#Unearthed: On The Ice

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 'buried treasure' is a piece called "On The Ice" which first appeared in an 1863 volume of "London Society", a monthly periodical subtitled "An illustrated magazine of light and amusing literature for the hours of relaxation". Though the authors of the pieces in this magazine - including this one - were frequently unattributed, contributors included such literary greats as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Charlotte Riddell. The author of this piece, through verbose at times, offered readers some valuable and charming advice that is certainly of historical interest.


An Englishman takes naturally to water. Insular as he is, his sympathies lead him to the element which surrounds his tight little island, and from childhood to old age he never loses his interest in the water. As a child, he must needs splash through every puddle, and even the very slop-basin has attractions for him when it is made the medium of swimming a half walnut shell or a paper boat. As a boy, he hies him to the brooks and rivers, and whether it be to bathe, to fish, or to launch his mimic fleet, he is tolerably sure to spend his half- holiday in the water. Who can tell his delight when he first visits the sea, with its waves, its real ships, and its changing tides?

For my own part, when I was a very little boy, proceeding to Portsmouth on the top of a coach, I was half mad with excitement, and could not be calmed by any offer of hard-boiled eggs or sandwiches. How well I remember the moment when, from the summit of a lofty hill, my attention was drawn to a space between two distant elevations, where a faint blue line was drawn, as if with a painter's brush, and I was told that there was the sea.

None of the famous Ten Thousand felt more rapture at the sight of the sea than myself. I could not sit still. I wanted to get off the coach and run, for the vehicle seemed, to my excited imagination, to crawl at a snail's pace. Looking back to that time, I can realize the idea that I must have been a considerable nuisance to my fellow-travellers, for I fidgetted, and asked questions, and let no one have any peace until I fell asleep through sheer exhaustion.

How grand it is to the boyish feelings to indulge in a sail, the realization of many an ardent dream! How everything seems as if it were part of a fairy tale, as the sun glitters on the white-crested waves, the boat leaps along as if instinct with life, and the sedate old sailor sits quietly in the stern, smelling very much of tar, and chewing real tobacco, just as sailors do in books. Of course I thought that tobacco chewing was essential to a nautical life, and that no one could lay claim to the title of sailor without chewing a quid. So I begged a little piece of pigtail, and gave it just one bite. I never ventured upon a second, and nothing shall induce me to do so. How any human being can deliberately absorb that fiery mixture of pungent abominations is still to me a mystery. I would have given anything to take the horrible, choking, scorching taste away. I drank water until further drinking was a physical impossibility. I nearly ruined myself in apples, and yet bore about that most atrocious flavour for the rest of the day. We hear that across the Atlantic, ladies are accustomed secretly to eat snuff in their boudoirs. Whether or not the snuff bears any semblance to pigtail tobacco, I cannot say; but if there be the slightest shade, or penumbra of a likeness, those ladies must possess a strangely organized nervous system.

To return to our young sailor. The joys of the sea cannot last for ever. Black Monday summons its victims to school, and when next the schoolboy is set free, the winter has begun, and King Frost assert his sway. No more bathing now, no more swimming, and no more boating, for the river is covered with a thick sheet of black ice, and any sports must now be conducted upon its surface rather than in its waters. See, the thermometer marks 230, giving ten degrees to spare before the ice is likely to soften: scarcely a breath of wind is stirring, the ground rings sharp and clear under the feet; there has been no snow to mar the glassy smoothness of the ice, and for those who can traverse the shining surface without falling, the day is perfection itself. I can never find patience to take my breakfast quietly, but am always looking at the clock, fuming inwardly at the waste of time employed in mastication, and countingevery minute as lost until I am fairly on my way to the ice.

