Fen skating

Fen skating

Fen skating is a traditional form of ice skating in the Fenland of England. The Fens of East Anglia, with their meres and washes, networks of drainage ditches, slow-flowing rivers and easily flooded meadows, form an ideal skating terrain. Skates were introduced into Britain from Holland or France in the seventeenth century. It is not known when the first skating matches were held, but by the early nineteenth century they had become a feature of cold winters in the Fens. The golden age of fen skating was the second half of the nineteenth century, when thousands of people turned out to watch such legendary skaters as Larman Register, Turkey Smart, Gutta Percha See, and brothers Fish and James Smart. The National Skating Association was set up in Cambridge in 1879 and took the top few fen skaters to Holland, where they had a brief moment of international glory with James Smart becoming Britain’s only ever world champion speed skater. The twentieth century saw a decline in the popularity of fen skating.

Early History

Metal-bladed skates were introduced into Britain, probably from Holland or France, in the seventeenth century; before this people had attached sharpened animal bones to their feet to travel on ice.E Porter 1969 Fenland skating. "Cambridgeshire, Huntingdon and Peterborough Life", February issue.] Diarists Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn both recorded seeing skating on the canal in St. James's Park in London during the winter of 1662. Pepys wrote "...over to the Parke (where I first in my life, it being great frost, did see people sliding with their skeats which is a very pretty art)…".J Slater and A Bunch 2000 "Fen speed skating: an illustrated history." March.] As a recreation, means of transport and spectator sport, skating in the Fens was popular with people from all walks of life. Racing was the preserve of workers, most of them agricultural labourers. It is not known when the first skating matches were held, but by the early nineteenth century racing was well-established and the results of matches were reported in the press. The cold winters of the 1820s and 1830s saw a number of fenmen make a name for themselves as skaters. They included: John Gittam and John Young of Nordelph; the Drake brothers of Chatteris; Perkins and Cave of Sutton; James May of Upwell; waterman John Berry of Ramsey; the Egars of Thorney; the Staples of Crowland; and William Needham of March. N & A Goodman 1882 "Handbook of fen skating." London.]


When it froze, skating matches were held in towns and villages all over the Fens. In these local matches men (or sometimes women or children) would compete for prizes of money, clothing or food. "During severe winters it is no uncommon thing to see joints of meat hung outside the village pub, to be skated for on the morrow". ["Cycling", 19 January 1895, p 19.] The winners of local matches were invited to take part in the grand or championship matches in which skaters from across the Fens would compete for cash prizes in front of crowds of thousands.

The championship matches took the form of a Welsh main or "last man standing" contest. The competitors, 16 or sometimes 32, were paired off in heats and the winner of each heat went through to the next round. The farmers and gentry who organised the matches would raise a subscription for prize money. £10 was a typical purse in the mid-nineteenth century, with about half going to the winner and the rest divided amongst the other runners according to how far they had got in the contest. This was at a time when agricultural labourers typically earnt about 11 shillings a week.

A course of 660 yards was measured out on the ice, and a barrel with a flag on it placed at either end. The course was divided down the middle with more barrels, sods of earth or piles of snow. The skaters were drawn in pairs, and started one either side of the barrel, skate down the course, round the barrel and back again, with each skater keeping to their own side of the ice. For a one-and-a-half mile race the skaters completed two rounds of the course, with three barrel turns. If there were 16 competitors the winner and runner-up would have skated a total of 6 miles. ["Cycling", 19 January 1895, p 19.]

There were also matches for women although they didn’t attract quite the same attention or prize money as the men’s matches. The "Cambridge Chronicle", after a long account of a match at Ely in February 1855 in which Turkey Smart beat Larman Register to win £7, told readers merely that "the white-bonneted Mepal girl won 10 shillings easily, and beat the Lynn girl – a good race". ["Cambridge Chronicle", 24 February 1855, p 8.] By the 1890s the women had at least acquired names; the "Hunts County Guardian" reported in February 1892 that Mrs Winters of Welney had beaten 13-year-old Miss Dewsbury of Little Thetford in the final of a half-mile match at Littleport. ["Hunts County Guardian", 27 February 1892.]

As well as competing in matches, the top skaters issued challenges via the press. Brothers Larman and Robert Register announced in the "Cambridge Chronicle" in 1853 that they could be backed to skate any two skaters in England for £20. And three years later Larman Register had teamed up with his vanquisher Turkey Smart to issue a similar challenge.

Another challenge for the fastest men was the straight mile with a flying start. In 1821 a Newmarket man made a wager of 100 guineas that a skater could cover a mile in three minutes. John Gittam of Nordelph won him his wager at Prickwillow with 7 seconds to spare. A generation later Turkey Smart was backed to skate a mile in two-and-a-half minutes, but failed by 2 seconds.

Fen skates

In the Fens skates were called pattens, fen runners, or Whittlesey runners. The footstock was made of beechwood. A screw at the back was screwed into the heel of the boot, and three small spikes at the front kept the skate steady. There were holes in the footstock for leather straps to fasten it to the foot. The metal blades were slightly higher at the back than the front. In the 1890s fen skaters started to race in Norwegian style skates.


After a series of mild winters in the 1840s, skating was dominated for a few years by men from the Norfolk village of Southery, with Larman Register acknowledged as champion. Register’s reign as champion came to an end in December 1854 when he was dramatically beaten on Welney washes by Welney man Turkey Smart. The winter of 1854/55 was exceptionally cold and a month’s frost from the end of January saw Turkey Smart triumphant in twelve matches, skating to easy victories at Outwell, Welney, Benwick, Mepal, March, Deeping, Ely, Peterborough and Wisbech. There was one defeat, at Salter’s Lode. His winnings came to a total of £54 15 shillings and a leg of mutton. The "Cambridge Chronicle" described how the match at Mepal, on a brilliantly fine day, had thinned the towns of Cambridge, Ely, St Ives, Chatteris and March of their population.

