#Unearthed: At The Rink - Halifax, Nova Scotia

When you dig through skating history, you never know what you will unearth. In the spirit of cataloguing fascinating tales from skating history, #Unearthed is a once a month 'special occasion' on Skate Guard where fascinating writings by others that are of interest to skating history buffs are excavated, dusted off and shared for your reading pleasure. From forgotten fiction to long lost interviews to tales that have never been shared publicly, each #Unearthed is a fascinating journey through time. This month's #Unearthed comes to you from the third 1875 edition of "Colburn's United Service Magazine And Naval And Military Journal", published in London, England by Hurst and Blackett. The piece, penned by one Lieutenant C.R. Low, offers one of the most in-depth accounts of figure skating in Halifax, Nova Scotia during the Victorian era. I want to warn readers in advance of some of the extremely racist language used by Lieutenant Low in his description of a skating carnival held at the Halifax Skating Rink. For historical authenticity, I have elected to leave the language as is but have removed a certain word and replaced it with 'persons of colour' because yeah... I had to draw the line somewhere. Gross stuff I know, but this was the nineteenth century. At any rate, it's a compelling primary source.


What is the Rink? Nay, rather; good English reader, what is it not?

When snow covers town and country a foot deep, when gales of wind come sweeping over the rocky const from the restless Atlantic, when English girls and matrons are shivering over the fire at home,
unable to stir out, except at the risk of muddy skirts and bronchitis, and when English males are wasting time, money, and energy in club and billiard-rooms, for the very good reason that they have nothing else to do, the Nova Scotian, masculine and feminine, has the Rink - a clean swept surface of ice, over one hundred and fifty feet long by fifty broad, sheltered from snow and wind; where he and she are safe to meet other masculines and feminines ready to skate, chat, flirt, and sit with them, where they will hear all the gossip of the morning, afternoon, or evening, where they can make appointments for sleigh-drive or five o'clock tea, garrison reading or Philharmonic concert, where they can take any amount of exercise in any amount of pleasant company, where they can learn to cut the most intricate figure, and become perfect masters of the most graceful out-door art, where everybody is dressed to the very best advantage, seal-skin jacket or fur-coat, the hooped up skirt, showing the dainty boot and bewitching ankle, the short skating-jacket setting off whatever manly beauty there is to show, where everybody is good-tempered, chattish, pleased and pleasing. There I alter this, don't you wish you had a rink in England?

Skating in the open air, observes a friend at our elbow, is the true perfection of skating. Granted, but with a host of conditions. There must be no wind to blow you back, or over-hurriedly forward; to chill your very marrow when you pause for a moment, and take the breath out of your body just when you want it most. There must be no snow, new or old, to clog your skates, and trip you up, and cover treacherous cracks, and oblige you to keep looking at your feet and footpath. The ice must be free from frozen rifts and waves, inequalities and obstructions. Do you know the pleasure of striking against stick or stone, and suddenly finding yourself flying through air to light again on mother ice, in
undignified prostration of mind and body ? Did you ever hear of air holes made by nature, of fishing holes also made by man, and covered after a night with a thin coating of ice so as to deceive even a practised eye? Then again, the. pond or lake must not be miles away, so that you are tired before you reach it, and, when you have had your five, or ten, or fifteen miles spin, are weighed down with the prospect of a weary walk home, leg weary and stiff in the joints, in the early gloom of a January afternoon. There must be resting places, too, and a decent hostelry, or friend's house close by. How do you like sitting down on a frozen bank, or hard stone, or snow-covered bush, or, faute de mieux, upon the ice itself, chilled below and wind-blown above, and no sooner down than you have to spring up again in fear of colds and rheumatism? And do you never, good male reader, want a refresher, or feel that le jeu ne vaut pas la chandelle when, after a couple of hours skating, your inner man pants for cool beer or something hot, and pants in vain? Or, if you are a lady, don't you think a cup of tea is all but indispensable, and certainly most desirable? You off skates and trudge home, exhausted and dry? Yes, and then there is the putting on and off of one's skates. True, it is not now as in days of yore, when Dickens' picture of Mr. Winkle with his straps and buckles was a sad reality. Time was when the best temper and the soundest, i e., the warmest constitution gave way under the five to ten minutes' boring of holes, and screwing of screws, and buckling of straps, which had to be gone through, with fingers like the ice itself, and body stiffened in all sorts of unwonted postures. Even gallantry became a bore, and Phyllis a nuisance, when her company doubled the process of gimleting,
screwing, and buckling; and you handled the charming little foot, with an inward wish that both it and its Balmoral boot were safely back with mamma in the drawing-room. Now the Acme has altered
all that. By the way, this is its head-quarters. The Acme skateworks are situated at Dartmouth, on the other side of the harbour, and close to the first of the long chain of lakes which runs northward across Nova Scotia. No better open air skating could possibly be had than on these lakes, and dear are the memories of bright days and moonlight nights upon their glassy surface with thee, oh fairest of nymphs, fur-skirted Phyllis, by our side ; but the above conditions hold good even of skating on the Dartmouth Lakes, and we have returned to our beloved Rink, with a blessing on its unsightly wooden walls, and shingled roof, and felt that, if not quite so romantic as the lakes, at any rate it was comfort- a sort of skating head-quarters and home.

