#Unearthed: Rinks And Rinking

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. This month's 'buried treasure' is an article called "Rinks And Rinking", which first appeared in "The Badminton Magazine in March of 1912. It was penned by Olympic and World Medallist Edgar Syers. This article is an interesting and at times anecdotal timeline of the early history of glaciariums and indoor rinks in England in the Victorian and Edwardian eras.


"In the early days of ice rinking the question 'How long will the rage last?' was often asked, and the reply usually forthcoming from all, except its most ardent votaries, was, 'Oh! When the novelty wears off people will soon get tired of it.'

It must be admitted, even by opponents of rink skating, if such exist, that the rink craze, as it was used to be called, has already had a long and vigorous life, and far from showing signs of senescence, has of late years added largely to the number of its votaries.

In 1842 the first artificial rink was opened in Baker Street, London, under the exhibition rooms of Madame Tussaud (that most venerable of London’s shows) by a Mr. Kirke ; it was arranged in the similitude of a lake secluded amidst Alpine scenery. The ice substitute was a composition of crystallised alum mixed with hogs’ grease, salts of soda, and sulphur, the skating area being seventy feet long and fifty feet broad.

The advertisement of this Glaciarum depicts skaters disporting themselves in flamboyant attitudes. The characteristic engraving by George Cruikshank from the Comic Almanack of 1843-4 here given appears to indicate that the artist had seen the 'Alpine Scenery' referred to in the advertisement, and that it suggested the conceit which he has drawn.

This Glaciarum was a dismal failure and had a very brief existence; the abominable compound which masqueraded as ice was apt to soften in warm weather, and, as might be expected from the components, a fall on it meant the ruination of the skater’s clothes.

A somewhat similar venture was made some years ago at the Westminster Aquarium, and a floor was laid of a material, or a combination of materials, which certainly did look like ice; but the investigator who was hardy enough to venture on it immediately become aware that the resemblance there ended. Progression on this substance, stickey in some spots and slippery in others, could only be effected by violent and sustained efforts, and if the skates of the experimenter were sharp they immediately become wedged in the mysterious compound and promptly brought their wearer down. A German professional, afterwards well known as a teacher at the National Skating Palace, Niagara Ice Rink, and Prince’s Skating Club, was engaged by the management of the Aquarium venture to demonstrate its advantages and to teach prospective pupils, and he, by using broad-bladed and blunt skates, was able to slide about with some freedom, even, indeed, to skate a few simple figures. On the casual visitor, however, the impression produced by a first attempt was similar to that which most of us know as a feature of that form of nightmare in which one with impotent legs desperately but ineffectually struggles to escape from some impalpable terror.

This rink also had an almost ephemeral existence, and the writer on returning for his skates on the day following his adventure there found that certain creditors, being unpaid for materials supplied for the 'ice' had put in the bailiffs, and that his new pair of  'Mount Charles' were in their possession never to be recovered.

We believe that the first ice rink, as distinct from substitutes for the real thing, was that opened by the late Professor Gamgee at the Old Clock House, Westminster, in 1872-3. This was quite a small venture, being of a demonstrative character in view of the institution of others on a larger scale.

The next venture, also by Professor Gamgee, was in the floating baths on the Thames at Charing Cross; the area was too small to accommodate more than a few skaters, and this rink only lasted a few months.

In 1876 the Rusholme Ice Rink was opened in Manchester; it was small, inconvenient, cold and damp, and closed after a brief existence of about twelve months.

In 1879 the first of the modern rinks was opened at Southport, and on its ice many of the past generation of skaters foregathered and evolved much of the art of simple and combined skating in the English style. It was there that such well-known performers as the sisters Cheetham, M. Monier Williams, W. R. Pidgeon, and the veteran collaborateurs in the literature of skating, Messrs. VanderveU and Witham, with many other enthusiasts, were to be seen, admired and envied. Want of adequate support caused the Southport Glaciarum to be closed in 1889, after a life of ten years. It was, unlike any of its successors, open all the year round; but 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.

The chief drawbacks to the earlier rinks were the cold atmosphere and the damp mist which often hung over the frozen surface, the modern appliances for warming and ventilation were then only in the experimental stage, indeed, the architects of such buildings considered that the revenue would be drawn almost entirely from those who were on the ice, hence but small provision was made for the accommodation or comfort of the spectators. The fashionable gatherings which later thronged Niagara and Prince’s were then undreamed of; Society, with a big S, had not then taken up skating, which was, in this country, confined to the few enthusiasts who had penetrated the mysteries of combined figures.

In the early rinks two conditions now considered indispensable were absent; there was no music and no professional instruction. Music is undoubtedly an attribute desirable to the international style which now dominates rink skating, and to valsing, both of which are comparatively recent innovations. There is a good deal to be said for and against professional instruction ; the pros and com need not be discussed here. To elderly and nervous people assistance may be necessary, but the spectacle of strong girls and young men being held up week after week is depressing, and there is something particularly undignified in the position of a big strong man supported by an instructress.

Certain it is that the international champions and the great exponents of the art have never been indebted to professional assistance ; it is unthinkable that the athletic Fuchs, the versatile and vertiginous Hügel, the vigorous Salchow, or the flexible Grenander could have ever been held up by anybody.

