It is well documented that a “mini ice age” existed from the middle ages until about 1850. This covered the British Isles in snow and ice, a perfect climate for outdoor winter pursuits. It was not surprising then, that ice skating in Great Britain was very popular.
Before the NSA came into being, two very different types of skating emerged in the United Kingdom. For the figure skaters, mostly wealthy and well connected people, it was a pastime. There were also some well-established and organised Figure Skating Clubs in existence to cater for their needs. However, Speed skating was the preferred choice for agricultural workers of the Fens and was much more of a professional sport than a pastime.
Originally the Fens were vast swathes of marshy land in Eastern England that froze during the harsh winters of the time. They were shallow and accessible for racers and spectators alike; quite a different ice surface to the ponds and rivers the figure skaters used. The shallowness caused ice to form more quickly and more regularly than it did on flowing water. The Fens men largely earned their living from the land, but agricultural work was not available when the ground was frozen. The need to earn money during the winter saw the combination of the frozen land and their skates put to good use. Local blacksmiths contributed to the development of the sport by fitting iron runners to wooden plinths to enable skating along the Fens, each village blacksmith evolving their own pattern. Additionally, the Dutch, who helped drain the fens, brought their patterns (speed skates) with them and the fen skate further evolved.
Racing on the ice, even then called speed skating, was a way of earning money when the Fens froze as little agricultural work was available. They were professionals who raced on the ice for money. For them it was not only a sport but a job and was taken very seriously. Much village rivalry existed, and their champions became legends. Mr J M Heathcote, one of the early NSA Council members, recalls the early days in his book published in 1892, that regular mentions of racing on the ice, in newspapers, began in 1814. From then on racing on the Fens was widely reported and descriptions of the large crowds and substantial betting were commonplace. It was not until 1823 that the first amateur race between gentlemen was recorded.
When the Fens were drained, the nature of the newly-formed ground prevented the possibility of finding suitable locations to run a race of 1 ½ miles or longer in a straight line or an oval track. So, the system of “out and home” races evolved, uniquely associated with Fen racing but also adopted by speed skaters in other parts of the UK. This was very unlike the long traditional speed skating courses associated with more Northern climates.
The course would be marked with posts or barrel markers round which the competitor would turn for the home run. The art of turning and starting again at speed were features of Fen Racing. The races were held in heats similarly to modern day speed skating. But most differently the finishing post often involved a man standing on a barrel and holding a broom upright in the air.
Speed Skating was noted in 1892 by J M Heathcote: “If the question of whether there were giants in the days before ‘Turkey’ Smart – whom I will call the Agamemnon of racing- remains unanswered, it is because stop watches, official timekeepers and accurately measured courses were unknown in those times and the records, or rather traditions, of phenomenal speed said to have been attained by the champions of former generations are wholly untrustworthy.”
Without any firm rules and with large amounts of money changing hands, it was not surprising that many underhand practices were rife. Problems arose when the barrel markers were moved from heat to heat, to shorter distances, to favour certain skaters or the timekeeper mistimed the heats. The crowds who flocked to the races, came onto the track and in their enthusiasm sometimes impeded a competitor to allow another to win. It appeared any practice was acceptable so long as money was wagered and won. The skaters themselves were very preoccupied with receiving payment for their efforts. They had families to feed and no possibility of local work whilst the freeze continued.
The winning of prize money was not just important for the skaters, it was also as important to the gambling public. Much money changed hands in bets and chaos reigned. Although the professional speed skaters were not considered gentlemen, many of their followers were and it was they who decided action needed to be taken to reduce the chaos. Thus, local journalist James Drake Digby sought support from his friends and acquaintances and called a meeting in the Guildhall, Cambridge on February 1st, 1879.
Drake Digby had arranged for the meeting to be chaired by the Mayor of Cambridge, Mr Henry Rance. Drake Digby was astute enough to realise that he had to gain as much support as he could from gentlemen who he knew could make a difference. At the inaugural meeting he was supported by Mr George Long, of Swavesey, owner of large parcels of Fenland, and Dr James Moxon of Trinity College Cambridge.
James Drake Digby told the assembled audience that his vision was “to create a National Skating Association under whose auspices chaos could be reduced to order and the atmosphere of the racing track could be purified and relegate duties akin to those of the Jockey Club with regards to horse racing or the MCC with regard to cricket to a responsible committee”.
The motions proposed at the meeting and adopted were:
• That the title of Champion skater be settled by a competent authority;
• There should be a standard length course for all Championship races;
• Records shall be officially taken and kept by a central authority.
Fifteen gentlemen put their names forward at the meeting, to become founder members and take forward the motions. They were:
• James Drake Digby
• Dr Drosier (President of Cambridge University Skating Club)
• Neville Goodman
• W J Hurry
• W Little
• John Linton
• George Long
• A G Marten
• Dr James Moxon
• H W Pemberton JP
• Alderman Henry Rance
• Reverend Peter Royston
• J Smith Flanders
• P B Smollett MP
• Charles Townley (Lord Lieutenant of Cambridge)
Although the formation of the Association was to oversee speed skating, most of the founding members were actually figure skaters, but they considered that speed skaters themselves, as agricultural workers, would not be capable of controlling their own organisation. The gentlemen met, formally drafted a set of rules, and appointed The Lord Lieutenant of Cambridgeshire, C W Townley, as the first Chairman. Henry Rance, Mayor of Cambridge, was the Treasurer and James Drake Digby was appointed Secretary. So, in Cambridge on 1st February 1879 the National Skating Association was formed to regulate Speed Skating.
Written by British Ice Skating Historian, Elaine Hooper.
• NSA Minute Books
• NSA Hand Books
• NSA Archived Letters
• Skating by J M Heathcote and C G Tebbutt. Published 1892 by Longmans, Green and Co
• The Skaters of the Fens by Alan H V Bloom. Published in 1958 by W Heffer