The Floating Ice Rink At Charing Cross

"The moors! Bah! Give me the Arctic delights of Professor Gamgee's Glaciarium, where eternal winter reigns, and skating may be really enjoyed even in the hottest summer! Here's to the health of Ice-King Gamgee!" - "The Penny Illustrated Paper", August 19, 1876

At the foot of Northumberland Avenue, just above the Charing Cross Railway Bridge, a striking iron and glass structure moored in The Thames couldn't help but capture the imagination of Londoners, as they strolled by with their parasols, fans, top-hats and canes. 

Opened in 1875, The Floating Baths were the Victorian answer to the swimming pool. At that point in time, The Thames was an absolutely disgusting cesspool of mud and sewage that really wasn't fit for swimming or bathing. The owners hoped to draw in swimmers in the summer by offering filtered water instead of disease-ridden muck. 

Approximately seven hundred people a day visited The Floating Baths in its second summer, but the cost of admission (one shilling) and concerns about hygiene and the water's smell prevented the venture from really taking off. Far more visitors were expected, and in order to recoup his losses Edward Perrett, the engineer of The Floating Swimming Bath Company, came up with a radical idea. Rather than let The Floating Baths sit unused in the winter months, he would convert them into a skating rink to pull in profits year round. He hired Robert G. Austin, a roller skater visiting from America performing in music-hall shows with The Austin And Hess Troupe Of Skaters, to manage things.

In May of 1876, a Glaciarium had opened at the Old Clock House in Chelsea, using the artificial ice-making method of Professor John Gamgee. There, the Glaciarium Club was formed - among its enthusiastic members the Marquis of Clanricarde

Edward Perrett hired Emmerson, Murgatroyd, and Co., the contractors that installed Gamgee's system in Chelsea. He was given the go-ahead by the Metropolitan Board of Works on October 20, 1876. In two months, "two complete sets of machinery, all with the accessories for a Glaciarium" were installed. The ice was artificially frozen using metal tubes containing glycerine and water. The water of the Thames, pumped through the machine's condenser, maintained the pressure. The ice surface of Edward Perrett's 'Real Ice Skating Rink' was one hundred and thirty five by thirty five feet.

The Real Ice Skating Rink at The Floating Baths was supposed to open in early December of 1876, but this was delayed until December 21, as the machinery was accidentally damaged. Curious Victorians who could afford the two shilling admission spent their Christmases merrily gliding along the ice. The first two skaters on the ice, before the rink even officially opened, were two unidentified women. On January 1877, "The Country" reported, "As the surface of the ice necessarily gets cut up - though from being good hard ice it is less cut up than one would be led to suppose - the lessee limits the periods for skating to two hours at a time, in order, as we were informed, that in the interval the ice may be resurfaced, so that those who go in the afternoon or evening may have as good a piece of ice to skate upon as those who go in the morning; but we are disposed to think the getting a second crop of visitors has something to do with the arrangement. Be this as it may, the plan seems to work well, as the most enthusiastic skater finds that two hours' skating 'straight on end' quite sufficient, especially as he feels that the ice will not all be gone by next morning. Those, however, who come from the country, and may wish to have a long day's skating before they go back, can, by making a day of it, get eight hours' skating, as the Glaciarium is open from 9 am to 11 am, 11:30 am to 1:30 pm, 2 pm to 4 pm, and 5 pm and 7 pm; and on each readmission they will find the ice like new."

The Real Ice Skating Rink at The Floating Baths didn't prove a financial success and only lasted one winter. It failed to draw in members of The Skating Club, who solemnly practiced their English Style combined figures on the grounds of the Royal Toxophilite Society in Regent's Park. Olympic Gold Medallist Edgar Syers was of the belief that this was because "the area was too small to accommodate more than a few skaters." 

For a time, the venue continued to operate as The Floating Baths in the summers and remained empty in the winter. The Floating Baths closed in the 1880's and sat unused in the Surrey Commercial Docks for seven years before being given a makeover and reopening as the Cleopatra Swimming Pool in the early 1890's. That venture didn't last long either. Authorities decided the project was "undesirous" and the locals felt the filtered water wasn't clean enough to swim in. 

Though this rink was largely viewed as a failure, it was a fascinating footnote in British figure skating history... and a precursor to the much grander rinks that would soon come - the National Skating Palace, ice rink at Niagara Hall and Prince's Skating Club... which we'll learn all about in "Figure Skating In The Edwardian Era".

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":