The fact is there would be almost as little skating in Halifax as in London, if it were not for the Rink. True, the climate is very uncertain, and the snow may suddenly disappear, to be followed by a hard dry frost, but in the lakes and ponds, the new-formed ice rests upon the old under-stratum, and is brittle and bad for skating, "Shell-ice" as it is called; while even should there be a day or two of fine weather, the snow speedily returns again, and the Rink becomes a necessity once more. Snow, falling or fallen, is the normal condition of Nova Scotia in winter, as of Canada proper, only here on the coast, the sea-breezes with their fogs and rains do battle with the frost and snow, and often conquers; while in Quebec and Upper Ontario, far inland, the snow lies, white and dry, upon earth and water, from November to May. Great expectations are generally disappointed, as everybody knows.

We had heard so much of Canadian skating, that the first week or two of our rink experience made us wonder whether we had been the victims of travellers' tales and colonial bunkum. There seemed a sprinkling of really good skaters, men who twirled round half-a-dozen times on one skate, did shamrocks and giant-swings, performed harlequin-like antics and evolutions, and were to be seen occasionally bounding into mid-air, and coming down calm and composed, upon their feet again; ladies also, who did the double grape-vine, the cross-roll backwards, and, with skilful cavaliers, performed roses and lilies to the admiration of all beholders. But there, that was just it, beholders did admire. There was always a crowd round the set of Lancers. These gifted beings were evidently exceptions to the general rule of skaters. It seemed just as in England; a few first-rate performers and the rest comparatively nowhere. Considering the immense amount of practice these Nova Scotians had enjoyed from their very childhood, we judged that most of the, had not improved their opportunities, and certainly that we English who so seldom have a week's continuous snowless frost, need not be ashamed of our skaling public, or special skating stars.

To strengthen which opinion we soon noticed that several of the best skaters in the Rinks were officers of our garrison, some of whom had indeed enjoyed two or three years' training in Montreal or Quebec, but others only a season in Halifax. Proof positive, we discovered, after a band-day or two, that only one single set of Lancers could be formed at one time, from sheer want of skilled skaters. On one, and only one occasion during the whole of the last winter, did we see two sets on the ice together,and the skating of set No. 2 was very lame, to say the best for it. Lack of men rather than ladies was the cause of this, and possibly a few of both sexes were kept back from dancing by a dislike to appear prominently in public, but we repeat, that first impressions of Haligonian skating were disappointing. "We have no skaters to compare with those of Quebec and Montreal. Now and again one of them comes down and opens our eyes for us." The speaker was one of the best performers in the Rink, and most candid Haligonians will, we think, agree with him. The ice lasts longer in Canada proper, and the closing of the St. Lawrence to all navigation during the winter months, sets a great many men comparatively free from business, and gives them leisure to skate their very feet off. There was a grand skating tournament in Montreal this winter, with a champion gold medal, and all sorts of prizes, open to the whole Dominion; and every inducement held out to all the skating clubs and rinks, from the Atlantic to Lake Superior, to send in their best men to the contest; but there were no competitors from Halifax, wicked rumour said because there were none who had a chance of carrying off even a consolation prize.