To skate in comfort is an art which requires some little practice. The powerful and unwonted exercise will often do more harm than good unless it be performed upon a correct system; and the skater will return home fagged and exhausted, instead of feeling quite fresh and lively as he ought to do. The mode which I adopt is as follows: I keep a pair of boots especially for this one purpose. They have rather thin soles, not very high heels, and fit exactly to the foot and round the ankle. Before starting for the ice, I screw the skates to the boots, slipping the straps loosely into the buckles, so that when the boots are drawn on, all that is required is just to tighten the straps. For walking to the ice I prefer a pair of thick-soled and very easy boots, as the relief to the feet by simply changing the boots is almost incredible. Just before starting, the skate-boots are placed in a little black leather bag, together with a guarded gimlet, a small knife, a tin box containing a piece of oiled linen, a sandwich, and a flask of sherry and water. The coat ought to be of the shooting-jacket style, with as little skirt as possible, and fitting rather closely when buttoned. Nothing but a handkerchief should be carried in the pocket, as severe damage is often occasioned by a fall when any hard substance, such as a knife or a bunch of keys, is worn. I once knew a man killed by falling on a gimlet which he had carelessly placed in his pocket. He was a good skater, and would not have fallen had he not been knocked down by a clumsy novice, who ran against him just as he was performing a difficult evolution. A gimlet is necessary, because straps vary so much in elasticity on different days, that although they will precisely fit on Monday, they may be too short on Tuesday, and so it is often necessary to bore a hole in the strap so as to suit the foot.

On arriving at the ice, let no skate man meddle with the straps. Pay for the use of his chair if you like, and leave your coat and other belongings in his charge, but let no one tighten a strap but yourself. Change the boots, put the walking pair into the bag, and draw up the straps of your skates about half a hole tighter than you are going to use them. But on no account wear the straps tight, as some ignorant persons do, hoping thereby to gain a firmer hold of the ice. Skating ought to depend entirely on balance and not at all on straps, and if you feel the pressure of a strap upon the instep, be sure that your balance is wrong. In point of fact, the only use of straps is to prevent the skate from falling away from the foot as it is raised, and an accomplished skater can manage without any straps at all. Some of the best skaters whom I know never use straps, but have the skates fastened firmly to the sole of their boots, the leather laces holding everything firm and straight. These skates are rather expensive, inasmuch as a pair of specially-made boots is sacrificed to them. But they are delightful to skate upon, look very neat, and give no trouble at all to the wearer.

Skates with peaks should always be avoided. Peaks are terribly apt to hitch in any obstacle. I have been more than once thrown by finding the peak of my skate caught in the strap of another person's skate, in the hook of a hockey-stick, or in the folds of a lady's dress. No steel should appear in front of the skate, it is only a superfluity, and has an awkward aspect, increasing the length of the foot, which in most cases seems to be disproportionately large when the skate is on it. Neither should the steel be cut off square behind, so as to leave a sharp edge, but be rounded evenly at either end. Many persons think that such skates are unsafe, because they do not know how to stop themselves except by the clumsy method of raising the toe and digging the heels into the ice. No real skater ever stops himself in this manner, no matter at what pace he may be proceeding. He knows that at the best it is a very awkward proceeding, and damages the ice sadly by ploughing it into deep ruts. Moreover, it is possible to stop much more abruptly, and with much greater certainty, by pressing the outer edge of one skate, and the inner edge of the other against the ice, and so spinning round. In this manner, a good skater will stop himself within a circle of six feet in diameter, though dashing along with the speed of a race-horse.

After passing some five or ten minutes on the ice, by which time the skates will have settled to the
feet, it is better to loosen all the straps half a hole. At the moment, the skates will feel too loose, and
as if they could not withstand th weight of the body. But in a minute or two they will be found to be
perfectly safe, and the increased freedom of the foot becomes an absolute luxury. No one can skate
with any comfort or elegance if the straps are drawn too tight . The circulation is stopped, the feet be-
come icy cold and cannot be warmed, and all the movements of the body are rendered stiff and un-
gainly. No graceful curve can be followed, no just circle can be drawn while the feet are stiffened
by tight strapping, which takes away all the play of the instep, cramps the ankle, and causes no
slight pain whenever the skate is placed on the ice.

