Fen Skating

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Ice skating has a long history on the rivers and ditches amongst the low-lying flat Cambridgeshire fenlands. It soon became a hugely popular past-time, with early skates made from wood and bone.

At Littleport on 26th December 1892, a fiercely competitive championship tournament began, that was ‘open to the world’ to spectate and compete in.

Earlier that year, Littleport industrialist and keen ice and rollerskater – Thomas Peacock (the founder of Hope Brothers Ltd) paid for the levelling of almost 40 acres of land at The Moors, on the north side of Littleport, close to Littleport’s Railway Station. His plan was to provide a place for the people of Littleport (which included his employees and their families) to share in his passion for ice skating.

The changes to this land created low-lying meadows and their proximity to The Old Croft River, allowed for water to be pumped in until it was about 2 feet deep. During the 1890’s succession of long cold Winters, the shallow water would then often freeze, and stay frozen, providing the right thickness of ice on which to safely and regularly skate.

Competitive Fen Skating

The Littleport Skating Club formed in 1891 with Thomas Peacock playing an instrumental role in its formation. It became affiliated to the National Skating Association in 1892, just in time for the new skating ground.

Of course, the people at neighbouring Welney wanted ‘in’ on some of this skating too, as residents there included the family of champion ice skater William ‘Turkey’ Smart. His nephews James and Jarman Smart would attend the competitive tournaments at The Moors from the outset.

Competitors would not only travel from around the country, but also from around the world to race at Littleport, and they’d compete for a range of valuable prizes including ‘The 50 Guinea Littleport Challenge Cup’.

The ’50 Guinea Littleport Challenge Cup’ trophy
The ’50 Guinea Littleport Challenge Cup’ (1892). Ref: LS-X.

By January 1893, The Norwich Mercury was reporting;

“Not only is the Littleport ground becoming facile princeps [sic] amongst skating resorts of the country, but as a racing ground it now holds a reputation approached by few others.”

‘Skating In The Fens’, The Norwich Mercury, page 3, 7th January 1893.

Crowds flock to Littleport ice

On that first race in 1892, thousands of spectators passed through the turnstiles – 2,249 gentlemen and 878 ladies, all to watch the competitors race for 1.5 miles. This was all whilst the crowd indulged in a range of refreshments. As popularity grew, over the coming years and thousands of people wanted to travel to spectate or compete, special trains were run to transport the crowds from London.

The Littleport Skating Club organised the races on the ice from the first event in 1892, and this included a ‘Ladies’ Race’ with a 10 Guinea prize, a ‘Couple’s Race’, an ‘Amateur’s Race’, and a few days later ‘The All England Race’ with £32 in prizes.

Announcement of the Fen Skating championships at Littleport in 1893.
Littleport Skating Club front page advert from The Norwich Mercury, 14th December 1892.

When the freezing temperatures returned in 1894, the number of competitors had increased significantly, and again included James and Jarman Smart of Welney, but also a ‘stranger’ from Norway – a skater named Henrik Lindahl.

One former Littleport resident George Washington, who was born in 1886, remembers the race for the ’50 Guinea Littleport Challenge Cup’ in 1894, and recalls the competitiveness in this clip from an archive recording made in 1973.

Extract of an interview with former Littleport resident George Washington (b.1886) in 1973, who recalls the race between James Smart and Henrik Lindahl on 12th January 1894 at Littleport. (Ref: LS1973.0001).

The influx of people wanting to skate also brought business into Littleport, with ironmongers J. H. Adams & Sons on Main Street becoming the UK’s sole importer of Hagen racing skates from Norway.

After Thomas Peacock’s death in 1895, his son Arthur inherited The Moors skating ground, but sold the site in 1917 to William Towler. Mr Towler, a farmer, reverted the skating ground back to agricultural use, and a series of mild winters saw the Littleport Skating Club wound up.

These days, we rarely seem to have the long periods of cold weather needed to produce the required safe conditions needed for fen skating at Littleport, but there’s one thing for sure – the skaters of Fen Centre will be watching the weather forecast, and they’ll soon have their skates back on!

More local history

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Main Photograph: George Strickson competing in 'The 50 Guineas' at The Moors, Littleport, 1905, from 'The Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News', 28th January 1905.