MORE ABOUT GAVIN AND HIS FAMILY
Gavin Watt was born in Toronto, went to school in Toronto and married a north Toronto girl. (some might say, “three strikes and you’re out”) As a wee boy, he was a cute, happy little guy with curly red hair on a great big head covered with freckles and adorned with stick-em out ears. After seventy plus years, nothing much has changed except he’s taller; his hair is a dirty gray-brown; the faded freckles have been replaced by wrinkles and rosacea; his head and ears are bigger; he’s grumpy and no one calls him cute.
Gavin grew up during the Second World War and had an uncle and several cousins overseas. At home, his Uncle Alec had been wounded in the Great War while serving in the Scots Fusiliers and told amazing stories about fighting the Turks. Gavin had heaps of W. Britain’s lead soldiers, Dinky Toy tanks, guns and airplanes and he relentlessly played soldier and cowboy with handmade wooden rifles and die cast revolvers and built weird forts and bombers in the backyard – all of which was considered good healthy stuff for a boy in the 1940’s.
Now, don’t get the idea that he was single minded – of course, he played baseball, soccer, floor hockey, football and took part in track & field and went to Cubs, Scouts, Sunday School, raised tropical fish, had a model railroad and fished for bass, pickerel and pike. He worked in the north as a Junior Forest Ranger and he even started dating at 17. In short, he had a thoroughly well-rounded upbringing.
Yet, all his life he pursued militarily-related interests – model-making, reading, collecting, shooting, researching and reenacting. His reading was, and still is, eclectic – Seven Years’ War, War of 1812, the Canadian rebellions, South Africa, the Great, Second and Korean Wars and all arms of service – and stuff like the Indian wars in the American west; French paratroopers in Indo China and the Iroquois invading Huronia were all part of his exposure to history. His most memorable public school field trips were to historic sites, especially forts. He made plasticine soldiers; assembled hundreds of plastic ships, tanks, trucks and planes and read gazillions of military comics and books. He began collecting ‘real’ army memorabilia at twelve and, when he was old enough, his father reluctantly started his arms’ collection which soon blossomed into a major interest along with badges, uniforms, accoutrements and helmets.
Oddly enough, despite all these martial interests, he chose not to apply to Royal Military College when he completed high school with honours in maths and sciences and an award in English, nor did he join the Reserves, despite having enjoyed short bursts of compulsory Army Cadets’ duty.
At university, he read the Canadian Army Journal when he was supposed to be helping his buddies with engineering lab reports and, when his marks were so poor in his second year, his father took him to an occupational head shrink who stated he could not possibly have a successful career in the military, as he lacked sufficient deference for authority. Not understanding the word “deference,” he proved the analyst’s theory with an angry outburst. Despite the shrink claiming he had little aptitude for engineering, Gavin persisted and graduated with a keen interest in plastics. (NB: long before Dustin Hoffman and “The Graduate”)
In 1959 – his final year of engineering – Gavin married his Sunday School sweetheart, Elizabeth Gillian Robinson, the only girl among six hulking brothers who had ‘made a man of him.’ With a pregnant wife, he began his business career in the Industrial Paints division of Canadian Industries Limited and, after a period of training in the Applications’ Lab and as an assistant to the Sales Manager, out he went into the wide world of cold-calls, customer complaints, sales development and all that good stuff. Paints had never been an interest of his, so after two and half years, he took a new job with Union Carbide in polyethylene resin sales where he did the same kind of work as he had with C-I-L, but this time with a commodity he was excited about. After five years, he was persuaded to change jobs again and moved to one of Carbide’s customers, Shaw Pipe Industries, in their plastics’ development programmes as a divisional Sales Manager. This was fascinating stuff and he even got pushed into selling wooden wire and cable reels, which were manufactured in the same factory as several of the plastics products. Interesting or not, he got flushed out after two and bit years and moved into flexible packaging (one of his resin sales’ specialties) as Sales and Marketing Manager for a division of Lawson & Jones, one of Canada’s largest and most diverse printing companies.
Stepping back – when his first daughter, Nancy, was born just after graduation (1960), he celebrated by buying a rifle. Didn’t everybody? Not one to mess with tradition, he made similar purchases to celebrate the arrival of Sarah (1962) and Gavin Alexander, “GA”(1966.)
It was his wife’s mother who opened up his alternative career path by introducing him to the first history of Upper Canada written by William Cannif. Riffling through the pages, he was amazed to find a number of regiments he’d never heard of. He thought he knew the names of all of Canada’s regiments, so just what were these? American loyalists, that’s what – those disbanded veterans who had founded modern Ontario. What a revelation!