"A Corner Of The Rink - Halifax, Nova Scotia". Engraving by Henry Buckton Laurence.
"A Corner Of The Rink - Halifax, Nova Scotia". Engraving by Henry Buckton Laurence.

On the other hand it is amusing to see how completely our Haligonian cousins think and speak, scorn English skating, refusing to believe that there ever is any, except once in a thousand years. Some few things are popularly supposed not to exist among us, e.g., good dentists, sunny days, and skating. "You get along very nicely, considering that this is your first season," remarks a fair critic, as we go round the Rink with her. " Have you ever skated at home ?" inquired another, and so on. (Mark, good reader, that England is always "home" amongst Canadians). And we fancy that they are a wee bit disappointed when a fresh arrival from the old country can hold his own at all on skates, and goes along on the outside edge, like one of themselves. The great difference, after all, between the skating here and in England, is the number of ladies who skate, and skate well many of them, better than the men, except in figures where strength rather than grace is needed, or, in which skirts and ankles would be unbecoming. Until very lately it was extraordinary to find any girls at all on English ice, and even now, we doubt whether an average of more than one per cent of our lady skaters at home can do anything beyond simple straightforward strokes. Here a girl learns to skate as uaturally as to walk, and the ice, instead of presenting a dismal monotony of trousers and other sober-coloured male garments, as in England, is brilliant with gay dresses and piquante costumes, and resounds with such merry hum of conversation and euphonistic tones, as can only come from ladies' tongues, or rather from a judicious mixture of tongues, male and female together. A truce to criticism, let us take the Rink under three aspects, as true as we can make it.

Scene I. - Any morning from Christmas to April. Time, noon. Dramatis persona, about fifty ladies and gentlemen. We are seated on one of the benches which line three sides of the Rink, pausing before we put on our Acme's to see who is who. This is the time for beginners, also for those more advanced, but in the agonies of a new figure. The ice is too crowded in an afternoon, and, besides, if one has to fall it is just as well to have as few spectators as possible. Here is Mrs. A. creeping along as if her feet were tied together, persistently trying to walk, and every now and then giving a grand
totter, as though seized with the ague. There! She is down! No, she makes a convulsive effort, and staggers to a form. A little further on is Mrs. B., who came out by the last mail, and has not yet attained to the infantine accomplishment of standing alone. Mr. B. is holding her up, and as she is decidedly his better-half in person as in name, he seems to have no easy task of it, especially as her feet shoot forward without the rest of her body agreeing thereto. Here again comes Mrs. C. in brave fashion. It is her second season, and she is going round the Rink, hand in hand with Captain D. "Four times round - a quarter of a mile! Well then, I've done half a mile without stopping. Not so bad, is it?" she asks, triumphantly, slopping before poor Mrs. A., who is sadly meditating upon another venture, yet loath to quit the friendly bench. Ah! Rhere are Mr. and Mrs. E. and their three youngsters. He in uniform - fur coat and cap, and long boots - standing on the raised platform, giving sage instructions to Master George, who is trying the outside edge. Mrs. E. skating, with Miss Jane in tow; while their eldest hopeful is flying after a comrade in helter-skelter chase, doubling and twisting about, and coming, at this instant, into over close proximity to old Mr. F., who is gravely trying a loop, and who, we doubt not, is wishing this particular boy, and all others at school or Jericho, or anywhere out of the
way. There are plenty of children in the Rink, pleasant enough to gaze at, as they glide about in fullest of all full enjoyment, tumbling over, and picking themselves up, like balls of india rubber; but not so pleasant when you are skating and find them between your legs, or right in the way of your most elegant "ransom." Happy age of childhood which fears no fall, and has scarcely four feet to fall through! Look at that wee toddles of five, going along on a pair of skates, very toys for smallness, with her fat little red-sockinged legs, and funny little muff hung round her neck. Look again at that lanky boy of fifteen, doing the "railway-step" at railway speed. He just shaves past G. of the Rifles, coming backwards down the ltink, and is away at the other end and back again, before that gallant officer has quite recovered his balance. In the centre, and keeping a space to themselves, is a quartette, Captain H. and Lieutenant K., with two Haligonian belles, doing "roses" and "chain ransoms," gliding round and about each other in graceful curves, now meeting, now separating each other in a separate circle to meet again. Very pretty, is it not ? And well these young ladies know how much their "ransoms" set off their figures, and work havoc in their partners' hearts, or, if they don't know it, it is not for want of fair speeches from the gallant soldiers, we go bail. Miss L. is practising in a corner there, by herself; or at least, as much by herself as Mr. M. will allow. Thump! There goes N. down on his back, a regular cropper. He has been trying an "eight" for half-an-hour, and cannot come round on his right foot, do what he will, as he remarks to a sympathizing friend, while gathering himself up, and brushing off the white ice-shavings with which he has powdered himself in his fall. Lunch time, and the Rink is quickly emptied. Mr. P. escorts Miss Q. down the road. Mrs. R. collects her chickens, and leads them off to make havoc of a leg of mutton. Captain S. and Lieutenant T. take lingering leave of Mrs. V. and Miss W.; and all the alphabet from A to Z disperse, like the workers at the Tower of Babel, and with almost us much chattering. Drop the curtain!