Two straps are quite enough for any skater, namely, one across the toes, and another from the heel.
None should be permitted to cross the middle of the foot, as is the usual custom, for in that position
they do not hold the skate to the foot, and only interfere with the play of the numerous tendons that
run along the instep. Whenever you see a person hobbling away from the ice, be sure that he has
been skating with tightened straps. His feet are so cramped that they hardly hold the ground, his ankles are stiff, and refuse to play, and the blood that has so long been repressed is now rushing tumultuously forward into the foot, seeming as if it would burst the veins at every pulsation, and feeling as if molten lead had taken the place of blood.

I do believe that skating is the nearest approach to flying of which the human being is as yet capable.
Gravity, which to a man in boots seems to fetter him to the earth, becomes to a man in skates the instrument of propulsion. A skater flies over the ice as if by pure volition, the impetus being obtained, not so much by the stroke of the feet as by the judicious sway of the body. Therefore, to a bystander, a good skater seems to keep up his graceful circles simply by his will, the gentle oscillations of the body appearing to be, not the cause, but the consequence of his movements.

The true carriage of the body is the great criterion of a skater, and is one of the last accomplishments
that is learned. Books are mostly wrong on this point. They tell us that our right or left arms are to
be raised or depressed in unison with the corresponding feet, and give illustrations which, to the real
skater, afford only food for ridicule. You may as well say that in walking, the hands are to be lifted alternately over the head, as to make that movement one of the rules in skating. I know that at the early part of the present century one admirably elegant skater was in the habit of so using his arms. But even in the master of his art, the waving arms had a decidedly affected aspect, and in an imitator the effect is simply ridiculous. No one ought to see that the skater is using any effort whatever, and the arms should hang easily and quietly by the side. Should the performer be afflicted with mauvaise honte, and feel himself embarrassed with his arms, perhaps he cannot do better than clasp his hands, letting them fall loosely, and at full length.

No stick should be carried; the effect is as absurd as wearing spurs in order to ride in a cab. No one can want a stick while skating, except, perhaps, for the purpose of castigating the tiresome boys with whom the ice is mostly infested, and who mar its bright surface by throwing stones, or deliberately break holes in it with the butt ends of their hockey sticks. Still, I have always found that boys are much more frightened by being run down than deterred by the fear of a stick; and if you dexterously put a boy's head into the hole he has just made, and wet him to the skin with the splash, he will be a beacon and a warning to his companions to let the ice alone for the future.

Nor let the skater fancy that he will fall while he knocks over his foe. It is most curious, but not the
less true, that as soon as the skates are firmly set on the ice, that substance is no longer slippery, but
affords a firm hold which would astound a novice, who holds his feet wrongly, and feels them sliding
away on two different errands. For it is only the edge of the skate that touches the ice, and any one can see how firm is its hold by pressing the edge of a knife against a piece of ice.

The various games that are played on the ice are mostly unworthy of a true skater's attention, and have the further drawback of seriously annoying those who use the skate for its legitimate purpose.
Hockey, for example, ought to be sternly forbidden, as it is not only annoying, but dangerous... Cricket, again, the king of British games, is simply degraded by being transferred from summer and fields to winter and ice. I have seen several cricket matches played on the ice, and must acknowledge that the game was the veriest farce imaginable.

He, however, who wishes to put his skates to their legitimate use will never waste his time by playing
at any game whatever. He will either run races, or learn to perform the figures, the latter being,
of course, the more advisable plan; for, racing on skates is the surest way to ruin the style, and to give
an ungraceful deportment to the body. A figure-skater is all ease and grace and compact elegance. His arms never project from the body, his back is upright as a dart, and his feet are managed as delicately as those of a dancer; whereas, one who runs races is forced to abandon all pretensions to grace, and looks about as awkward an object as can well be conceived. He stoops until he is bent nearly double, like an infirm old man; his legs work like the crank of a locomotive engine; his arms are flapped backward and forward to help him on his course; and there are several noted racers who actually use their hands to push themselves along the ice. This kind of skating is really useless, although the sporting papers seem to measure a skater's skill by the number of miles which he can cover in an hour; for this speed cannot be kept up for any long time, and for really quick transit between distant places is much inferior to the simple Dutch roll on the outside edge, where the body is swung slowly from side to side, like a ship in a calm, and the feet are scarcely moved from each other. For the first mile or two, the racer will be far ahead, but about the tenth mile his opponent will be seen slowly but surely gaining upon him, and when he passes, will be quite fresh and lively, whereas the racer will be out of breath, and his legs thoroughly fatigued. There is nothing like the Dutch roll for getting over the ice at a great pace without seeming to use any exertion. I was told the other day by a gentleman who had lived much in Holland, that even the-market women, carrying their loads and wheeling a barrow full of vegetables, would pass him with the greatest ease. They would actually play with him, letting him keep level with them as long as they chose, and then, without any apparent increase of exertion, they would shoot ahead, and leave him struggling behind.

