Brilliant Britons: Three More Forgotten British Skating Pioneers

Photo courtesy Wellcome Library

Without a doubt, Great Britain played one of the most important roles in the early development of figure skating. From The Skating Club to the earliest textbooks on the technique of skating, the sport would not have evolved in the way it did had it not been for that stiff British upper lip. Today, we'll meet three more more unique skating pioneers whose stories really haven't been explored to any degree of depth previously and learn about their roles in figure skating history.


Born February 7, 1899 in Chelsea, London, England, Lady Ursula Florence Hamilton-Temple-Blackwood was the second daughter of Captain Terence Hamilton-Temple-Blackwood, the second Marquess of Dufferin and Ava, and the Marchioness of Dufferin, Flora Davis, a wealthy American singer who was the daughter of a banker in New York City.

In their youth, Lady Ursula and her sisters Doris and Patricia divided their time between Curzon House in Mayfair, London and the family's country estate Gopsail in Leicestershire. They were doted on by servants and had the pleasure of viewing paintings by Rembrandt, Murillo and Van Dyke in their own home.

Lady Ursula's father served with the Diplomatic Service, as did her grandfather Lord Dufferin. When Lord Dufferin served as Governor General of Canada from 1872 to 1878, he played a very important role in developing figure skating in Canada, shelling out over a thousand dollars to furnish Rideau Hall in Ottawa with an outdoor skating rink for members of the public who were "properly dressed"... so I guess you could say Lady Ursula had skating in her blood.

Like all of 'the best sort of people' in London at the turn of the century, Lady Ursula got her start on skates at Prince's Skating Club at Knightsbridge. In the spring of 1908, she finished second to Herbert James Clarke at the club's annual junior competition, besting future Olympic Medallist Arthur Cumming in the process. Unfortunately, her early success never translated to a top three finish at the British Championships. In her only appearance at the World Championships in Stockholm in 1913, she placed dead last. During The Great War, her uncle was seriously wounded in action and her father died of influenza. She returned to the ice, but never chose to compete again.

Lady Ursula, Lady Doris and Lady Patricia Blackwell

In 1924, Lady Ursula took charge of a 'unique store' just behind Londonerry House called the Department of General Traders. A year later, her mother passed away of heart disease, and in 1926 she married Arthur Swithin Newton Horne, the brother of Sir Allan Horne and a former Government Secretary of the Federated Malay States. She passed away on February 13, 1982 in Cheltenham, Gloucestershire, England. In his book "A Bundle From Britain", Alastair Horne recalled, "Newt's wife, Aunt Ursie, who always had the purest of white hair as far back as I can ever remember, had a devastating Irish sense of humour, replete with a certain Celtic addiction to embroidery. As a child, I was wary of her tongue."


Born March 11, 1891 in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Basil John Williams was the son of Nicolas and Edith Isabela (Freeland) Williams. His father was Irish; his mother Brazilian. In the early twentieth century, Basil moved to Aighton, Lancashire with his mother. As a very young man, he had some luck in the stock market. In fact, he was lucky enough to be able to afford not only a pair of skates... but the winters in Switzerland that went along with it.

Basil burst on the skating scene in 1910, winning both the Woodward Cup and Valsing Contest at a gymkhana in Switzerland. He defeated the likes of Lord Lytton, Arthur Cumming and Ulrich Salchow, putting the skating world on notice. 

In 1912, Basil competed in his first British Championships and placed second to Arthur Cumming, the 1908 Olympic Silver Medallist in special figures. That same year, he entered the World Championships for the first and only time. He placed fifth with his partner Edna Harrison, but the duo were the top ranked of the three British couples who entered. The following year, Basil won the British title, defeating Phyllis (Squire) Johnson and a host others. He did not defend his title in 1914. Instead, it was reclaimed by Arthur Cumming, who skipped the 1913 Championships.

During The Great War, Basil served as a Signals officer with the British Army in Gallipoli. He was wounded in Palestine, but remained in the military for the duration of the war. After the War, he went into partnership with a London man named Horton. They traded as merchants under the name of Paton, Horton, and Co.

In 1920, at the age of twenty nine, Basil travelled to Antwerp, Belgium to compete in the 1920 Summer Olympics. He placed seventh out of nine entries in the men's event, but won the bronze medal in pairs skating with Phyllis (Squire) Johnson, acting as a replacement for Phyllis' ailing husband James who sadly passed away the following year. Interestingly, Basil never even competed in pairs at British Championships! Basil continued to skate well into the roaring twenties, competing in a waltzing competition in 1928 with Lady Rachel Stuart. He married the daughter of Wilbur Cherrier Whitehead, a well-known American bridge player, author and automobile company President.