Scene II. Saturday afternoon, 4 p.m. Band of the 60th Royal Rifles. Full concourse of skaters. The fifty have grown into 500. A crowd of spectators standing and sitting, walking on the side platform, old dowagers keeping watch over their fair daughters, like hens who have hatched a brood of ducklings whom they cannot follow, but who return to their sheltering wings now and again in the pauses of the music. Know, reader, that a gentleman engages a lady as his partner for a piece in the programme, be it overture, waltz, pot-pourri or what not, and during that piece, they skate together, separating at its close, unless willing to run the risk of being chatted about by the fluent tongues which belong to the observant eyes of the Haligonian world on these Rhadamanthine benches, wherefrom their doings are watched by a hundred daughters of Eve, and mothers in Halifax. Very little figuring is done on a Saturday afternoon. A few gentlemen in the centre of the Rink are performing mystic evolutions, but they are acknowledged proficients. These are not brave enough to risk a fall on Saturday afternoon. But round and round the borders of the ice, in a circle four to six deep, moving from left to right, never in the opposite direction, so that there is no meeting, in one long endless ring, go the great mass of skaters, two and two, lady and gentleman, hand in hand, chatting, laughing, flirting ; some couples doing the outside edge in parallel curves, some the "cross-roll," right foot with right foot, left with left; some going along face to face, the gentleman skating backwards, the lady forwards (a capital aid to conversation, but requiring great skill and practice on the man's part to guide himself and his partner in such a crowd) ; some whirling along swiftly, some more sedately; but most of them just going ahead in plain straightforward strokes and even time, especially when the band commences, and they strike out in conscious or unconscious time to the music. There! the Blue Danube waltzes! And straightway a hundred fresh couples have started, and the great circle thickens, and the partners glide past, meeting kaleidescope fashion into one another, until the eye grows weary, while voices raised high in rivalry to the music, make a confused roar, and the head grows dizzy with the endless circling round and round. Woe to the man who tries to cross the stream of skaters, and to the unlucky one who stumbles. There is a hole on the off-side, soon known and avoided, for there goes a cavalier nearly dragging down his lady, and over him in a moment is cavalier No. 2, while No. 3 only saves himself by grinding the heels of his skates into the ice in most unorthodox and ice-tearing fashion. " Drat those boys, why don't some one keep them at home? Did you see how nearly I fell over one just now?" "Oh dear! my skate is coming off. Please take me to a seat." "Can't see one unoccupied." " Never mind, there is mamma, I can stand by her." Will you come round with me the next piece?" "Delighted." " Did you go to the 87th hop last Monday? Aawfully jolly, eh?" " Good lot of chalk on the floor, wasn't there?" "Oh, Mr. M., will you come to five o'clock tea?" " Thanks; engaged for two more dances. Come a little later if that will do." And so on. The band stops. Rush of ladies to seats. Thinning of ice. Crowding of platform. Man with big wooden rake goes up and down the Rink, sweeping off the snowy shavings which the skates have cut from the ice, and nearly sweeping sundry unobservant skaters from their feet at the same time. More music. The Lancers. A set is formed in the middle of the Rink. Great crowding round of spectators. Notice that nearly all the movements in every figure are done by a series of ransoms. If we can only muster one set in the Rink, at any rate that set is worth looking at. Grand chain; Finale. Music ceases again. Gas lighted. Double row of jets running the whole length of the building. We don't know why, but everyone skates best by gaslight. Whew, what a crowd! The band plays a gallop. Everybody skates round, and yet the platform and benches seem as full as ever. 5.30. The crowd thins rapidly. 6 p.m. Desertion and loneliness. Scene closes.