The first rink to systematically introduce paid instruction was Niagara, opened in York Street, Westminster, about sixteen years ago. As there were no English professional skaters, professors of the art were imported from the Pôle Nord, Paris, and from elsewhere on the continent.

It cannot be said that these were efficient teachers ; in form each was a law unto himself; their skating was entirely meretricious, being in reality of the most elementary character. Occasionally these professors would give shows, and then their breasts would be profusely gay with medals which one may suppose were the offerings of enthusiastic admirers rather than the hard-won emblems of victory, for the wearers were quite unknown among international skaters ; indeed, professional champions, other than those who assumed such titles, did not, and do not, exist, for the International Skating Union has, fortunately, never recognised professional skating, and there is no other body concerned in the control of the sport.

In the early days of Niagara people skated either in the English style or according to the taste and fancy of the individual. True international style was not seen in England until after the opening of the National Skating Palace, formerly Hengler’s Circus, where in 1898 was held the World’s Championship, at which Herren Fuchs, Grenander and Hügel, the three great champions of that time, demonstrated to the British public what international skating really was. The innovation was entirely successful, and to-day one rarely sees any other style practised on a rink.

The next venture took the form of a Club which was opened at Knightsbridge, under the style of the Prince’s Skating Club, in 1895, and here the ice, uniformly admirable, has always been under the supervision of Mr. Nightingale, to whose energy in the cause of caloric extraction the Southport Glaciarum was indebted for its ten years lease of life. On the polished surface provided by this doyen of ice producers nearly all the most celebrated skaters of the world have left a transient impress. What countless beautiful arabesques and intaglii have been cut therein, 'like snow-flakes on the river a moment seen and then lost forever!' Perhaps the auras of those who evolved them may haunt the spot, and these exiguous phantoms may be visualised long hence, when rinks are no more, by Macaulay’s hypothetical New Zealander (if receptive) should he, becoming tired of the prospect from London Bridge, stroll westward. Niagara ceased to be in 1904, the last great event held there being the World’s Championship and Pair-Skating held in 1902. The first of these events introduced to us the greatest skater of all time, Ulrich Salchow, the Swede, who subsequently established a record by winning the World’s Championship ten times and the Championship of Europe eight times ; the occasion was also remarkable as being the first time that a lady appeared in any international, or other, skating competition.

The entry of Mrs. Syers for the World’s Championship was an event so unprecedented that the International Committee which arranged the details of the event were somewhat embarrassed. Many were against the acceptance of the entry, not believing that a woman was capable of competing on level terms with men; but the International Skating Union, having never contemplated the possibility of such an innovation, were bound by their rule which admitted the eligibility of any amateur. In the result the step was justified by Mrs. Syers easily defeating two out of her three opponents, and finishing second to the redoubtable Salchow.

The International Pair-Skating, then first seen in England, was won by the writer and Mrs. Syers, their opponents being pairs representing the Berlin Skating Club and the Stockholm Skating Club, The National Skating Palace, to which we have previously referred, opened in the winter of 1895-6, and with a brief interregnum continued for five seasons. It was a depressing place, being underground, and nearly always dependent on artificial illumination ; the building was too heavy for a rink, and there was often a thick fog on the ice surface, the skaters then feeling as if they were at the bottom of a well.

Outside London there are now several rinks. Glasgow has one, more suited for curling than for skating, as the ice surface is bisected by a row of pillars; Manchester and Edinburgh possess fine rinks recently opened, and at the former the World’s Championship in Figure Skating will be held while this article is in the press. 

In America, Australia, New Zealand, etc., and nearer home, in Berlin, Brussels, Munich, Nice, and Paris, rinking is as favoured as with us. The climate of Austria, Denmark, Norway, and Sweden provides so many facilities for out-of-door skating that artificially-produced ice would be a superfluity and a rink a work of supererogation.

In conclusion, we may predict with some confidence that the great increase in the number of skaters, consequent on the opening up of Switzerland as a winter-sport resort, and the popularity of the international style of skating and valsing on ice, will lead to the opening of more rinks in the near future, and, should we again experience that almost forgotten phenomenon, an old-fashioned winter, a new generation of skaters will arise to support them. The opinion often expressed to the writer by Mr. Nightingale of Prince’s Rink, as the result of a lifelong experience of ice rinks and ice production, is that given a population of 100,000, cheap ground, cheap buildings with easy access, and a good water supply, rinks can be made a financial success and skating a national sport.

We skate in good company. Goethe, who admitted an inordinate love of the art, Wordsworth, Kingsley, Klopstock, Addison, and many other great men have commended it; even Dr. Johnson versified in its praise, though we may suppose that he did not adventure its practice.

In conclusion, the suggestion of du Maurier, as appended to one of his many charming skating pictures in Punch, will doubtless appeal to all votaries of rinking, it was that -

'Heaven is paved with everlasting rinks !
Where cherubs sweep for ever and a day.
Smooth, tepid ice that never melts away.
While graceful, gay, good-natured lovers blend.
To endless tune, in circles without end.'"

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