Cold Comfort
Who Do You Think You Are? Magazine|January 2018

Ice skating is a timeless way to enjoy a wintry day. Amanda Randall looks at how our ancestors got their skates on

Amanda Randall

We’re used to seeing artificial skating rinks pop up in town squares, parks and outside garden centres every winter. Our passion for skating is nothing new; for over 100 years ice rinks have attracted those with the time and money to participate, and long before that people living near lakes and rivers have skated for practical reasons.

The precise origins of skating are unknown, but at least 4,000 years ago Northern Europeans attached pieces of bone or wood to their feet by leather straps to travel over ice sheets while hunting or looking for somewhere to live. Frozen waters also afforded enjoyment and sport. In 1190 William Fitzstephen, the subdeacon to Thomas Becket (the Archbishop of Canterbury), wrote of young men playing on frozen water in North London, tying bones to their feet so that they slid “as swiftly as a bird flyeth”. Loosely organised skating competitions probably date from the 14th century. When the draining of the East Anglian fens began in 1660, the Dutch engineers bringing their technical expertise naturally also brought their iron skates, a material commonly used for skates in Scandinavia and Holland from around 1250; and during the early 1500s the Dutch invented the double-edged iron blade that allowed for propulsion without the need for poles, which had until then been essential.

However, the climate has to be right for outside skating. The last period of prolonged cold in Europe, sometimes called ‘the Little Ice Age’, lasted from the mid-1300s to the mid-1800s. Most European waterways froze for weeks on end, which provided plenty of skating opportunities. Frost fairs on frozen rivers, where traders set up booths and entertainers performed, are recorded in many paintings from the time. Ice skating became a popular winter recreation from the late 17th century, having been popularised by James II, who learned to skate in Holland while in exile during the Civil War. All social ranks participated – blades were designed to fit onto an ordinary working boot so that people who worked on the land could travel around during icy spells.

The first frost fair on the Thames occurred in 1607. Diarist John Evelyn recorded what he saw of the 1683–1684 fair: “Coaches plied from Westminster to the Temple, and from several other stairs to and fro, as in the streets, sleds, sliding with skeetes, a bull-baiting, horse and coach races, puppet plays and interludes, cooks, tipling and other lewd places, so that it seemed to be a bacchanalian triumph, or carnival on the water.” The last one was held in 1814. Changes to the bridges and the addition of the Thames Embankment after 1835 narrowed and deepened the river, which made freezes less likely.

The Victorian age was characterised by dramatic social change, including improved working conditions with some paid time off. Women’s lives began to change, with new employment opportunities in shops and offices. People aspired to the latest leisure activities and many enjoyed sport (as spectators and participants), theatrical entertainments and visits to the seaside. New, less restrictive fashions allowed a little more freedom of movement for activities such as walking, cycling and skating; and technological developments meant that artificial ice rinks could be created, allowing people to skate year-round.

Competition takes off

Continue reading your story on the app

Continue reading your story in the magazine

MORE STORIES FROM WHO DO YOU THINK YOU ARE? MAGAZINEView All

Photographs From India

The Families in British India Society tells Alan Crosby about a project to capture our ancestors’ graves

3 mins read
Who Do You Think You Are? Magazine
January 2018

My Ancestor Was A...Brushmaker

Until the arrival of mass production, creating a brush required the hard work of a team of highly skilled craftsmen, says KA Doughty

5 mins read
Who Do You Think You Are? Magazine
January 2018

Cold Comfort

Ice skating is a timeless way to enjoy a wintry day. Amanda Randall looks at how our ancestors got their skates on

7 mins read
Who Do You Think You Are? Magazine
January 2018

Focus On Manorial Court Rolls

Court rolls are useful for both researching the pre-industrial era and finding your Victorian ancestors, explains Nick Barratt

4 mins read
Who Do You Think You Are? Magazine
January 2018

Addicted To The Thrill Of Detection

New Year is a time to cut down on vices – but it’s hard to break the grip of family history, says Alan Crosby

3 mins read
Who Do You Think You Are? Magazine
January 2018

30-Minute Genealogist

Sara Khan shows how you can break down brick walls in your research in just half an hour

1 min read
Who Do You Think You Are? Magazine
January 2018

'The FIBIS Database Smashed My Brick Wall'

Edwina Bentley was struggling to find her father’s family in India. Fortunately the Families In British India Society came to the rescue, learns Jon Bauckham

4 mins read
Who Do You Think You Are? Magazine
January 2018

'My Tree Includes The Pioneer Of A Great British Pastime'

Pauline Godsall is proud to share a connection with Thomas Hiram Holding – a true British eccentric who encouraged our forebears to enjoy the great outdoors

3 mins read
Who Do You Think You Are? Magazine
January 2018

1846 - The Potato Famine

Revealing your ancestors’ everyday lives at the time of major world events.

6 mins read
Who Do You Think You Are? Magazine
April 2017

Focus On 1851-1901 Census

Paul Blake shares his expert advice for getting more from the 1851-1901 census records.

3 mins read
Who Do You Think You Are? Magazine
April 2017