Fanny Cannan, A Victorian Women's Figure Skating Pioneer

Engraving of Fanny Cannan skating on the grounds of The Royal Toxophilite Society at Regent's Park from "The Graphic", January 31, 1891

"For the sexes to skate in company is no new thing, and one can see it portrayed in more than one old Dutch picture. In England, as we see, it is being gradually developed into a fine art through the medium of figure-skating, such difficult turns as the rocking turn being introduced. In Holland the development has long since taken place in the direction of hand-in-hand skating, for which a very natural inclination appears to exist wherever skating is indulged in." - Fanny Cannan, "The Gentlewoman", January 20, 1894

The daughter of Eliza (Adams) and Herbert Harris Cannan, Fanny Laura Cannan was born on July 21, 1858 in Guildford, Surrey, England. She was the youngest of five children, four of them girls. Her father was an accountant with the firm Kemp, Ford, Canaan, and Co. - the official liquidators for bankruptcies carried out through the London Bankers' Clearing House and Agra and Masterman's Bank. He served as an official assignee of the Court of Bankruptcy with "great zeal and ability". The family's home, Knight's Hill House in Lower Norwood, employed five servants.

As a young woman of a certain class growing up during Queen Victoria's reign, Fanny was afforded things her family's downstairs staff never would have dreamed of - a formal education and the opportunity to participate in sport. Her first exposure to skating was on rollers, but during the long winters she took up ice skating outdoors at Regent's Park. The fact that she was accepted as a member of The Skating Club and an honorary member of the Wimbledon Skating Club, which were then very much 'gentleman's clubs' speaks to both her hard work and natural talent.

In 1894, thirty-five year old Fanny began penning articles on figure skating, dog shows and racing for "The Gentlewoman". At the time, it was practically unheard of for upper-class women in England to write about sport, so she penned her articles under the nom de plum Diana. One article noted, "In America there are... lady sporting writers - journalists who take up sport as a study, though in the study only. We have plenty of sporting women in England who probably know a great deal more on... matters than many people who gain a living through a reputation for possessing knowledge."

A brochure on the history of The Skating Club credited Fanny with making "another step in advance with the development of systematic hand-in-hand skating by the discovery that all the known turns could be executed in four distinct ways (ie. apart from distinctions due to variations of direction or edge) by two partners simultaneously, while skating side by side." At the time, there was a class of four elaborate combined hand-in-hand figures that important skaters of the time like Henry Eugene Vandervell and Montagu Sneade Monier-Williams referred to as Scuds. Fanny was credited with inventing "a fifth Order of Scuds, if this term may be allowed. In these, the skaters move forwards together and backwards together, and yet each faces the other." Her discovery would be an important development in English Style combined figures which would later influence Continental Style pairs skating.

In 1897, Fanny skated in a fundraiser at Prince's Skating Club in Knightsbridge, held for the building fund of the London Homeopathic Hospital. Among those who took part were Henning Grenander, the Countess of Minto and Winston Churchill's mother. Numerous newspaper articles of the time counted her among the 'best lady skaters in England'. 

Though Lilly Cheetham, another Victorian era skater of note, had penned a chapter for Douglas Adams' book "Skating" in 1892, it was Fanny that had the distinction of being the first woman to author an English language book on figure skating. "Combined Hand-In-Hand Figure Skating", written with Norcliffe G. Thompson, the honorary secretary and treasurer of The Skating Club and Viscount Doneraile, was first printed in 1896 by Longmans, Green & Co. It is historically regarded as one of the first English books dedicated solely to combined or pairs skating.

Illustration of a skating scene by Charles H. Whymper, donated to The British Museum by Fanny Cannan. Photo courtesy The British Museum. Used with permissions under a Creative Commons Attribution International license.

Fanny and her older sister Emily never married or had children. They lived together at Cornwall Gardens, Kensington for decades, employing a ladies maid, cook, housemaid and parlourmaid. Fanny's enthusiasm for figure skating was a lifelong affair, evidenced by the fact she donated a considerable collection of skating memorabilia - books, china and prints - to the British Museum in 1931 when her sister passed away. Fanny passed away less than a year after the start of World War II on July 31, 1940 at the age of eighty-two, leaving a sizable fortune that would amount to over five million pounds today to Commander Reginald Foster Pitt Maton, O.B.E. and Major-General Sir Archibald Buchanan Ritchie, K.B.E. Her important contributions to figure skating history have been all but forgotten today.

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