Winter is well and truly here, and that means that a plethora of sites have popped up outdoor ice skating rinks for the public to enjoy. In England, at least, Christmas seems to be tied strongly with the sport – although there are plenty of indoor rinks that people can use all year round, many people seem to solely skate on these special rinks at this time of year. Perhaps we owe this phenomenon to the Victorians, who really popularised ice skating as a pastime and social event.
A Victorian lady’s ice skating outfit, early 1870s.
Ice skating, of course, has been around for thousands of years. It is believed that the earliest ice skating happened in southern Finland around 5000 years ago to save energy during winter journeys. Animal bones were used to glide across the flat ice, enabling travellers to cover more ground. The medieval period and particularly the start of the “Little Ice Age” (which you can read more about in part here) meant winters were colder and rivers and lakes froze deeper and for longer. This allowed skating to be used as a leisure activity, instead of merely for traversing snowy terrain, and in the 13th or 14th century the Dutch invented sharpened steel blades for their skates. Ice skating was also popular in China’s Qing dynasty who ruled from the mid-1600s onwards.
In England, the sport became popular amongst the aristocracy in the early 18th century, and the first organised skating club was formed in the 1740s in Edinburgh, whilst the next oldest was not until 1830 in London. By the middle of the 19th century, ice skating was a firm British favourite, and Queen Victoria and Prince Albert themselves used ice skating trips to get to know each other more.
Dutch scene of ice skaters, ‘Eisbelustigung auf dem Stadtgraben’ by Esaias van de Velde, 1618.
In fact, by this time ice skating had become so popular that the Victorians were frustrated that they only had limited periods of time where they could skate, and so people started to try and find ways to make artificial ice. The most significant early attempt was at the Glaciarium, London, 1844. The rink had a surface area of 3000 feet, and it was decorated with alpine scenery with live music playing. There had been a handful of other small artificial rinks a few years prior, with the ice being made from water, carbonate and sulphate of soda, and was treated with sulphuric acid. Extra slipperiness could be added by sprinkling powdered French chalk on the ice.
A poster advertising the Glaciarium in 1844.
Although the Glaciarium was initially popular, with Prince Albert and other royalty visiting, it was difficult to maintain the ice and the concoction stank so it was unpleasant to visit. The chemicals were also extremely expensive to purchase.
Outdoor ice skating, however, continued to prove dangerous. In January 1867, ice skaters on Regent’s Park Lake in London fell through the ice after it gave way, with about 500 skaters plunging into the frozen water. A huge rescue attempt was immediately launched, with people tearing off tree branches for people to grab, and boats being launched off the banks. Most people were brought to safety, but 40 people died – at the time the lake was 12 feet deep, meaning many sunk from the weight of their skates and could not be rescued.
A similar event happened in the gardens of Buckingham Palace which could have completely altered the history of the country. In early 1841, just a year after Queen Victoria married Prince Albert, the Queen gave her husband a pair of ice skates, knowing his love of the sport. That February, the couple went for a private walk around the grounds of Buckingham Palace, it being the day before their first wedding anniversary. The only other person with them was a single Maid of Honour. Albert took the opportunity to try out his new skates, but the ice he was on cracked and he plunged into the water below. Victoria recounted what happened in her diary:
“In my agony of fright & despair, I screamed, & stretched out my arm, Miss Murray pulling me. My dearest Albert managed to catch my arm, & reached the ground in safety. Oh! how thankful I felt to see him at my side again & that God should have mercifully preserved him from such a great danger!
“He cut his chin a little, & was of course dripping with water, so that he ran home as fast as he could. It was a horrid experience, & I never felt anything so dreadful, as seeing my beloved one in the water, & thinking, as I did, that I should lose him before my very eyes unable to rescue him!”
When accidents like these kept on happening, people turned once again to the idea of artificial ice rinks, and attempted to improve on the smelly, impractical prototypes. In January 1876 the Glaciarium reopened in Chelsea, moving to a permanent venue in March. The permanent rink measured 40 by 24 feet, and was based on a concrete surface which had layers of earth, cow hair and timber planks. On top of this layer were copper pipes which carried a solution of glycerine, ether, nitrogen peroxide and water. The pipes were then covered with water, and the solution pumping through the pipes then froze the water into ice. Once again the walls were decorated with views of the Swiss Alps, and a live orchestra played in a gallery. To attract a wealthy clientele, it was made membership only. Once again, sadly, after an initial success leading to the opening of two more rinks, the expense proved too much and all three rinks were closed by mid-1878.
‘Central Park, Winter: The Skating Pond’ by Charles Parsons, 1862.
It was not just in England that ice skating was such a huge phenomenon, however, and in 1862 the Victoria Skating Rink opened as an indoor rink in Montreal, Canada. It was only used for skating in winter months, but was a huge hit with the upper class in Canada, with membership reaching 2000 people by 1880. Fancy-dress balls were a regular fixture at the rink, and the beauty of seeing people skate was summarised by one viewer in the 1870s: “When many hundred persons are upon the ice, and with every variety of costume, pass through all the graceful figures that skaters delight in, the scene presented to the spectator is dazzling in the extreme.”
Indeed, due to the popularity of ice skating, it was inconceivable that a fashion would not evolve around it, fashion being so essential to the lives of those in the Victorian Era. Women’s skirts were obviously raised to prevent tripping on the ice, and warm fur was worn around the ice – although muffs were not to be taken on the ice, so that the skaters’ arms were not impeded. Bright colours were seen, particularly as, contrary to some popular belief, the Victorians loved brightly coloured clothes. Many women would sit on skating-sleds that would be pushed by men, and so in these sleds women of course had to wrap up much warmer as they were not moving, usually being draped in thick fur coats and blankets. Men tended to wear black, dark blue, or green outfits, with hats and tailcoats with tight-fitting trousers or jodhpurs, though sometimes they would dress more warmly. A colour relief of Queen Victoria and Albert with a skating-sled show Albert dressed in this way, with Victoria having some form of animal skin draped over her for warmth.
Queen Victoria and Prince Albert Skating at Frogmore c.1880-1900.
Across the Victorian period, ice skating was certainly an activity of the elite, but as the popularity spread, all levels of society took part. When artificial rinks weren’t available, anybody could find a public lake or river upon which to skate – although it still came with its own risks. The British did not lose their enthusiasm for the sport as the era drew to a close, and the popularity only continued into the twentieth century, increased by the creation of resorts in snowy climates.
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