Here was a whole new avenue. He had just bought his first two Brown Bess muskets and was already into “Living History” with his friends, so it was a short jump to tackle the 200th anniversary celebrations of the American Revolution and the role the loyalist regiments played. Gavin reasoned that his fellow Canadians would be glued to their boob tubes watching all the American hype about the ‘patriots’ and those filthy Tory traitors. He visualized all those Canadian heads going up and down in agreement with all this Yankee drivel without any recognition that those so-called traitors were the loyalists who settled the Maritimes and Ontario and gave a solid impetus to English-speaking Canada.
After some debate, the guys chose to portray the King’s Royal Yorkers, the largest regiment to serve in Canada during the Revolution. Gavin’s interest in founding a reenactment regiment went much further than playing Mr. Dressup and participating in ‘shoot-em-ups.’ He wanted to learn everything possible about the unit’s activities and the men who served. This started nine years of intensive research and resulted in his first book in 1984 which was financed by the St. Lawrence Branch of the United Empire Loyalists of Canada. The work combined a 1931 regimental history written by a famous Canadian historian, Ernest A. Cruikshank, with Gavin’s Master Roll of some 1,500 men who had served, most of whom settled in Ontario. Entitled, The King’s Royal Regiment of New York with the additions of an Index, Appendices and a Master Muster Roll, the book was a hit among loyalist genealogists and history buffs.
Meanwhile, daughter Sarah had decided to join the regiment and made her first appearance in 1978 at Johnson Hall, Johnstown, NY. Gavin Jr. followed the next year, entering as a fifer alongside the unit’s first drummer, a son of the Yorker’s second-in-command. Nancy, who had been tied up with school and jobs, joined a year after Gavin. Then Gill decided to ‘kit up,’ virtually in self-defence. She stayed active for several years, as it was the easiest way to see her children who had left home to attend university or work in Toronto, let alone her husband.
To begin with, the women who followed the drum weren’t greatly concerned about the accuracy of their portrayal. The hobby had started out as a male-dominated activity and simply the chance to be involved was the most important consideration for the ladies. For male participants, it was all so easy; there were uniform and kit regulations and all they had to do was follow the rules, but for females, there were no simple rules, nor did they want there to be. Being content with just participating didn’t last long. Nancy and Sarah were inspired by Lynn Cunningham, a Torontonian in a sister regiment, who was a light year ahead of the curve. They started some in-depth research, with Nancy taking a strong lead with documentation, collecting images and building a library, all related to female issues – clothing, hair styles and physical deportment – across all elements of late 18C society. For years, Nancy published a Distaff Bulletin and maintained an inventory of suitable cloth for the regiment’s women. She became a widely-recognized expert across North America and Sarah was the beneficiary of this effort as Nancy’s so-called, “Barbie Doll.”
Gavin Alexander’s interest in military fifing soon widened. He was introduced to Swiss drumming and fifing, a discipline radically different than British practice. He discovered the tin whistle and grew to love 18th and early 19th century popular music. He and two buddies, who also worked at historic sites and were part of the regiment’s fife & drum corps, founded a musical trio that launched itself upon an unsuspecting world as “The Three Big Dummies” and morphed into “Gin Lane.” GA taught himself the hammered dulcimer, became a proficient drummer and rose up through the Royal Yorker ranks to Drum Major.
Nancy came up with an idea which was adopted as regimental policy and had far-reaching effects on women's roles across the hobby. Because she regarded the significantly large group of women attached to the KRR as refugees from a civil war rather than campwomen formally attached to an army, she felt that they could represent a wider strata of society overall. Nancy invented a dress-up day (called Polly Johnson Day in honour of the historical leading lady of our reenactment unit) where any woman could assume whatever level of society that took her fancy, regardless of the position held by her significant other. On the annual Polly Johnson Day, all women came dressed to the max for whatever status they chose to represent – the decision was entirely up to her, the amount of money she wanted to spend and the amount of effort she wanted to expend. On all other days, women dressed as women might have who had to leave home on short notice with little planning or on long notice but inconvenienced or impoverished by the circumstances of war. The only duties these women might have were their regular family obligations and any task for the army that could make them money as they were not on the rolls of the army, but were rather subsidized by the British government while waiting to resume life in their homes.
When Gavin Sr.’s business career took a surprising turn in 1989, he chose to pursue his dream of writing and began a series of books about the Revolutionary War as waged from Canada. To pay the bills, he started up an independent sales agency, at first for specialty papers and injection moulding, then adding thermoforming and finally back into flexible packaging.