Scene III. - It is carnival night. A fancy ball upon the ice. The Rink is gaily decorated. Strips of calico, red white and blue, are carried in and out along the cross beams of the roof, making a tent
like covering, very simple but very pretty. Flags and banners are grouped on the wooden pillars, and along the walls, with mottoes, shields and devices here and there. Drapery hides the unsightly
woodwork. The great barn is a fairy palace; many lights, gay colours. A crowd of spectators filling the platform below and the gallery above. The latter is ordinarily reserved for the band, but it is now the ladies' gallery for the evening, into which, by dint of playing cavalier des dames, we and a few other male beings have been admitted, and from which we look down on the ice below. There are no skaters at present, but one or two strange costumes are to be seen among the crowd on the side-platform, and a glance through the momentarily opened door of the ladies' room, as we passed by, has revealed the fact that the fair shepherdesses, flowergirls and gypsies are congregating there, waiting until their numbers are sufficiently large, to make a grand and simultaneous entree. Lively recollections come into our mind of those delightful periods of childish expectation, when we sat in Franconi's or Astley's, waiting for the bell to tinkle, and the gaily caparisoned chargers to be led forth. Only here is ice and not sawdust. The ladies' room is immediately below us, and we gaze down expectantly. Ah, a buzz, a turning of all eyes to our South Pole, here they come - two and two - "the Grand Fairy Troupe of the Sink Circus, in their magnificent spectacle of all countries," as Astley would have had it. First appears an Indian squaw, in dress embroidered with beads and porcupine quills, and witii necklace of bears' claws round her neck ; but oh; how different to the wizened, coppercoloured,hideous specimens of womanhood, with baby slung behind, and pipe in mouth before, who represent the squaw of actual life in the streets of Halifax! With her, a Polish lady, in square shabracque, and plentiful trimmings of white fur. Then winter in white dress, sprinkled with swans' down for snow, and a robin perched on her shoulder. Then a lovely poudre shepherdess, in rose-coloured skirt and white bodice, crook, and basket of flowers. What Elysian fields can there be where such shepherdesses tend their flocks ? Now a tall stately Spanish girl, in black dress and lace mantilla. Now a witch, in scarlet petticoat and steeple hat. Well chosen character, who would not be spellbound by such a fair enchantress? Now a vivandiere in blue, with gaiters and pantalettes, and orthodox barrel slung from her shoulder. Is there anything in it, we wonder ? Now a sober-hued Chezzetcook girl, in dark homespun dress, and kerchief over her head, carrying her basket of eggs. Oh, dear! They come trouping in too quickly for anything. Gypsies and Highland lassies, soubrettes and peasants, Dolly Vardens and French marquises. A brilliant series of colours spreading over the ice, and bewildering our dazzled eyes, as they glide about, hither and thither. Meanwhile another stream has issued from the opposite side. Sailors and Zouaves, jockeys and Turks, Highlanders and Chinese, courtiers and footmen; two Arab chiefs, tall and stately, in turban, and long flowing robes of scarlet and white; a fireman in helmet and scarlet Garibaldi ; an Austrian Hussar in busby and pelisse; a carter, with smock-frock and whip; a police sergeant; an old man with white flowing locks and knee-breeches; an Esquimaux in coat and hood of unpiucked sealskin; a trapper from the Far West in dress of deerskin ; two jolly little bear cubs; another little fellow in Chinese costume, correct even to the pig-tail which swings from beneath his broad flat hat, and which gets lugged now and again by those noisy and troublesome [persons of colour], who begin to act Christy Minstrels in most exaggerated burlesque, so soon as they are fairly launched on the ice. The band strikes up. Ladies and gentlemen pair off together. The carnival has begun. Round and round go the mummers, a huge circle of every colour under