As we prepare for the changes brought by global warming, one sport which is certainly unlikely to return in the near future to Cambridgeshire is fen skating. The last championships were in 2010 and even over the previous two hundred years there have been periods when winters were too warm to achieve a safe thickness of ice.
Enid Porter notes in her book Cambridgeshire Customs and Folklore that skating was first recorded in England by Fitzstephens in 1180. He wrote of Londoners sliding on animal bones on the Thames. But whilst the people of the Low Countries are recorded using bladed skates in the 14th century, skating as we know it only appeared in England in the 17th after members of the court of Charles II, exiled in the Netherlands, returned to London and showed off their new skill in St James’s Park. This was recorded by Samuel Pepys in 1662. It is also likely that a group of Dutch engineers, who came with a Cornelius Vermuyden in the 17th century to drain the Fens, would have brought their skates with them.
The oldest known pair of Fen skates are from the 18th century. Some, like the pair in the Museum of Cambridge, were made entirely of iron. Others were a composite of wood and iron. Only in the 19th century did the Norwegian style of skate appear. The word ‘patten’, sometimes associated with ice skates, is said to have been introduced by Protestant refugees from Flanders who settled around Thorney at about the same time. The iron-bladed wooden skates would have resembled the raised platform shoes, known as ‘pattens’, worn by women when walking in muddy fields and lanes.
In 1763 on the river at Wisbech, Hare of Thorney raced against a Danish sailor. Prize money was twenty guineas on the first day and fifty on the second. The Dane won both races. In January of the same year John Lamb and George Fawn skated between Wisbech and Whittlesey, about 15 miles, for 10 guineas a side. The cold winters of the 1820s and 1830s saw a number of fenmen make names for themselves, from towns and villages such as March, Crowland, Thorney, Ramsey, Sutton and Chatteris.
Skating matches were popular and held in many locations. Men, and sometimes women and children, would compete not only for money but for prizes of clothing or food. A joint of meat might be hung outside a pub; the prize for the morrow’s skating race.
The races often took place over 660 yards. Racers were paired off and the winner would go through to the next round. £10 was typically at stake with half going to the winner and the rest going to the other skaters if they had done well enough. This was at a time when an agricultural labourer might earn eleven shillings a week. If the race was one-and-a half miles long, each skater would do two rounds of the course.
Another challenging race would be a straight mile. In 1821 a prize of 100 guineas was put up for anyone who could go a mile in under three minutes. John Gittam of Nordelph won the prize at Prickwillow with 7 seconds to spare.
Important races were reported at length in the Cambridge papers. In the 1840s there were a series of mild winters but after that it was the men from the Norfolk village of Southery who dominated the sport. However, in 1854 the Southery man Larman Register was beaten by Welney man ‘Turkey’ Smart. Smart won twelve victories in the winter of 1854/55; his total winnings for that season were £54 15s and a leg of mutton. Smart remained champion for the rest of the decade, his nearest rivals being his brother-in-law, ‘Gutta Percha’ See, the men from Southery, and others from Welney.
Even at the age of 61 ‘Turkey’ was entering contests, though hampered by a scythe injury to a leg. A clergyman once urged him to invest his winnings, saying it was unsafe to keep so much at home. ‘Turkey’ told him that it was already safe ‘in the bank’. He later explained that he had actually buried it in the bank of the Old Bedford River where he lived!
The National Skating Association was set up in Cambridge at the Guildhall in 1879. The founding committee included Cambridge journalist James Drake Digby. The first professional championship was held in December that year. The new champion was George ‘Fish’ Smart and he remained champion until 1887. In January of that year, there was a championship match at Grantchester. About 2,000 people attended when eighteen skaters competed in a three mile race with six turns.
From 1880 until 1933 nearly all the Championship meetings were held either in Swavesey or on Linsey Fen, Cambridge. Lingay Fen was eventually drained so after 1947, Bury Fen in Bluntisham was used. From the 1880s Fen skaters competed internationally; they faced a challenge in finding reliable places to train. For this reason, James Smart of Welney invented two wheeled roller skates for use on the road, and later, A E Tebbuitt used a three wheel version around his Waterbeach home. These are now in the Museum of Cambridge.
Enid Porter recounts an extraordinary story told to her by W H Barrett. In 1875 a group of Littleport men bet some Cambridge railway officials that it was possible for skaters to beat the train between Littleport and the bridge over the Great Ouse just outside Ely. The champion skater Larman Register was one of the number, and he was soon in the lead. When he reached Adelaide Bridge on the route, he found that the railway men had tried to sabotage the skaters by putting cinders on the ice. Despite this, Larman still managed to win by 30 seconds.
In revenge for the attempted sabotage, the skaters played a trick on the railway company a few days later. The Prince of Wales was travelling in the royal coach from Ely to Sandringham. The skaters arranged for a series of red lamps en route which resulted in the train stopping and starting again so often that the Prince of Wales was seen to lean out of the carriage and shout at the train driver.
This post was written by Roger Lilley, a Trustee at the Museum of Cambridge.
Porter, Enid. Cambridgeshire Customs and Folklore. Routledge & Kegan Paul: London, 1969.