The I.P.S.A. World And British Open Professional Championships

Photo courtesy "Skating World" magazine

The first professional figure skating competitions in Great Britain were the Open Professional Championship Of Great Britain In The International Style, organized by the National Skating Association and first held in 1931. The first winners were Howard Nicholson, Melitta Brunner and Sadie Cambridge and Albert Enders. Singles competitors performed both school figures and free skating, and there was no prize money at all, which may surprise you. These were professionals competing for a title out of pure love for the sport!

Sadie Cambridge and Albert Enders

In April 1933, an ice dance competition open to both amateurs and professionals was held at the Westminster Ice Rink in London. Married couple Eva Keats of Great Britain and Erik van der Weyden of Belgium took home the gold. Two months later, a competition for professional ice dancers only was held at the Queen's Ice Club in London. Perhaps controversially dancing with a woman other than his wife, van der Weyden and Elsie Heathcote won this particular competition.

Things got much more organized in 1936. The British Ice Teachers Association was founded that year as the Ice Teachers Guild. It was one of the first coaching associations formed in the world and played an important role in organizing competitions for professionals both pre-World War II and after, under the name the Imperial Professional Skaters Association. That year, before Great Britain even had an amateur ice dance competition, a professional competition for ice dancers called the British Pro Waltz Championships was won by Lesley Turner and Robert Dench. Skaters like Hope Braine, Nate Walley, Pamela Prior, Joan Dix and pairs team Sadie Cambridge and Albert Enders took home titles in singles and pairs skating during this period. In April 1937 at the Harringay Ice Arena, Pamela Prior was the only entrant in the women's event but was still expected to achieve specific scores in both compulsory figures and free skating to earn the crown. She was only seventeen years old.

Mostly show skaters competed in these events from early on but many bigger names like Cecilia Colledge and Swiss brothers Jacques and Arnold Gerschwiler dipped their foot in the water. Also competing were Herbert Alward, Marilyn Hoskins, Ronnie Baker, Len Liggett and Pamela Murray and Muriel Roberts and Walter Gregory, the inventors of the Rhumba compulsory dance. Often, the Championships were held in conjunction with other events organized by the National Skating Association, such as amateur junior competitions.

These events came to a halt during World War II. Some rinks remained open, others were taken over, damaged or closed and the ones that were opened served double duty as bomb shelters with gas masks in the cloakrooms. By 1946, the Professional Championships had returned.

Moira June MacDonald, Open Professional Champion in 1949, 1951 and 1953

In her formidable textbook of ice dance history, Lynn Copley-Graves explained how the free dance, part of a May 1949 proposal by Reginald Wilkie and Bill Hickok to the International Skating Union, got its trial start in professional and not amateur competition: "Great Britain held a yearly Open Professional Ice Dance Championship. On December 9, 1949, two professional couples tried out the new ISU rules in England, the first reported use of the rules in a major competition. The free dancing of Gladys Hogg and Bernard Spencer won both acclaim and the title. Gladys and Bern, already two of the finest British dance trainers of the era, set a standard for what free dancing could be." Finishing second behind Hogg and Spencer but also noteworthy in their contribution to skating history by performing one of the first two ISU free dances in the world were another British couple, Violet Thomson and Kenneth Vickers.

George Miller preparing for the Open Professional Championships in 1957. Photo courtesy "Skating World" magazine.

In 1956, the National Skating Association relinquished control of the Open Professional Championships to the Imperial Professional Skating Association of Great Britain, and a Championship Committee consisting of Roy Callaway, Joan Hawkins, Don Crosthwaite and Peggy Tomlins set to work revamping the event. The 1957 Championships marked the first time that skaters would compete for prize money - a total purse of five hundred pounds. T.D. Richardson noted that there was initially a lot out doubt as to whether or not the event would work out under the organization of I.P.S.A., and when there were few international entries in 1957, there were "a lot of 'I told you so's'."

Photo courtesy "Winter Sports" magazine

The judging system was revamped, with six judges (five in dance) and marks given on a 10.0 scales. The total points, not ordinals, decided the winners, and each judge presided over one aspect of the skater's performance. In singles skating, there was a judge apiece for spins, jumps, steps, general performance, musical interpretation and artistic conception. In pairs, judges looked at spins, jumps and lifts, steps, performance, musical interpretation and artistic conception. In compulsory dances, they assessed correct edges, correct pattern style, correctness of footwork, rhythm and timing and interpretation of music, and in the free dance contents and difficulty, rhythm and timing, unison and co-ordination and musical interpretation. The competition were then titled at the World's and British Professional Championships. "Skating World" magazine noted, "Should a British competitor place first in any event, then he or she would become both British and World Champion. The highest placed British skater would take the national title in any event, regardless of World placings."

A hugely important development for the competition came on May 31, 1958, when the BBC televised all four disciplines of the event held at Nottingham Ice Stadium, allowing television audiences in England their first glimpse at professional competition. With Alan Weeks and Max Robertson as commentators, this television coverage continued well into the sixties.

Carol and Michel, Rosina and Raymond Lockwood and Peri Horne and Basil Cudlipp-Green, pairs medallists in 1958. Photo courtesy "Skating World" magazine.

Though British skaters dominated the event in the sixties, the pendulum often swung in favour of international skaters as well. Italy's Anna Galmarini and Japan's Miwa Fukuhara managed to claim international titles that had eluded them as amateurs, while four time World Champions Eva Romanová and Pavel Roman of Czechoslovakia showed they were every bit as talented as pros when they took the title in 1965.

Betty Loach and Howard Richardson, Marjorie McCoy and Ian Phillips and Gillian Thorpe and John Phillips, ice dance medallists in 1966. Photo courtesy "Skating World" magazine.

In 1969, another pair of four time World Champions, Diane Towler-Green and Bernard Ford, won the event - now billed as the W.D. and H.O. Wills Professional Ice Skating Championships at Wembley - defeating Yvonne Suddick and Malcolm Cannon and Vivienne Dean and John Phillips for the win. Perhaps the most compelling winner that came out of this event was 1965 pairs winner Marianne Althammer of West Germany, who tours later would spend eighteen days in jail in Poland after getting into a fight with Warsaw police while touring with Holiday On Ice.

The men's podium in 1970: Michael Edmonds, Donald Jackson and Paul McGrath

In 1970, the event was again held at Wembley and with Towler and Ford not returning to defend their title, Yvonne Suddick teamed up Ian Phillips to take the ice dance crown. In the men's event, World Champion Donald Jackson of Canada managed to hold off some strong competition from American Paul McGrath for the win, receiving first place marks from every judge and the only three perfect marks of the entire competition. In my interview with Lorna Brown, who won her World Professional title in Jaca, she recalled finishing second in Wembley: "I then competed in the World Championships in Wembley the first time and came second to a European Champion who was also an Olympic and world bronze medallist by 0.2 and the pro marks were out of ten. I skated to 'On The Waterfront' and I remember the ice was liquid blue so I was in my element." By 1974, the competition moved to Jaca, Spain and rebranded itself as the Campeonatos del Mundo de Patinaje Artístico Professional sobre Hielo or in English, the World Professional Championships.

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