Even the skates of a racer and a figure-skater are differently made. Those of the racer are long, rather
low, and the edge of the steel is level from end to end, so that the skater can progress forwards with
much speed, but can form no curves or circles unless of very great diameter, and is, therefore, debarred from attempting the figures as long as he wears 'running' skates. But the skates that are employed for figuring are short in the steel, and have the edge so modelled as to form a segment of a circle. By this arrangement it will be seen that only a very little portion of the steel rests upon the ice, and that its curved form is exactly adapted for cutting circles and curves. These are by far the best skates to possess, for although a man on running skates can get over the ice with extreme rapidity, he can do nothing in the way of figuring. Whereas a skater who wears the figuring skates, can race with much speed in case of necessity, and is able to form any curve or circle that he likes.

Artists never seem to comprehend the real movement of the skater, and have a conventional method of representing it, which gives one a pain in the back only to look at. Every one knows the conventional skater on canvas or paper. He is coming straight at you. His arms are folded. His coat-tails are flying in the air. He has a smirk on his manly countenance. He has a comforter round his neck. His spine is perpendicular, but his legs form an angle of 65° with the horizon, and the upper leg is lifted up straight and rigid, as if it were one limb of a pair of compasses. I should like to see the artist put himself in that wonderful posture only for a moment, and then make him write down his sensations. I think he would experience a severe aching about the waist and hips, which would give him a tolerable idea of the feelings of a prisoner just released from the rack.

Artists are apt to draw the oddest things imaginable when they get on sporting subjects. There are of
course exceptions... but as a general fact, the engravings in the many illustrated papers are positively ridiculous when they treat of subjects connected with bodily exercises. See, for example, the impossible Leotards and Blondins that we have so often admired... So it is with skating. I once
undertook to superintend the draughtsman in illustrating a work on this art. I drew all the sketches
myself, explained their bearing to the artist, and yet the perversity of human nature prevailed, and he
insisted on returning to his conventionalities. He put the skaters on the wrong edge of the skate; he made them look the wrong way; he drew the tracks of the steel exactly where the skater could not by any possibility have passed; he insisted on reproducing the objectionable figure which has already been described, and, in fine, worried me to an almost unbearable extent. One drawing was, I think, sent back some eight or ten times. It represented some figure skating; and in order to give the draughtsman a correct idea of the scene, I not only made the original sketch, but traced the figure on a piece of cardboard, and stuck pins on it to show the places and attitudes of the skaters. It was all useless, and even now, after repeated alterations, I find that one of the skaters has his head in a
totally wrong position. It is right that we should pardon those who injure us, but I must say, that
to pardon a perverse draughtsman, who will not carry out your ideas, is a very difficult matter.
There is now before me, an illustration to a well-known work on these British sports, representing,
or rather intending to represent, a lady and gentleman skating together. They are in irreproachable
costume, and the daintiest of attitudes. But it is evident to any skater, that the inevitable result of
the very next stroke will be, that as the gentleman is clearly the worse skater of the two, he will
probably meet with an ignominious fall. The lady is skating on the outside edge, and rests on her right foot. The gentleman is skating on the inside edge, and also rests on his right foot Result of the next stroke, Collision.