Unfortunately, Basil's misadventures off the ice eclipsed his Olympic success in 1920. In April 1921, he found himself in court after being indicted for "obtaining false pretences" from a golf club steward named Thomas Frederick Newstead, with the intent to defraud the man of ten pounds. The case boiled down to the fact that Basil had been trying to collect old debts after he ended his affiliation with Paton, Horton, and Co. The case was ultimately dropped by the prosecution but earned him more than his fair share of bad publicity in the press. Ten years later, when he was managing the Richmond Ice Rink with Phil Taylor, he pled guilty to drinking and driving and was fined. The "Western Daily Press" claimed he was so tipsy when he was arrested that he did a step dance in the police station. Basil passed away in April of 1951 in Surrey, England, his successes as a figure skater largely forgotten.


The Chevalier Crowther was something of an enigma. Newspaper accounts from his era list his initials as T.H., G.H., T.E. and C.M... but his stage name was The Chevalier Crowther. He hailed from Yorkshire, but what his real name was a bit of a mystery. Beginning in the mid-1870's, The Chevalier began touring the world, performing his hodge podge of a vaudeville act for princes and paupers. Though primarily a roller skater, he was also a swordsman, juggler, equilibrist, unicycle and bicycle rider. Not only did he combine as many of these varied talents as he could in his act, but he also would cut the carcass of an animal - usually a sheep - in half with his sword as a grand finale.

Trying to separate the fact and fiction of The Chevalier's story is like trying to get the Caramilk out of the Caramilk bar. He loved to tell tales - some of which were true and perhaps embellished upon, and others which may well have been a big tall. He claimed to be able to speak ten languages and to have ridden his bicycle in the 1896 Olympics in Athens, where he was decorated by the Prince of Denmark. He also purported to have been shipwrecked twice, kept a pet tiger for five years and indulged in a bullfight on a bicycle. Once, while lost in a snowstorm, a kitten allegedly laid on his chest for days. "The warmth," he stated, "kept his heart beating." In Turkey, revolvers he used in his act were apparently seized by authorities. He maintained that while staying in a hotel room in Constantinople, he witnessed the execution of Americans on Stamboul Bridge from his window. He  also purported to have been shot at in a garden in Salonica. The bullet that was intended for him whistled by his right ear and ended up in the shoulder of the man standing behind him... and his mysterious assailant fled into the shadows. His most infamous claim involved riding on an eight foot bicycle over a nine inch plank across Niagara Falls. Whether or not he achieved the feat or not, he was indeed issued the title "The King Of Skaters And The Hero Of Niagara Falls" at St. Leonards Assembly Rooms, Hastings in 1892.

While few of these stories can be verified whatsoever, there's certainly more than enough evidence to support The Chevalier's fame and popularity in music halls and circuses. Passenger manifests confirm his claims of spending several years performing in Mexico and newspaper accounts place him in such varied locales as St. Petersburg, Cairo, Vienna, Guernsey, Copenhagen and Hamburg. An article in the August 1880 edition of "A Monthly Review Of The Drama, Music And The Fine Arts" raved, "The roller-skating performances of M. Crowther, at the Westminster Aquarium, eclipse anything of the kind that has ever been seen in London, and should be one of the greatest successes of the present management. M. Crowther's grace and dancing on the skates are beyond description."

The Chevalier wasn't just a daredevil... he was an unlucky one. In 1889, he was injured in Halifax when the wheel on his eight foot bicycle collapsed. He fell off, suffering a compound fracture of his left wrist. In 1904, he fell while performing a jump on roller skates at Bradford, hitting his head and suffering a concussion. He also had to take two years off from performing due to a case of the rheumatism.

Though figure skating rarely - if at all - made an appearance in 'his act', The Chevalier was no slouch on the ice. Prior to The Great War, he was a regular at the Palais de Glace in Nice, France. This rink opened for five o'clock tea and stayed open until one or two in the morning. It was staffed with an impressive team of instructors from England, France and Belgium and supported by small gambling casino. T.D. Richardson recalled, "The greatest of all, not as a skater but as a character straight from Dickens was 'Chevalier Crowther'. A Yorkshireman by origin, how he ever came to be there as a skater I never knew. A tall and commanding figure of a man, with a superb physique and a dominating personality; clad in a frock-coat, white waistcoat, tight pepper-and-salt trousers, white sided kid boots, gardenia, gloves and Malacca cane, all surmounted by a rather wide 'boater', the gallant 'Chevalier' would drive from his lodgings each morning in a ficare, down to the sea-front, past what is now the Jardin Roi Albert and then, large cigar rampant, slowly and with tremendous dignity he would stroll nonchalantly along the Promenade des Anglais - to the admiration of the ladies. It was an extraordinary sight and one unlikely to be seen ever again. The same curious control over the public was seen when he gave his almost nightly exhibition, even when really great performers were on the same programme. He would do a spiral or two, a ponderous hop which might be called a jump, a spread-eagle or two and some kind of a 'swiggle' and then come to a stop, left arm across his heart, right hand in the air pointing to the sky, while he waited for the tumultuous applause that invariably followed. He was indeed a unique personality and a great showman. [He had] a certain glamour, an air of romance; and above all a tremendous sense of style and a feeling for elegance - but then it was still an age of elegance, of luxury and opulence."

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":