Get your skates on: the Victorian roller revolution

Kate Brooks, Bath Spa University

Our local parks and beauty spots may be busy during lockdown, but if you are a cool teenager who knows what TikTok is, you will probably be at a nearby  carpark – and on wheels. Since the first lockdown, TikTok and Instagram frequently feature roller skaters, wearing the more ‘vintage’ four wheeled boots, performing for their iPhones in disused carparks, quiet industrial estates and empty seafront promenades. Popular skater instagrammers like @aliceinrollerland and @bonitravo, and Netflix documentary films such as United Skates, may have contributed to  this latest Lockdown trend (along with a fashion for 1970s nostalgia, and a lack of other opportunities for fun and exercise), but roller skating is certainly not new. Without this article’s giveaway title, you may have anticipated here, a reference to the 1960s and ’70s’ roller discos, but you’d be a couple of centuries out.

In the early 1760s, Belgian inventor John Joseph Merlin invented a ‘shoe on wheels’, which according to Thomas Busby’s Concert Room and Orchestra Anecdotes (1805), he proudly wore to a masquerade party in London. Keen to demonstrate his new invention, Merlin skated through the hall – allegedly whilst also attempting to play the violin – and crashed into a huge, and apparently very valuable, mirror, both severely injuring himself and possibly starting the rumour than men can’t multi task.

In New York by the 1860s, roller skating was THE fashionable activity for the ‘select’: rinks were hurriedly built, with maple, or marble, floors. The Victorian passion for ice skating was behind this: frozen lakes were seasonal and precarious. In January 1867, about five hundred skaters on London’s Regents Park were plunged through what The Globe newspaper described as, ‘a splendid sheet of ice’ which had suddenly, and without warning, given way. Desperate attempts to drag victims out using ropes and branches meant many were saved, but forty died, due to the heaviness of their skates and outdoor wear. The freezing conditions meant bodies were trapped under ice, which hampered further rescue, and for days the lake was tragically littered with hats, sticks and other possessions, stuck fast in the ice. Even Prince Albert had to be dragged out of a lake by a panicking Queen Victoria, in a similar incident.

Attempts at fake ice rinks, such as London’s ‘Glaciarium’, were spectacular, the Glaciarium included a spectator’s balcony and fake alpine scenery. But the combination of chemicals needed – including bicarbonate of soda and sulphuric acid, with hog’s lard to make it slippery – stank.

By the late 1850s, roller skating was taking off as a safer and less weather-dependent sport – not least because new skate boot designs meant one could more easily turn, replicating the grace of ice skating (and avoiding headlong collisions with large mirrors). Raikes Hall Gardens in Blackpool advertised their own ‘Rink Band’, which played – somewhat impressively – from 10.30am until 10pm, alongside ‘magnificent conservatories and ferneries’. This and other such examples are contained in Gavin Holman’s recent article on the subject.

At the height of the roller skating craze, in 1876, Clifton’s Victoria Rooms opened. It was ‘one of the finest skating rinks in the country’ according to the Bristol Mercury. One hired skates, entered via an octagonal wooden refreshment room, and skated sedately round the flowerbeds. And sedate it was – to a degree. A key reason for the roller skating craze was that it was both suitable wholesome entertainment for young people – and a chance to get away from one’s chaperone. If you took your sweetheart on a walk, or visited their home, you would expect to be accompanied at all times by a stern mother or matronly aunt, but no Victorian matron was going to take to roller skates, preferring to stay on the sidelines. Alongside the associated fashion for slightly shorter, skate-friendly skirts, this meant that many a Victorian youngster was keen to get their skates on. Comic postcards at the time reference ‘Rinking,’ usually featuring a comical tumble: ‘rink to me only with thine eyes’ says a Punch cartoon in 1876; “skating is an ‘em-bracing’ pastime”, another notes, as a young man ‘falls’ into the arms of a startled young woman. I am grateful to Gavin Holman for providing the following illustration.

Whilst safer than ice skating, ‘rinking’ wasn’t without its perils. An 1875 advert in the Bristol Mercury for a clothing outfitters warned of ‘poor Johnny,’ whose clothing was torn after a visit to the roller skating rink: ‘Here’s a smash, mamma dear’ announces Johnny, berating the tears to knees and elbows of his (inferior) new coat and trousers. The Clothiers was well placed: a few doors down from a popular roller skating rink. When the craze initially waned in the late 1870s, the disused rink was used as a place of worship by the newly formed evangelical group, the Plymouth Brethren. Many ex-rinks became cinemas.

‘Rinkomania’ waned and then increased again at the end of the century, thanks to the mass production of easy-to-wear skates. Hengler’s Grand Circus – visiting Bristol from Liverpool, in 1881 – boasted of ‘The Ryder Trio’ and their ‘fancy and scientific roller skating’, as well as a ‘grotesque’ roller display, by skating, acrobatic clowns.  In 1891, there was much debate as to how the Clifton Zoological Gardens should develop part of their grounds. Should it offer roller skating ‘which again is coming into vogue’, or dig a lake for model yacht sailing, asked The Talk of Bristol? Whilst the writer of the article clearly favoured the latter, by 1892, visitors to the Zoological Gardens could roller skate to the music of Weymouth’s Quadrille Band, and enjoy more ‘grotesque skaters’ and displays.

Today, just like the chaperoned youngsters of the 1870s, young skaters must remain carefully, socially distanced. One could even point to Merlin’s mirror incident to warn of the dangers of ‘selfies’ and the undertaking of rollerskating stunts. But – again like their roller skating great great grandparents – young people can at least have some fun, and fast paced  freedom, on wheels.


About the author: Kate is an Associate Lecturer in Education History and a Doctoral researcher at Bath Spa University, researching late nineteenth century education in a Victorian orphanage. She was the winner of our 2020 Postgraduate Prize for the blog ‘Making a Stand with Mary’.

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