Some Thoughts on . . .

Ice Skating in the 18th Century

Jane Austen in one of her letters mentions that she and other women in the household at Southampton accompany Frank Austen to a near-boy frozen pond and whtch him skate, though they don't join him. In the Catalogue of Political and Personal Satires . . . in the British Museum showing men skating, but seodom women. Nevertheless, skating was not limited only to men, but was a pleasure also shared by women, despite the infrequent evidence for this. Skating had been popular in the Netherlands from the middle ages, and there are a lot of 17th-century paintings and prints which show Dutch women skating, not only peasants but also the middling sort of people.

"Stonehenge" (the editor of The Field etc.) in his book British Rural Sports (1867) has an article on skating accompanied by a woodcut illustrating a lady and gentleman (she wearing a voluminous skirt, he brandishing a gold-tipped cane aloft), and there is no suggestion whatsoever that this sport is not suitable for women.

Norman Wymer in his book Sport in England (1949) mentions the famous time when the Thames froze solid in the winter of 1715–16 when all London made merry on the ice including "men and women whirling themselves dizzy" on sleds and skates. The crowds included royalty and the nobility as well as the middling classes. Wymer says that the fashion for figure skating was introduced from Holland by the Royalists during the Restoration. But British weather (Britain has a temperate climate) usually was not very suitable during the 18th century and the popularity of skating waned, However, a series of hard winters during the early 19th century caused skating to come into vogue again, first in the Fen country with its extensive marshes and in the Norfolk Broads. By the 1820s skating became a competitive sport and men held races against one another, to which women were only spectators rather than participants. It became a very highly organized international competition sport for men by the 1870s. But women were not excluded from figure skating. Artificial rinks were created in the 1840s, but didn't become popular until the 1870s, in Manchester, when "men, women and children" increasingly enjoyed themselves on the ice. Women's hockey teams were organized from the 1890s.

The man most responsible for popularizing the art of figure skating on ice was Captain Robert Jones. His book A Treatise on Skating was first published in London in 1772, possibly in more than one edition; reissued with engravings in 1775; second edition in 1780, with a song, "The Skaters' March"; and many other editions, e.g. in 1797, 1823, 1825, 1855. (He also wrote A New Treatise on Artificial Fireworks, 1765, which was also very popular and was frequently reprinted.)

Skates manufactured to Jones's designs could be bought at Riccard's Manufactory in London. He was one of the first people to advocate the firm attachment of the skates to the shoes (by means of screws through the heels) rather than by means of straps and clips, in effect making the skate integral (previously skaters had to keep retying the skates to their shoes, and they kept falling off). He wrote, "An easy movement and graceful attitude are the sole objects of our attention."

Jones gives various instructions on how to achieve plain skating, graceful rolling, and the spiral line, especially its most elegant attitude – "the flying Mercury" (for which he provides a delightful illustration).

Though called "Captain" Jones, he was actually a Lieutenant in the artillery corps of the army. In July 1772 he was convicted at the Old Bailey for sodomy upon Francis Henry Hay, aged thirteen. The newspapers debated his guilt or innocence, as he was a famous character in eighteenth-century popular culture: for example he would go to masquerades dressed in the character of Punch. He was undoubtedly guilty and was sentenced to death, but on the day he was scheduled to be hanged, 11 August 1772, this was respited to imprisonment, and one month later he was granted a pardon by King George III on condition he go into exile. The newspapers reported that he was discharged from Newgate in the last week of October, and I think that the following illustration published on 26 October 1772, is meant to be a caricature of Jones as the popularizer of fireworks, suggesting he was a damp squib.

One newspaper reported in June 1773 that "The famous Capt. Jones lives now in grandeur with a lovely Ganymede (his footboy) at Lyons, in the South of France."

There are many allusions to the scandal in contemporary satires and poetry. One example is the "Latin Epitaph on Bob Jones," published in a newspaper in July 1773:

Underneath this stone there lies
A face turn'd downward to the skies;
A captain who employ'd his parts
Upon male bums, not female hearts:
Who turn'd his arms not against foes,
But against friends, whence Sodom rose,
And vile Gomorrah horrid fell,
To court th' unnatural flames of hell;
Because he err'd from nature's ways,
Nature despis'd him all his days,
Till being to Jack Ketch consign'd,
For crime of crimes, and dirty mind,
He was repriev'd from gallows death,
At Tyburn had resign'd his breath;
But George, in vengeance, let him live,
Like Cain, till conscience should forgive.

Jones's Treatise on Skating was published during the course of his trial, and sales were probably helped by his notoriety. Unfortunately this great Queen on Ice was written out of the early history of the sport – a situation rectified once I began writing about him (e.g., see The First Public Debate about Homosexuality in England: The Case of Captain Jones, 1772.


Copyright © 2000, 2014 Rictor Norton. All rights reserved. Reproduction for sale or profit prohibited. My comments originally appeared on the 18th Century Interdisciplinary Discussion List in 2000.


Return to Some Thoughts On ...

Return to Essays by Rictor Norton