Wit Before Witt: The Hans Witte Story

Photo courtesy Seán Moore

The son of Max and Louise Witte, Hans Eduard Wilhelm 'Henri' Witte was born on January 8, 1890 in the village of Bodzanów (Sporwitten), then part of East Prussia but now incorporated in the Płock County of Mazovia Province, Poland. His name was sometimes later anglicized to Hans White. In his youth, he apprenticed as a welder.

Photo courtesy Seán Moore

At the age of eighteen, Hans first took to the ice at the Berlin Eispalast. That same year, he turned professional and began instructing young German businessmen in figure skating - an art he was then barely familiar with himself. His seemingly natural aptitude for the sport quickly led to starring roles in Leo Bartuschek's Eisballets at the Admiralspalast in Berlin prior to the Great War, alongside Charlotte Oelschlägel. In 1913, he made his first of many trips to Australia. At the Sydney Glaciarium, he gave countless exhibitions and tutored skaters in the finer points of figures and free skating.

Photos courtesy State Library Victoria

For over a decade, Hans was a fixture at the Grand Hotel in St. Moritz, a mecca for winter sports enthusiasts from around the world. Working alongside Angela Hanka, an Austrian skater who won the silver medal at the final World Championships prior to the Great War, he crossed paths with a veritable who's who of skating while working as a skating instructor and giving exhibitions, often with a comedic and acrobatic flavour.

Top: Hans and Heta Witte. Right: Hans jumping another skater in St. Moritz. Photo courtesy Julia C. Schulze.

In October of 1926, after a stint teaching skating at the Melbourne Glaciarium in Australia, Hans
travelled to America via Copenhagen aboard the S.S. Estonia with a large group of German skaters. The group worked off their sea legs at the Iceland rink in New York City and then made their North American debut during the intermission of an NHL hockey game between the New York Rangers and Montreal Maroons. Their exhibition, choreographed by Katie Schmidt, was one of the first figure skating performances at Madison Square Garden. Hans remained with the troupe in America that winter, taking the ice ballet 'on the road' to the Rhode Island Auditorium, where they received rave reviews.

Sonja Henie and Hans Witte. Photo courtesy Seán Moore.

Upon returning to St. Moritz, Hans crossed paths with Sonja Henie, who was preparing for the 1928 Winter Olympic Games. He came to England in 1929, where he married his sweetheart Hedwig 'Heta' Kaete Weber. 

Left: 1932 advertisement for "Lilac Time" at the Westover Ice Rink, Bournemouth. Right: Heta Witte skating in St. Moritz.

The two had skated together during the American tour three years prior and formed a pair act which they soon exhibited at the Westover Ice Rink in Bournemouth in an early British skating pantomime called "Lilac Time".

Howard Nicholson jumping over Hans Witte

During the thirties, Hans made several very important contributions to the skating world. He appeared in many of the early British ice pantomimes of the period, skating alongside skaters like Phil Taylor and Freda Whitaker in shows in Bournemouth and at the Hammersmith Ice Drome. He briefly acted as a trainer for the Victorian Ice Hockey Association, where he introduced an ice plough of his own invention to the skaters of Australia. His knowledge of rink management and designing ice surfaces led to jobs as a technical adviser at the Empress Hall, Earl's Court, Wembley and Melbourne Glaciarium. In 1937, he designed the ice at the London Coliseum for the famous "St. Moritz" revue, which he also performed in. He also taught skating for four years at Oxford University. Among his famous students were Lord Redesdale and the Earl of Airlie.

Hans Witte skating in "St. Moritz" at the London Coliseum

Just prior to World War II, there was a surge of interest in hockey in Scotland and Hans found employment as a technical adviser at the Falkirk and Dundee-Angus Rinks. After the War, he served as a refrigeration consultant and ice engineer for Tom Arnold's Ice Revue at Stoll Theatre and the Palace Theatre in Manchester, starring Cecilia Colledge and "Ice Pie", which was one of the first ice shows to be broadcast on BBC in 1949. 

Hans spent his later years in a conversion flat rented from a housing association in Chapel Road, Ealing. His neighbour and friend Seán Moore recalled, "Poor Hans ended up more or less alone and disillusioned... [He] was proud of his background and I remember in particular that he mentioned an uncle who had been part of a hunting party involving King George V of England. I recall that he reflected about engineering and seemed at the forefront of small bore copper pipe refrigeration which made the setting up of ice rinks possible. I seem to remember that he mentioned Richmond as a project... A neighbour, Mrs Muriel Frostick, who had been a friend of his late wife, Heta, seemed to be the only carer." He passed away at the age of eighty nine on May 7, 1979 in London, England, his contributions to the skating world largely forgotten.

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.