, photographs, and reminiscences of those who were there. Photographs are a singular instant in time which don’t generally shed any clues as to the actual playing ability of the subjects on them.

With so many of the great lacrosse players from yesterday, while it’s been passed along that such and such player was a great star or a fan favourite, we have very little factual data today as to show why they were so regarded – especially with the inevitable passing of time, when a player obituary was written with little regard for accuracy and more focus on memorialising the deceased in the very best light. First-hand reminiscence and observations do have value when documented at the time of occurrence, but as time marches on, memories grow old and fade and often those memories start to diverge and contradict with the hard facts that do remain and can be confirmed.

With many of the early inductees in the Canadian Lacrosse Hall of Fame, we know perhaps two or three sentences about them – and nothing more. With many players and people involved in the game a hundred years ago, we don’t even know when they were born nor in many cases when they died. It’s a sad state of affairs but one we must grudgingly live with, as historical preservation had different priorities and criteria decades ago. Obviously the powers that be, in their day, viewed (and in many cases, knew firsthand) that these players had incredible, outstanding merits – but practically no effort was then made to preserve the actual documentation and facts to keep their history alive and tell their stories to the generations to come.

X979.145.1 harry godfrey (1912)
Harry Godfrey, 1912

One such player is Harry Godfrey.

We are told he was a great player; the people in the lacrosse community who came before us saw him worthy enough to be inducted into the Canadian Lacrosse Hall of Fame in 1970, just five years after the hall was established. Today, however, forty-five years after his induction and over a century since he played his last game, we now do not know very much about him nor what drove his greatness. And when those scraps of facts which can be gleaned from newspapers are cobbled together, in the case of Harry Godfrey, the puzzle creates more contradictions and questions than it does assemble a clear picture.

Harry Rowell Godfrey was born in Winnipeg, Manitoba in 1880. We know nothing of him prior to his arrival in Vancouver in 1900. He did not start playing lacrosse, it is reported, until his arrival in the Terminal City – yet within a year of appearing on the Coast, it has also been said that he was on the Vancouver YMCA senior team that traveled east in 1901 to challenge for the Minto Cup. Even more incredibly, in May 1904, he was unanimously elected the club captain of the Vancouver Lacrosse Club – an impressive feat for a player with only four years’ playing experience under his belt, and an event which earnt him mention in the press. These two events make one wonder if he did have some exposure or playing experience prior to his relocation to Vancouver.

We know he ran a sporting goods store, Harry R. Godfrey Gunsmiths and Sporting Goods, which was located first on Cordova Street and then later moved to West Hastings. His business opened in 1903 but had closed up shop by 1916. Amongst other items, his store sold lacrosse sticks to players of all ages and ability.

As for his playing ability, according to a newspaper article written at the time of his death in 1941, Godfrey was “…a big and wiry man,” who “…starred at home [i.e. midfield], and, later, defense. He was greatly respected by teammates and opposition both. After his playing days were over he was in the sporting goods business for many years, and later operated a mink farm in Burnaby.” The Spokesman-Review newspaper of Spokane, Washington specifically pointed him out in their review of the on-going 1907 Canadian lacrosse season him as Vancouver’s “husky inside home player”.

Then there are the questionable facts which were later preserved but probably never verified at the time – this is part of the oral history regarding Godfrey that was probably created or passed from second- and third-hand sources. The classic but unsubstantiated ‘I knew a guy who knew a guy who knew or saw him play, and he said…’

According the biography written for Godfrey’s induction in the hall of fame, he played for “a number of school and junior teams” and that “he completed his field lacrosse career by playing ten years of senior lacrosse from 1907 to 1917 until the team disbanded because of the war.” But, what seems to have happened, is a blurring of facts and dates due to the passage of time and memories.

Victoria Daily Colonist, (May 21, 1904)
Victoria Daily Colonist, (May 21, 1904)

Based on more recent newspaper investigation, his playing career spanned a period starting no later than 1902 to ending in 1913 no earlier. He played professional lacrosse from 1909 through 1913 with Vancouver Lacrosse Club – and due to the regulations at the time, there would have been no way Godfrey could have then been permitted to play senior (amateur) lacrosse after his professional career ended. His name does not appear in game reports nor photographs of him with the Vancouver Athletic Club, the senior amateur team of the day. Vancouver’s professional team (and VAC) disbanded in 1915 and there was no lacrosse played in British Columbia during the war years of 1916 and 1917.

As for his alleged junior and school career which came before his senior and professional career, it is really difficult to determine or comprehend when this would have occurred – if it actually did occur – if he didn’t play any lacrosse prior to moving to Vancouver. He arrived in Vancouver at age 20, a few years too old for the junior or scholastic leagues of the time.

Outside of lacrosse, he excelled in basketball and had a keen interest in the YMCA organisation.

Harry Godfrey passed away in 1941 and was buried in Mountainview Cemetery in Vancouver. He was inducted into the Canadian Lacrosse Hall of Fame in 1970.

(PHOTO SOURCES: CVA 99-35; CLHOF X979.145.1)

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