the sun, and meanwhile fresh arrivals keep pouring in, until full two hundred costumes are represented. A roar of laughter as a great bottle of Bass' ale, with its well-known triangular red trade mark, skates solemnly into the arena. Another burst, as atin coffee-pot makes its appearance, handle and spout complete. All very well to look at, but, considering that the dwellers in bottle and coffee-pot cannot sit down, and are in durance vile for the whole evening, we would prefer not acting either coffee or beer. Besides, those plaguey [persons of colour] won't let them alone, but gather round, hustling and tapping them, to the imminent danger of capsizing both. What is this? His Satanic Majesty apparently? A figure all black, even to his face, with long elf-locks floating about his shoulders, and imitation snake coiled round his sooty figure. "Snake charmer," we see written down in the newspaper catalogue next day. A hideous costume at any rate, and any snake a fool to be charmed with it, Look at this thing like a walking feather-bed. "Tar and feathers," says the newspaper. No accounting for taste, say we. Here is a "Sepoy Prince,' whose " make-up seems to consist principally of a night-gown tied round the waist, and a pair of loose white drawers. And here again is a gentleman who represents the United States, in a hat with "E pluribus unum" printed on it in large letters, and with a carpet-bag and umbrella, which he carries round for two whole mortal hours! Some costumes require courage. Here is a tall man in Sarah Gimp's skirts and coal-scuttle bonnet; and here an equally big baby, in white dress and cap, and with a feeding-bottle. But baby has a mask on to hide his blushes, if he has any. A Zouave takes him- her we mean - in his arms, and tries to skate with his burly burden across the Rink, coming, as might be expected, to untimely grief. Historical costumes ought to carry their titles about with them. Who is to know that this tine young fellow in black velvet represents Sir Walter Raleigh? And what is the distinctive dresses of Anne of Gcierstein and Earl Warwick's page? We. suppose the latter must be the gentleman whose lower rig gives us cold shivers, and will assuredly give him rheumatism. Fancy flesh tights with the thermometer outside far below freezing point! One character, at any rate, we can identify. Here is a blue frock-coat, with front of white lace, and any number of decorations (masonic), face of reddish hue, spectacles, huge epaulettes of curtain-fringe, and high cap with higher plume, is His Royal Mightiness the Shah! Last time we saw His Majesty he was warbling, in those justly celebrated tones of his, "Oh, have you seen the Shah?" at a crowded barrack entertainment. He is led round the Rink occasionally by two obsequious attendants, and looks a little - just a little - uneasy on his skates, but royalty must not be criticised, so refrain our pen! They are forming the usual set of Lancers. Sir Walter Raleigh and the Spanish lady. A French gendarme and a demure quakerress, whose sad-coloured dress, and close white cap, form, in our humble opinion, one of the most effective costumes of the evening. The third couple are the Zouave and Vivandiere, and last, an Albanian, whose scanty white skirt looks as shivery as the page's tights, and who pairs off with a shepherdess. What is the matter? A sudden rush to one side of the Rink. A roar of merriment. The coffee-pot has come to grief. Those [persons of colour] have thrown it down, and lo! The wearer stands confessed, and thenceforth skates with one arm through the spout, sole relic of his past greatness. Bass' ale preserves his legs and bottle, though not without some trouble. He is a clever rogue, and when God Save the Queen is played, takes out his cork, as a good and loyal subject, to the great amusement of the Rink. God save the Queen! Time to go home, and to end this sketch. So pick we our way, past the refreshment-room, where thirsty souls in varied garb are drinking to their next merry meeting, into the frosty air, and through the crowd of sleighs, into the snowy road beyond, and so home.

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