#Unearthed: A Victorian Woman's Perspective Of Figure Skating

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. Today's edition comes to you from Frances E. Slaughter's "The Sportswoman's Library", an 1898 two-part 'how-to' guide on women's recreation and sport. The author of the 'Skating' section, one May (Balfour) Talbot offers a first-hand perspective of skating in England during the Victorian era.


I propose in this article simply to give my own personal views on the subject of skating in general, and to say what I consider to be the best method of attaining proficiency in the art. As what I have to say will be rather jottings from my personal experience than anything in the nature of a normal treatise, I hope I may be excused if my remarks are of a somewhat scrappy and discursive character.

In England at the present time, the art of skating is passing through a transition stage, and it is quite possible that what to-day is regarded as a necessary condition of good skating, will in a few years' time be discarded as obsolete and old-fashioned. I think it therefore wiser, not to formulate any theory, or lay down any general rule on the subject, but to confine myself to giving my readers a few hints gathered from my own experience, which may prove useful to those who wish to attain a certain measure of proficiency in the art.

My earliest skating experiences were probably similar to those of most English people, that is to say, I was limited to the very short periods of frost that occur in English winters, and I had none of the advantages of regular instruction from competent teachers which it is easy now for anybody to get. I learnt to keep my balance, not on ice, but with roller skates on asphalt, and this was sufficient to enable me to go forward with a certain amount of ease when I first skated on ice. I remember vividly the first time I attempted the outside edge. This is a grand epoch in the life of any skater, and the sensation of accomplishing it for the first time, however clumsily, is never to be forgotten. I may say here, that I consider a real mastery of the outside edge the only foundation for all figure skating, and I believe it would be a mistake to attempt such accomplishments as going backwards, or turning a three, without first being fairly steady on the outside edge. Another point that I early learned to be of great importance, was to approach as near as possible equality on both legs, to attain which of course it is necessary to give one's weaker leg - in most cases the left - double practice.

The next advance I made was to turn a three from the outside edge. For a long time I practised this on my right leg alone and neglected my left, which of course was extremely unwise, and resulted in my being much weaker on that leg than on the other. The ordinary turning of a three is a comparatively simple matter, but the difficulty lies in being able to do it to a centre on both feet. Yet this accomplishment is absolutely essential to anyone who would attempt combined figures. In my opinion there is more enjoyment to be gained, both for performers and spectators, from combined figures gracefully and neatly done, than from far more difficult turns performed alone. I will not go into details as to particular figures, because they can be learnt so much better from the innumerable books that have been written on the subject.

Hand-in-hand skating is another most delightful branch of the art, and has been very strikingly developed in the last few years in England. A number of new scuds have been elaborated by the ingenuity of experts, many of which are most fascinating to do, and in many cases they have the great advantage of being performed either with one or two companions. The advance in this department of the art is largely due to the number of covered rinks that have been started lately in England and France, these being particularly adapted to the practice of this style of skating.

Another accomplishment, to which the practice of covered rinks is specially suited is waltzing on skate - which merely consists in a series of turns of threes, and outside-edge forwards and
outside-edge backwards. The important point to remember about waltzing is, that the partners must accommodate their steps, and the woman must take care not to drag. When gracefully and neatly done by two people, well used to each other, and to the sound of a good band, this sensation surpasses anything that can be enjoyed in ordinary dancing.

For my own part I have concentrated my energies on combined figures and hand-in-hand skating, and have never given much attention to the great variety of difficult turns that are to be done alone, though I do not by any means wish to depreciate the beauty of these, or the skill needed to perform them. But, under the conditions that prevail in England, it is difficult to get enough space in which to practice elaborate figures alone, so I am inclined to think that my course has been a wise one.

I mentioned above, that skating in England is in a transition stage, and by this I mean that the last few years have witnessed the introduction of what is called the foreign style of skating in England. At the present time most of our instructors are foreigners, or Englishmen who have thoroughly imbibed the foreign method, and the result is that beginners are induced to purchase foreign skates and to base their style on foreign models. The main difference between the two styles is, that the Englishman is taught to keep his unemployed leg close to the other and to be always erect, not to bend his knee, and in general to keep the body rather stiff and quiet. The foreigner, on the other hand, as might be expected from his more lively temperament, allows himself much more freedom in swinging and bending about. He thus gives the impression of enjoying himself more than the Englishman, and, in consequence, is more attractive to watch. To my mind, the ideal skater is one who combines the excellencies of both styles, that is one who, to the firmness and unobtrusiveness of the Englishman, adds the easy pace and brilliancy of the foreigner. The followers of both styles have a great deal yet to learn from each other, and, therefore, the blending of the two methods in England at the present day, is certain to lead to most beneficial results.

A few words now on the important subject of skates. Enormous improvements have been effected in them of late years, but in my opinion we are still very far from possessing the ideal skate. The main object of the best English skates (for instance the Mount Charles, or the Dowler) is to enable the wearer to hold long edges, whereas the foreign blade is especially adapted to rapid turns. What is wanted is some invention that would combine in one skate the special merits of both these kinds, so that the long firm edge and the sharp turn may be equally possible. At present this is only a dream of the future, and in the meantime I should be inclined to advise a modified form of the French skate, as on the whole the best adapted for all purposes.

