A look at a seasonal pursuit tinged with real sadness.
I admit to never having owned or even to have put on a pair of ice skates and you will be pleased to hear that I have no immediate plans to take up skating. It does however say much about our indomitable ancestors that many of them looked upon ice skates as essential items. I have several old engravings and lithographs that show large groups of people skating and sledging on frozen lakes and rivers under leaden skies.
Opportunities for skating during most British winters are few indeed but whenever the conditions were favourable, the Leamingtonians have turned out en masse to take to the ice which made good copy for the local newspaper the Leamington Spa Courier throughout the Victorian era.
As Prince Albert discovered, venturing onto the ice sometimes had unforeseen consequences. By chance, I was looking at headstones in Leamington Cemetery recently and came across a marble memorial to two young sisters Ada (aged 15) and Emmie Place (aged 19) who ‘were both drowned at the same moment whilst skating on the river in this town January 14th 1867’. The report of their drowning in the Courier makes for harrowing reading.They were part of a group with their other sister Katie and several young men who ventured onto the ice near the Adelaide Road bridge. Observing the strict courtesies of the time, the men allowed the ladies onto the ice first and as the girls skated away from the bank hand-in-hand the ice gave way and they were plunged into the icy water. Valiant rescue attempts were made by a number of skaters and onlookers, some narrowly escaped drowning in the process. Only Katie Place survived the disaster. Ellie Place, her mother, had already been widowed, her husband Frederick having died in the East Indies only a few months earlier. Her only son Reginald died of Cholera in the East Indies in May 1878 while serving with the Royal Horse Artillery.Skating on the river Leam continued sporadically through the 19th century and towards the turn of the century a number of hard winters saw skaters and sliders return in force to any available area of frozen water. The first decade of the twentieth century saw a succession of hard winters and a more commercial approach to the provision of skating facilities locally. The tenant of Welch’s Meadow Mr Thornley came to an agreement with the General Purposes Committee of the Borough Council for the flooding of the meadow for skating. In return the Council would receive a percentage of Thornley’s income from charging his skaters.
In 1903 there was skating on the Leam and also on the lake in the Jephson Gardens and on the meadow in Mill Gardens which had recently been laid out as part of the Mill Improvement Scheme. All of these venues made a charge for skating. In subsequent years, competitive curling matches were held on the Leamington ice, culminating in January 1908 with the contest for the Warwickshire Cup.
What also becomes abundantly clear from reading the contemporary Courier reports of the skating in those years are the very real hardships that ordinary Leamington working folk had to endure in the unremitting cold weather while the well-to-do disported themselves on the ice. Such comments as are made about them amount to little more than a few words in very lengthy articles which I guess reflects the level of importance attached to the lives of the working poor in Victorian England. In 1902/1903 the Mayoress Mrs Davis opened a soup kitchen at the Coffee Tavern in Regent Street on several days each week which in the words of the Courier columnist were ‘for the supply of soup to poor and needy persons’. The fact that this soup kitchen had in excess of two hundred customers each day underlines the impoverished conditions in which many of the town’s population still lived at the turn of the twentieth century.
A hundred years on, people still risk life and limb by venturing on to frozen lakes and ponds in winter but I suspect that for the majority of us negotiating ice-bound pavements presents a far more serious hazard to our well-being. Oh yes! and in 2013 the Victorian soup kitchens have been replaced by Food Banks. The words of French novelist Alphonse Karr spring to mind when he observed that ‘the more things change, the more they are the same.’ May be I should get the ice skates after all. Let me know if you see a pair of size 10’s advertised in The Courier.
Alan Griffin, Winter 2013