The Southport Glaciarium

In the late Victorian era, Lord Street in the seaside resort town of Southport, England, according to "The Illustrated London News", resembled "a Paris Boulevard, combining an avenue of trees, and frequent small gardens, with shops, hotels, public edifices and private houses, with broad-foot pavements, and tramways." Horses trotted up and down the street pulling carriages; women with plumed hats and elegant dresses visited milliner's shops. Children rolled hoops past the floral conservatory, grand theatre and aquarium. Men checked the time on their pocket watches as they rushed past the concert hall, haberdashery and covered promenade. Everyone couldn't help but stop and marvel at the most novel notion on the street - the Southport Glaciarium, with its 'real ice' skating rink.

The Southport Glaciarium's architects were the Manchester firm of Bell and Roper. The building was the property of a group of promoters, chaired by Edward Holden, calling themselves the Universal Glaciarium and Ice Manufacturing Company. The group aimed to expand upon the ideas of England's earliest artificial ice rinks or 'Glaciariums', using the methods of Professor John Gamgee and build on the popularity of a roller rink which had been established in the area a few years prior. 

The Southport Glaciarium's foundation stone was laid on a rainy day in April of 1877, and the facility opened less than two years later on January 10, 1879. The cost was an exorbitant sum of thirty thousand pounds - over three million pounds in today's money with inflation, and with admission set at only sixpence, the goal was clearly to draw people in rather than charge them an arm and a leg.

Photo courtesy Special Collections, Bradford University

The Southport Glaciarium was designed with both tourism and practicality in mind. It housed an ice surface of one hundred and fifty by fifty four feet, as well as a cold store for meat and an area where block ice was sold to local households and businesses. The facility had large cloakrooms, refreshment rooms and indoor lavatories. On one side of the rink, there was an ample gallery for spectators; on the other a 'fern-grotto promenade'. There was also a separate building on the property that housed a photographic studio and dining, drawing and billiards rooms. Also on the property was a large garden.

Though the Southport Glaciarium was advertised as "The Only Real Ice Skating Hall In The World! The Figure Skaters' Paradise! Open In All Seasons! Spring, Summer, Autumn and Winter", it was another sport - curling - that quickly took the rink over. Just ten days after the Glaciarium opened iits doors, the first curling match was played. Soon, Edward Holden began putting up lavish prizes for tournaments. The Holden Challenge Shield, which drew in curlers from clubs as far away as Manchester and Liverpool, came with a prize of fifty guineas.

Though most accounts from those who skated at the Southport Glaciarium praised the good ice, the rink had its drawbacks. It was dimly lit, cold, damp and the noxious chemicals used to make the ice would cause a sort of dense fog to fill the air. A ventilation system, then newly-patented, was installed, but at least once the rink management came to blows with local officials, who complained about thick black smoke emitting from the chimneys. That wasn't the only safety concern either. In 1885, an engine driver named Richard Turner was tragically killed. His scarf got caught in the revolving shaft of his engine and hung him.

Though best remembered for its curling tournaments, the Southport Glaciarium drew a small circle of figure skating enthusiasts from other parts of England would travel to Southport specifically to skate there - some for a few days; others for three or four months at a time. Continental Skating wasn't yet a thing in England, and many of the elements that made Edwardian indoor rinks such an attraction - such as elaborate carnivals, instructors and music - were completely missing. Hand-in-hand figures in the English Style were popular and a handful of  visiting Londoners spent considerable time in Southport experimenting on new figures. Perhaps most significantly, it was at this rink that Montagu Sneade Monier-Williams, through experimentation, came up with the rocker turn. 

Some of the earliest tests of the newly-formed National Skating Association were held at the Southport Glaciarium, and it was at the rink that a small circle of women began making inroads into the men's world of figure skating. A school-teacher named Lilly Cheetham made history as the first woman to pass one of the National Skating Association's tests. She also figured out how to crudely carve her name on the ice and travelled to London in 1887 to demonstrate her talent to the top-hatted members of The Skating Club at the Royal Toxophilite Society's grounds in Regent's Park. Lilly's niece Mabel Ross Shorrock, who was a student at her school, passed the National Skating Association's second-class test at the Southport Glaciarium in 1889. Lilly was one of the three judges - an unheard-of distinction at a time when skating judges were, almost without exception, men.

Unfortunately, the Southport Glaciarium really struggled to bring in the number of patrons it hoped to. Skating enthusiasts from London believed a skating club might save it. In 1882, someone using the initials 'L.B.W.' wrote to the editor of "The Field": "I have lately had two or three days' skating at the Southport Glaciarium, and I cannot help thinking that if it were better known it would be better supported. The ice is perfect, and there is room for two or three sets of the club figures. As a member of the original 'Ice Club' at Chelsea, when I remember the poor little place we had, and the number of men who were willing to pay a considerable sum for the use of it, it is astonishing to me that such a club is not formed in the neighborhood of Southport. Arrangements might no doubt be made for the exclusive use of the ice on certain days, and ladies would be able to learn with far more comfort than they can usually do out of doors, with snow under foot and the wind blowing them round the wrong way. We are accustomed to pride ourselves on the love of Englishman for every kind of bodily exercise... [but] hardly anyone cared to go on this beautiful sheet of ice and practice the charming art of figure skating. I feel confident that if such a place existed in my own neighbourhood, or indeed in any country district where I have ever lived, there would be no difficulty in finding plenty of people who would gladly pay a handsome subscription for the privilege of having perfect ice at their command whenever they felt inclined to use it. If something of this kind is not done for the Southport Glaciarium, I fear it will soon be extinct, and many will regret it when too late."

Lemonade bottle. Photo courtesy Colin Gould.

That anonymous writer's concerns weren't unfounded. The Southport Glaciarium closed its doors in May of 1889, after years of dwindling support and a significant financial loss in its final year. Olympic Bronze Medallist Edgar Syers later recalled, "Local interest was lacking, and London skaters found the distance too great for other than infrequent visits. Its passing was deplored chiefly by the enthusiasts of the old school and by a few ardent curlers." After its closure, the venue was used as a roller rink for a time before being converted into offices and a warehouse for the Electricity Department.

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