Sunflowers And Stilts: The Sidney Charlton Story

Born May 1, 1883 in the London suburb of Lambeth, Sidney James Mitchell grew up in one of England's earliest 'show biz' skating families. His Roman Catholic father Horace was one half of the roller duo Charlton & Tyme (the 'Arctic skaters') who performed at the rink at the Royal Leamington Spa in Warwickshire in the 1870's. Sidney's father later taught ice skating at the Glaciariums in Australia in the late Edwardian era under the name 'Professor Charlton'. His sister Lillian, one of England's first female skating instructors, accompanied him on these trips down under.

Horace and Lillian Mitchell. Photo courtesy Dan Weller.

At the age of fourteen, Sidney (adopting his father's stage name Charlton) skated alongside World Champion Henning Grenander in a carnival at Prince's Skating Club. Among the spectators were the Prince of Wales, the Duchess of Teck, the Countess of Minto and Lady Randolph Churchill. He was billed as "the boy champion", having been presented by the future King Edward VII with a medal at another Prince's carnival that year.

Engraving of Sidney Charlton with the Prince of Wales (later King Edward VII). Photo courtesy Dan Weller.

Sidney's promising skating career was cut short for a time, when he served with the First Imperial Light Horse regiment in South Africa in the Second Boer War. After the War, he taught skating at Prince's for a time, working with Olympic Silver Medallist Arthur Cumming early in his career. 

In 1905, Sidney travelled to North America to pursue his dream of becoming a professional skater. Not long after his arrival, he won the 'fancy skating contest' for the 'World's Champion fancy roller skater' at the Lenox Lyceum Rink in New York City and headlined on rollers at the New Ocean Park Casino Rink in Long Branch, New Jersey and the Third Regiment Army Rink in Atlanta, Georgia. 

Photo courtesy Dan Weller

In his signature act, Sidney portrayed a 'Black Hawk Chief', jumped barrels and demonstrated his prowess at both figure and speed skating. He performed on the ice in Montreal and on rollers everywhere from Albany, New York to Nashville, Tennessee. 

In 1909, Sidney married Emmy Campbell in Canada, returned to England and resumed teaching at Prince's, giving lessons to King Alfonso XIII of Spain. The T.H. Deane Company designed a special model of skates, The Charlton, in his honour.

Right photo courtesy Dan Weller

Though Sidney was living in England when The Great War broke out, he was able to join the Canadian Army Medical Corps. Not long after enlisting with the Canadian Expeditionary Force, he was admitted to a troop hospital to recover from trench fever and pleurisy. He returned to the trenches and saw considerable action on the front lines in France.

Photo courtesy Dan Weller

It was during the roaring twenties that Sidney's skating career really took off, thanks to a novel new addition to his specialty act. A pioneer in stilt skating, he toured small theatres in England, Scotland and Northern Ireland and took to the ice at the Palais de Glace at Champs-Élysées, Paris with Megan Taylor's famous father Phil, performing a double act on stilts. He taught figure skating for a time in Switzerland and had his fifteen minutes of fame in 1928, when he carved out an intricate special figure with a sunflower design. Pictures of Sidney and his sunflower appeared in newspapers around the world. He claimed that "he dreamed that he was skating before a large crowd who seemed to applaud out of all proportion for his act. When he looked on the ice he found that he had drawn, with his skates, a sunflower. The surprise awakened him and he jumped out of bed to jot down the turns which he found next day to be practicable." Eminent skater, judge and historian T.D. Richardson credited him as the first man to skate on stilts, but others - like Captain John Miner - had in fact beat him to the punch. He was, however, one of the first to achieve widespread attention for the feat, helping popularize the novelty.

When the Streatham Ice Rink opened in 1931, Sidney was hired on to serve as the venue's floor manager. His wife worked as a waitress at a Lyons teashop. He continued to perform sporadically in various events, such as the famous "St. Moritz" spectacle at the London Coliseum which featured Pamela Prior, Eva Keats and Erik van der Weyden and Hans Witte and the 1932 World's and British Open Professional Championships. By this point in time, a handful of other skaters had copied his stilt skating act. He performed a comedic roller skating act with The Derby Skaters during this period.

Sidney (top right, bottom middle) performing a comedy act on rollers with The Derby Skaters in 1937. Photo courtesy Dan Weller.

Sidney passed away three days before his sixty-third birthday on April 28, 1946. The "Whitstable Times and Herne Bay Herald" noted that during World War II, "An intense patriot, Mr. Mitchell... joined the A.R.P. at Streatham and was in action through many of the blitzes. It was while carrying a stretcher after one of the blitzes that he collapsed due to heart trouble - an affliction which incapacitated him for some time and was ultimately responsible for his sudden death." His legacy as one of the great pioneers in the nearly obsolete art of stilt skating is sadly all but forgotten.

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