Fen Skating

Speed Skating:

The Fens in Winter Lincolnshire

fen skating

‘The day is clear the frost is hard,

I very much Incline

As I’m a ‘dab’ to have a

Skate upon the SERPENTINE’

(January – ‘Hard Frost’, The Comic Almanack, January 1836)

In past centuries when the Winter season actually consisted of months of snow, hard frosts, freezing temperatures and frozen lakes and rivers; people put on their skates and took to the ice. In London ice skating on lakes, in the nineteenth century, was hugely popular as can be seen from the numerous reports in journals and papers such the Illustrated London News. If you were interested in skating, not just for pleasure but for sport, it was to the Fens in Lincolnshire or Cambridgeshire that you would come.

‘While in the parks of London and its suburbs – skating is practised as an

Amusement and an art, in the Fen country of the eastern counties it is

Admired as a hard exercise and a veritable sport’.

(Sporting Times, February 1871)

Speed skating was where the talents of skaters were really put to the test and competitive levels were high. In the Fenland Notes & Queries for January, 1899 there are many listings of competitions that took place in Lincolnshire in the late 1700’s. In 1788 the ‘March Men’ met the ‘Crowland Men’ to skate at the Dog in Doublet and then again in January of 1795. Crowland Marsh was the venue for many skating competitions as were Wisbeach and Spalding. The Stamford Mercury, in January 1820, reported that visitors, totalling more than 4000, came from as far away as 20 or 30 miles!, to watch the skating competitions in ‘the ancient town of Croyland’ [Crowland]. As the gentleman wrote in the Sporting Times of 1871, ‘to see the fen skating in its glory it is necessary to be present at a skating match.

The winters of 1820’s, 30’s and 40’s in England were particularly severe and speed skating matches were held all over the Fens. Spectators would stand behind ropes lining each side of the course. A race was usually 2 miles long. This would be measured out in a half mile stretch and skated twice up and twice back. It would a straight run on swept ice. A post, flag or barrel would mark each end of the course and the ‘bellman’ would ring the bell to signal the start of the race. Those taking part were often referred to with terms such as ‘better class of labourer’. Often it was the working class men who were the finest skaters. This was usually due to lack of employment for agricultural workers in a rural country in the winters thus giving them plenty of free time to practice their skills and hopefully win some money in the races and competitions. Being able to turn skilfully whilst travelling at speed was considered an ‘art’.


fen skating 2

‘Our illustration represents a spirited scene in the neighbourhood of the washes of Lincolnshire and Cambridgeshire in the late frost’

‘Our metropolitan skaters are ……but little aware of the extreme interest attached to Skating in the above counties’.

(‘Skating in Lincolnshire’ in The Illustrated London News, January 23rd 1847)

The National Skating Association was formed in 1879 due to the ever growing public enjoyment of the sport. Literally thousands of people were reported as turning up to watch the skaters on the marshes, their cheering often made the sound of the bell difficult to hear.

Obviously weather conditions were of paramount importance to whether or not skating could go ahead. Hard frosts and cold weather for days on end usually resulted in the most ideal conditions. One of the reasons why fen skating rarely can take place in this country now. Still, well documented names such as William ‘Turkey’ Smart, his brother George’Fish’ Smart  and  ‘Gutta’ Percha will probably continue to be written about when recalling the heyday of winter skating on the Fens.

Alyson Cunningham
MA Interdisciplinary Studies of the Nineteenth Century

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