I should strongly recommend everybody to keep their skates permanently fixed to one pair of boots. This is a practice however so generally adopted that it may seem superfluous to mention it. Laced boots should be worn specially made for skating, with thick soles and high in the leg, so as to give as much support as possible round the ankle.

In the matter of dress women have a distinct advantage over men. Our skirt both conceals deficiencies in style, and makes it easier to be graceful, the man with his closer garb being sadly exposed to the fierce light of criticism. The only essential for us, is to have a skirt short and well cut so as not to drag, and with this precaution we can indulge in as much variety as we

In conclusion let me say, I know of no exercise more exhilarating and healthful for women than skating in the open air, though, I am bound to say, this cannot be said of the exercise in covered rinks, as one is liable to get very hot and then to catch cold. The combination of hot air above and the cold current rising from the ice, does not tend to produce a very healthy atmosphere. But as we should not make such rapid progress, or have the advantage of seeing together so many good skaters of all nationalities, if we had not the covered rinks, many of us will not be inclined to complain.

I am afraid my remarks are very disconnected, but the subject is a difficult one to treat from a general point of view. I shall be satisfied if what I have said should inspire even one of my readers with a greater devotion to the beautiful art of skating.

Engraving of "Our Sisters In Canada"


It is natural that the art of skating should come to us from the North, for it is in the land of ice and snow that the problem of traversing the frozen surface of the snow-covered ground and the ice-bound water would have to be solved. With the Greeks and the Romans indeed, the great ruling nations of the South, there was no word to designate the exercise - a conclusive proof that it was unknown to them. But from Scandinavia we have an old war song which tells of the progress of the God of Winter over the water, supported on the bones of animals, and this shows that the skates of those early days were made of bone, though they were, as might be expected, of most primitive structure. It is generally agreed that the necessity of crossing the enormous fields of frozen snow during the long
Scandinavian winters led to the fashioning of snow-shoes, and that from these were made the smaller skates, by the aid of which the frozen waters could also be crossed, locomotion thus being made possible.

The early form of the bone skate was brought to England by the Northern tribes which settled in our midst, though it was to our Dutch neighbours, at a much later period in our history, that we owed the introduction of the wooden skate bound with iron, which is the prototype of our skate of to-day. From the earliest efforts with the primitive bone skates to the graceful evolutions now possible on a modern Mount Charles there is a marvellous change, and the art which has a history of nearly two thousand years behind it, is entitled to a place among the time-honoured pastimes of the world.

A beginner in this, as in all other pursuits, is met at the outset of her career, when she is without practical knowledge to guide her in the choice, by the difficulty of selecting a proper instrument. She must then trust to others. As the choice however is not large, she can scarcely do wrong in investing in a Mount Charles, which should be fixed to a well-fitting boot with low heels, a fairly thick sole, and laced upper leathers.

But the first efforts will, if she is wise, be made on roller-skates, for though the tide of fashion has set against this form of skating, and it is only in far-off Simla and a few scattered places that it still holds its own, it is unrivalled as a means to the end of skating on ice. On roller-skates the learner can follow up her study systematically day after day, independent of weather conditions, and can acquire the two primary essentials of successful skating, viz., balance and confidence.

When these have been acquired you may then make your first attempt on ice with every prospect of success. With steady practice you will soon learn to manage your skates, but never forget during these early days that you must ever be on your guard against the countless tricks which beset the beginner at every stage of her progress. Some people will indeed advise you, when you first put on your skates proper, to walk about a carpeted room with them, while others will tell you to make your first efforts on the ice itself. In this you will probably be guided partly by the age at which you begin the pastime - whether, that is to say, a fall is a serious matter or one to be disregarded with the smiling; carelessness of youth - and partly by the degree of confidence you have acquired on the roller-skates.

In any case, when you find yourself on the ice for the first time, you will endeavour to walk forward on your skates with short and careful steps. If you have assistance to prevent you from the inevitable tumbles that will otherwise be your lot, your progress will be safe but slower than it you take your courage in both hands and carry out unaided the good old nursery maxim of "try, try, try again," till the delightful foretaste of success comes to you, in the first quivering glide forward - without a too sudden descent at the end.

Remember, when making these first efforts at walking, that the foot on which you are resting on the ice should have both the ankle and knee kept stiff, or you will find your ankle twist sideways. You must also take care to keep the feet well under you, as until you have found your balance they will have an inclination to slide apart, and thus render a fall imminent. After a short experience of this tottering effort after equilibrium, you will probably almost instinctively begin to slide forward with both feet, and for the moment you will find sufficient pleasure in movement of any kind. I have indeed seen quite a rapturous expression of triumph come over the face of a middle-aged beginner, when she first managed the smallest of small slides without it ending in a catastrophe, or in a wild clinging to her guide. The good lady doubtless saw in the dim future the end in view for which she was willing to expend so much patient effort, and so shall we, and in a shorter time, if fewer winters have passed over our heads before we make our first venture.

