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Blade Evolution: Now We've Got the Groove...

So many books on skating use a quote from 12th century chronicles to illustrate the historical aspects of our sport, but what does it mean and why does it have a connection with an item in our Archive?

“when the great fenne or moore (which watereth the walles of the citie on the North side) is frozen, many young men play upon the yce, some striding as wide as they may, doe slide swiftly... some tye bones to their feete, and under their heeles, and shoving themselves by a little picked staffe, doe slide as swiftly as birde flyeth in the aire, or an arrow out of a crossbow”

The quote is from the account of a monk, William Fitzstephen, sub-deacon to the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas a Becket, and roughly translated it tells of how Londoners skated in the 12th Century:-

“When the great marsh which washes the northern walls of the city freezes, crowds of young men go out to play on the ice.  Some of them fit shinbones of cattle on their feet, tying them around their ankles. They take a stick with an iron spike in their hands and strike it regularly on the ice, and are carried along as fast as a flying bird or a bolt from a catapult”

Where is the present-day location of the area he was describing? We know that the wall surrounded London and part of the site is marked today by the thoroughfare known as London Wall. The fenne is believed to be marsh lands of Moorfields to the north of London Wall.  Roughly he was writing about the area around the present-day Liverpool Street Station.

In the late 1800’s Moorfields was excavated to make way for the building of Liverpool Street Station.  Among the artefacts found were some bone skates. 2 are in the Museum of London and there is also a pair in the Norris Museum in St Ives Cambridgeshire. This museum has some very interesting skating exhibits and if you visit and let them know in advance they will arrange for one of the volunteers who has enormous knowledge about the subject to speak to you.

We now have our connection. Fitzstephen wrote about the boys on the bone skates at Moorfields and the bone blades were found in the same area.

Another of the blades was presented to the NSA in the 1890’s and for many years after it was rather irreverently used as a gavel at AGM’s!

Today we look after it more carefully.

So how did we get from a piece of carved bone to the steel or ceramic engineered blade we use today?  The journey was a long one.

We have become used to buying boots and blades from a specialist shop, but that was not how our ancestors obtained them.

Each country had its own development and, as all skating was then outdoors, it is not surprising that those with the coldest climates had more opportunity to experiment. For that reason I will fast forward to the 1600’s.

The Dutch blade design had a great deal of influence on British blades. Not only were some members of the Royal Family exiled to Holland during the Commonwealth period of Oliver Cromwell but later the Dutch assisted in the draining of the fens in the East of England, bringing their skates or pattens with them. King James ll also returned from exile in Holland with skates and is known to have given exhibitions on the Serpentine. Thus, the skates from that period were very similar in design to the Fen Runners used right up until the beginning of the 20th century.

The boots would have been their own normal every day boots and the blades would be attached, earlier with straps and later with clamps, before the idea of attaching the blades to the boots with screws came about.

John Wilson have been manufacturing blades since the 1600’s and there have been many other manufacturers, but many skaters had their blades made up at by the local blacksmith.

These blades based on Dutch runners and particularly popular in the Fen District were in use in the 1700’s and 1800’s

These early blades did not have a groove. You may wonder how they turned. Well the answer is that turns were on a huge radius.

In the late 1800’s, very serious skaters such as Henry Vandervell, Charles Dowler, Montague Monier-Williams, all NSA Council members, experimented with blades as they wanted to turn more easily in order to execute more elaborate figures.

Dowler’s Mount Charles blades. Still no groove. Late 1800’s

In the UK there were no indoor rinks of any longevity until Princes Club opened on the Kings Road. Skating relied on cold and freezing weather.  Progress was therefore inevitably slow as experimentation was reliant on the weather.  However, despite this and although parallel designs were being developed in the North America and Scandinavia the huge leap forward was made in the UK.

Vandervell experimented with blade design as regularly as was possible. He had worked out in theory how to make turns, but as, what he had in mind, was not possible using existing blades. He experimented with the width of the iron, the angle of the grind, the softness and hardness of the iron, the type of boot used and even the way the blade was polished until he designed a blade suitable for his needs. Henry made templates from tin and sent it blade makers. He tried out each new design until he was finally able to achieve ‘The Beak’ - an acute form of the turn we now call the counter. He achieved this by cutting a groove in the blade and there we have major leap forward number one. We now have edges. Vandervell called this turn the “The Rocker”

You are probably thinking if it was the counter, why did he call it a rocker?  The truth was that the reverse rocking turn, now known as the rocker, was thought to be impossible and with the blade evolution available at the time it was.

That is where W R Pridgeon of the Oxford University Skating Club achieved the impossible. Again, experimenting with blade design, he tried out a curve to the blade and successfully made the turn. Vandervell’s rocker was then renamed ‘The Counter’ and Pridgeon’s turn was designated ‘The Rocker’, leap forward number 2.

Normal Counter Grooved Blades c 1910.

The achievement of these turns became a landmark in figure skating development and only made possible by the dogged determination and imaginative blade design of our 19th century gentleman skaters.

The basic modern blade design had evolved but it would be the early 20th Century before the design we are familiar with evolved. The illustration below is a design popular blade from the 1930’s.

We owe so much to Vandervell and Pridgeon but their names have slipped to but a distant memory.

Some of you may have seen the bone skate, together with the NISA blade collection at previous British Championships. You are all very welcome to come and have a look at the blades in the photographs and more at the 2017 Championships.


Elaine Hooper

NISA Historian

November 2017