As to creative writing - his engineering and business training and years and years of corporate report writing paid off. Research continued apace with many visits to the Metro Toronto Research Library; Archives Ontario and Library and Archives Canada. He developed a wide network of professional and amateur historian friends who were happy to share their findings and his library grew and grew.
A great benefit of reenacting was the friendships he made with Americans who were every bit as passionate about their Revolution as Gavin was about their rebellion. With his concentration on British and Canadian source materials, his books could have exhibited the unbalanced, jingoistic presentations of so many earlier accounts; however, his natural inclination and his American friends’ significant contributions to his research enabled him to write objectively, which has been well received by readers in the United States.
At the same time as collecting material about the service records of the individual Royal Yorkers, he had been documenting the regiment’s campaigns and he began to write an account of the very significant expedition of 1777. Work on this project was well advanced when a request came from an American reenactment society he had helped to found, The Burning of the Valleys Military Association. He was asked to write a series of articles for their newsletter about the 1780 campaign against New York’s Schoharie and Mohawk Valleys. Laying aside work on the 1777 expedition, he quickly had the articles completed when, by pure serendipity, a Canadian researcher sent him two participants’ accounts of another raid in the same time period. Gavin recognized that, by blending his articles’ research with this new material and additional material from his by-now extensive collection of books and papers, he could produce a volume about all four of the fall raids of 1780. This gave birth to his second book, appropriately entitled, Burning of the Valleys – Daring Raids from Canada Against the New York Frontier in the Fall of 1780, which was published by Dundurn Press in 1997.
Then, back to work on the 1777 campaign. Gavin and his reenacting friend and fellow researcher, Jim Morrison of the Mohawk Valley, had developed lists of all the men who had served on both sides of the political divide. This genealogical material was self-published as, The British Campaign of 1777 – Volume 1 – The St. Leger Expedition – the Forces of the Crown and Congress in 2001. In 2003, a revised edition was published under the same title in a superb hardbound version by Global Heritage Press.
After a complicated and disappointing false start with an American publisher – his fourth book appeared under Dundurn’s banner in 2002 on the 225th anniversary of the events. This narrative was entitled, Rebellion in the Mohawk Valley – The St. Leger Expedition of 1777 and the book was launched at Fort Stanwix in Rome, NY – the scene of the original action.
In order to pare down Rebellion’s manuscript, a large section about a concurrent event in the Schoharie Valley had to be removed and, after some doctoring, Gavin self-published a second book in 2002 entitled, The Flockey – 13 August 1777 – The Defeat of the Tory uprising in the Schoharie Valley.
In the midst of this, after twenty-three years of staring at each other at reenactments, Sarah finally succumbed to the persuasive blandishments of the dashing, handsome, sleekit Yankee, Christian Cameron, who had begun reenacting even before Gavin Sr. got started. In 2002, the pair were married in style in Toronto, with a reception at Historic Fort York. Christian invited a number of thugs from his Company of Select Marksmen and they managed to disrupt a traditional, welcoming Robinson-family ritual and dump strawberry shortcake all over his bride’s great-grandmother’s wedding dress. The couple was off to a great start and in 2003, Beatrice Elizabeth Cameron made an appearance. Bea’s first event was as a babe-in-arms the next year at a Royal Yorker Colours’ ceremony and she’s been a very active, adventurous reenactor ever since.
The year 2003 was also a momentous one for Gavin Alexander. One of his Gin Lane buddies had introduced him to Laura Amelia Graffi, a dazzling, blue-eyed lady who captivated him. Laura was in no way tempted by reenacting, so a note of sanity now crept into the expanded Watt family.
Gavin’s 1984 book was now considered a collectable and was listed on one “Rare Book” web-search site for the crazy price of $250.00. Gavin had continued to collect information on Royal Yorker veterans and additional images of regimental artifacts and, with the use of computer technology, the Master Roll was immensely improved, He persuaded Global Heritage Press to publish a revised edition and this was released in a beautiful, hardbound edition in 2006 with the title, The History and Master Roll of the King’s Royal Regiment of New York.
Ongoing research had accumulated a tremendous amount of material about the Canadian department’s efforts in the final two campaigns of the Revolution and this was Gavin’s next project. Very quickly, pages of text started to build up and, after consultation with Kirk Howard of Dundurn, the work was divided into two volumes. Volume I, A dirty, trifling piece of business: The Revolutionary War as Waged from Canada in 1781 was published in 2009. This was followed by Volume II in 2010 – I am heartily ashamed: The Revolutionary War’s Final Campaign as Waged from Canada in 1782.
2010 saw a major event. Laura and GA produced Alexander Joseph Graffi Watt and he immediately began training as the photographs show.