A few hours at least should be devoted to this preliminary experience, and then you will probably be able to try the inside edge forward, which is the first step to master. With your feet turned at an angle of 45 degrees, you will press downward with the ball of your left foot, so that you may have a secure position from which to start, and you will slide forward with your right foot only on the inside of the skate, balancing yourself entirely on that foot. You will then bring the left foot forward from the position it has held with the toe of the skate held just off the ice behind the right foot, and pressing the inside edge of the skate under the ball of the right foot into the ice, you will slide forward with your left, striking out farther and farther as you find you can keep your balance during the stroke. The
position of the body should be slightly sideways, with the face in the direction of progress.

To perform a half-circle and a circle will then be your aim, until you can succeed with a perfect figure of 8. By the time you have mastered this, you will be ready for the turn on both feet and the backward stroke or the inside edge, after which the forward and backward stroke of the outside centre will be your study. In all backward movement the head must be turned in the point of direction, while the weight of the body is thrown on the back part of the skate, instead of on the front part as in a forward movement.

As soon as complete mastery of both edges has been gained, and that the fate of the immortal Winkle may not be yours, you have learnt the art of stopping, you will find all the simple figures within your powers. Do not, however, be hurried into trying any combination, however simple, until you have acquired the art of easy and graceful motion on the inside and outside edges, both forward and backward.

The Hand-in-hand Figures are much in vogue among women in all countries, and these are pretty and effective, as well as simple to execute by anyone who has thoroughly grounded herself in the rudiments of skating. The more usual way of executing these figures in this country is for the partners, generally a man and a woman, to stand side by side, joining their right hands underneath the left, which are also clasped sideways, though occasionally what is known as the Austrian mode is adopted, viz., by the woman standing in front of her partner and bending her hands under and backward at her side, when they are taken in the clasp of the man behind.

It is to the daughters of the inventor of the Plimpton roller-skates that we are indebted for the various fascinating forms of hand-in-hand skating now in vogue, and for the effective movement known as " a pass," we are equally beholden to Miss [Lilly] Cheetham, who was, I believe, the first to put it in practice. For the many varieties of Scuds and Rockers now constantly to be seen at the much patronised covered rinks, reference may be made to Mr. Maxwell Witham's book "A System of Figure Skating," in which are to be found diagrams of some very simple figures taken originally from the archives of the Oxford Skating Society. These will be well within the powers of all, and in the case of the stronger and more enthusiastic women skaters will form a fitting prelude to the execution of the more elaborate "Club Figures."

In Figure 1, the skaters take up their positions facing one another upon each side of a square, the start being made by each skater with the right foot, on a curve of outside edge, continuing this for half a circle when the left foot will be put down and the stroke taken, either in the ordinary way or from the cross, and the whole circle of outside on the left foot skated. This will bring each skater into the original place of the other and the movement can be repeated. The figure can also be skated backward, in which case the position for starting will be with the backs instead of the faces of the skaters towards each other.

Figure 2 is very similar to the former. The skaters take up their positions facing one another at four points of the inner circle, skating off on a curve of outside edge with the right foot and
going round the inner circle. The left foot is thus put down and the stroke taken in the ordinary way or from the cross, another circle of outside edge being skated on the left foot. This will bring the skater to the inner circle again when the movement can be repeated, and the whole figure can be skated backwards.

A variation of this figure can be made thus: "The skaters only go three-quarters round the centre circle, so that the outside circle described always lies immediately behind the one on which each skater last travelled round. The skaters thus changing their positions has a pretty effect. Arrived at the common circle the movement is repeated, each skater taking her partner's hand (the four hands being thus crossed) which is retained until the whole circle, which all have in common, has been skated, when each again branches off as before described."

In all skating, neatness, precision, and an easy, upright carriage are the things to be aimed at, and as you feel yourself getting at home on your skates, remember it should be your object to disguise your stroke as far as possible, so that your progress may have the smooth, graceful ease of apparently unbroken motion.

Shortly, the great points to be attended to when learning are :

1. An upright carriage without stiffness.
2. Straightness of the knee of the employed leg.
3. Approximation of the feet.
4. A slight sideways position of the body, with the face in the direction of progress.
5. Equality of power on either leg, to attain which extra practice for the weaker leg - generally the left - will be needed.

When these have been acquired the full delight of the health-giving exercise of skating will be open to you.

Skate Guard is a blog dedicated to preserving the rich, colourful and fascinating history of figure skating. Over ten years, the blog has featured over a thousand free articles covering all aspects of the sport's history, as well as four compelling in-depth features. To read the latest articles, follow the blog on FacebookTwitterPinterest and YouTube. If you enjoy Skate Guard, please show your support for this archive by ordering a copy of the figure skating reference books "The Almanac of Canadian Figure Skating", "Technical Merit: A History of Figure Skating Jumps" and "A Bibliography of Figure Skating": https://skateguard1.blogspot.com/p/buy-book.html.