Etching of skaters on the grounds of The Crystal Palace in Penge Common, London, 1855

It is a most fascinating amusement, this skating, tempting one to postpone the departure from the ice
hour after hour, and not unfrequently causing such fatigue on the first day, that a forty-eight hours'
rest is needful before the wearied skater can recommence his amusement. Never, on leaving the ice,
should the ankles feel that painful sense of fatigue which renders walking a trouble, and at night bids fair to preclude sleep. It is much wiser to economize amusement, to restrict the first day's skating to an hour and a half at the utmost, and so to gain the required strength by degrees. The ankles always suffer most, as upon those joints the greatest strain is thrown, more especially by inexperienced skaters. I knew one lad who had a most original method of skating. He used to double his feet under him until the outer ankles rested on the ice. On the ankles he would run for a few paces, then jump on his skates, and glide along with the impetus thus gained.

Skating is an art to which all ladies should attain. It is especially feminine in its character, graceful,
elegant, requiring little apparent force, and yet affording good exercise. Ladies soon learn to skate.
I have had the honour of initiating several ladies into the art, and have been surprised by the facility with which they learn it. Whether from some innate quality of the feminine sex, I know not, but it is invariably the case, that if a boy and a girl, or a gentleman and lady, of equal ages, and having enjoyed equal advantages, are put upon skates for the first time in their lives, the lady always manages to skate independently sooner than the gentleman. Of course the costume must be adapted
to the occasion, and a lady can no more skate while engaged in the modern fashionable wire-work, than she can ride while surrounded with those mysterious and voluminous productions of the ironmonger. There are few dresses more thoroughly becoming than the riding habit, and the best skating dress is neither more nor less than a riding habit with short skirts.

I do not recommend fluted skates, or those with a groove or channel along the bottom of the steel. They certainly take an easier hold of the ice than the ordinary kind, but they can only be worn by light weights, and, in any case, are treacherous servants. The tiny shavings of ice which are cut up by the edge are sure to collect in the groove, where they become impacted into a solid mass which can hardly be cut with a knife. By degrees the groove is filled up, and, lastly, the compressed ice projects beyond the steel, and causes inevitable falls. Many a person has fallen repeatedly without any apparent cause, and has only regained the use of his skates when the groove has been cleared with a strong knife. This habit of the skate is termed 'balling.'

If you value your peace of mind, do not take off your skates until you reach the bank, and can walk away on the solid earth. At the best, the removal of the skates is like the clipping of an eagle's wings,
and the slow, plodding walk contrasts painfully with the swift, gliding ease of your previous move-
ments. But to walk upon the ice over which you have just skated is really too painful. The ice suddenly becomes slippery as soon as you tread upon it with shoes. You have no hold upon it, and you slip about in the most contemptible manner. You have to walk slowly and circumspectly, lifting your feet perpendicularly, and setting them down quite flat; and you make your tardy way gingerly along, conscious of presenting a most ungainly aspect, over the very tracks where you lately wheeled on sounding steel, swift and lithe as winged Mercury.

My last piece of advice is, that no one should think of skating when there is the least doubt respecting
the strength of the ice. The sport is not worth the mental anxiety suffered by any one who skates on
doubtful ice. No one has a right to run such a risk for the sake of amusement, and, indeed, there are
few accidents more perilous than the breaking of ice, even in comparatively shallow water. For even
a good swimmer may find himself suddenly sucked under the ice, and from the mud raised by his fall, may find the water so tinted that he cannot see the hole to which he must return to save his life.
I have heard of one lad who saved his life in a very curious manner. He had fallen through the ice, and could not possibly return to the hole through which he had passed. He turned on his back, and looked up to see if there were any other mode of escape, when his father, who was on the spot, pointed out the direction in which he was to swim, and by walking quickly to another hole at a little distance, he guided his son to the place, and received him just in time to prevent him from sinking again from exhaustion. It is seldom, however, that such presence of mind on both sides can be found, or that the ice is sufficiently transparent to allow any person below to see through its substance.

Should any one who reads these lines be unfortunate enough to get under the ice, let him bear in mind that the only hope of escape is to remain quite still, looking upwards to discover the spot where the light seems strongest, and then to make the best of his way towards it. Let him not attempt to get upon the ice, as it is sure to break again under the pressure of the knees, and its sharp edges cut like broken glass. But let him stretch out his arms upon it, and wait quietly until assistance arrives. Still, the safest plan is - never to venture on the ice whenever there is the least danger.

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