"The clergy and 'squires' , gentry and tradesmen – hale ploughboys and rosy milkmaids – ladies parties in carriages, gigs and carts, made their way to the bank near the bridge, and took their respective positions, where the view was excellent, and all that could be wished, for the 'St Ledger day on the ice'. A brass band of music from Chatteris was placed on the bridge, and played the most lively tunes: at the starting of a race, 'Cheer boys, cheer', and at the winning, 'See the conquering hero comes'. The number of persons present was stated at from five to eight thousand, and some said ten thousand. Punctually at the time appointed, half-past one, the racing commenced. The bold Fen-men soon appeared, whose iron frames, lion sinews, elasticity of action and body, astonished all beholders. They were a fine specimen of the bold peasantry of England." ["Cambridge Chronicle", 17 February 1855, p 7.]
After beating three Southery men, Butcher, Porter and Larman Register,Turkey Smart met David Green of March in the final. "Smart beat Green easily, and carried off the laurels, and is generally believed to be the best man of the day". ["Cambridge Chronicle", 17 February 1855, p 7.]

Turkey Smart remained the champion for the rest of the decade, his nearest rivals being his brother-in-law Gutta Percha See, the Registers, Butchers and Porters of Southery, David Green of March, and fellow Welney men Wiles and Watkinson. But by the winter of 1860/61 he was no longer invincible; Gutta Percha See shared the laurels with him that year.

Several mild winters followed and when skating resumed in January 1867 younger skaters were threatening the champions. Turkey Smart won the Kimbolton Stakes on the flooded Huntingdon Racecourse in front of a grandstand of local aristocracy, and followed it with a win at Denver, beating Robert Watkinson in the final, but these victories were followed by a first round loss at Welney. Larman Register had by now acquired some acreage and joined the ranks of race officials; his nephew and namesake was racing, although he never enjoyed quite the same success as his uncle.

The following year Stephen Smith, a farmer’s son from Conington, Tom Cross of Ely and the Shelton brothers from Ramsey came to the fore. Turkey Smart and Gutta Percha See continued to race, but were usually beaten in the early rounds of matches. The winter of 1874/75 saw Tom Watkinson of Welney acknowledged as champion. There was then an interval of mild winters, before the next generation of Smarts and Sees emerged as top skaters.


The winter of 1878/79 was a cold one; during December and January 21-year-old Fish Smart, a nephew of Gutta Percha See and Turkey Smart’s wife, notched up victories at Welney, Mepal, Ely, Bluntisham, Upwell, Wormegay, Huntingdon, Peterborough, Swavesey and Thorney. At Spalding there was a dead heat in the final between Fish Smart and Tom Watkinson and there was a defeat by Albert Dewsberry of Coveney in a final at Peterborough.

Although speed skating was practised in other parts of the country, fenmen with their unique style, and combination of stamina and speed, were the acknowledged masters. Lancashire sent three of their top skaters, G. Willcocks and the Boydells, to the Swavesey match in January 1879. All three were defeated in the first two rounds, with veteran Turkey Smart beating G. Willcocks by 200 yards in the first round. ["Cambridge Chronicle", 1 February 1879, p 8.] Afterwards one of the Lancashire skaters said: "We are the best men in our parts, but we run. These fenmen flee". ["Birmingham Daily Post", 26 December 1890.]

On Saturday 1 February 1879 a number of the great and the good of Cambridgeshire and Huntingdonshire met in the Guildhall, Cambridge, to set up the National Skating Association, with the aim of controlling the sport of fen skating. The founding committee consisted of several landowners, a vicar, a fellow of Trinity College, a magistrate, two Members of Parliament, the mayor of Cambridge, the Lord Lieutenant of Cambridge, journalist James Drake Digby, the president of Cambridge University Skating Club, and Neville Goodman, a fellow of Peterhouse College (and son of Potto Brown’s milling partner, Joseph Goodman).DL Bird 1979 "Our Skating Heritage". London.]

The next two winters, 1879/80 and 1880/81, were good skating winters. The newly-formed National Skating Association held their first one-and-a-half-mile British professional championship at Thorney in December 1879. There was a field of 32, including former champions Turkey Smart and Tom Watkinson. Fish Smart won, beating Knocker Carter of Welney in the final. His reward was a badge, a sash and a cash prize, given as an annual salary in instalments in order to encourage the champion to "keep himself temperate". The National Skating Association had also established an amateur championship, which was held for the first time at Welsh Harp, London, in January 1880, and won by Frederick Norman, a farmer’s son from Willingham. The professionals were labourers who skated for cash prizes; the amateurs were gentlemen who skated a bit slower for trophies.

Fish Smart remained unbeatable in the Fens during 1879/80 and 1880/81. He suffered one defeat in Lancashire when he skated on Carr Mill Dam against Jack Hill of Billinge, but got his revenge in a return match at Welney. Fish Smart’s nearest rivals during those two winters were his younger brother Jarman Smart and Albert Dewsberry. In 1880/81 he successfully defended his title at Crowland, beating Albert Dewsberry in the final.

Fish Smart won his third and final championship in January 1887 at Swavesey, beating his cousin Isaac See (the younger son of Gutta Percha See) in the final. In the intervening years there had been some short frosts, but the National Skating Association had not managed to arrange a meeting. They had taken Fish Smart to Holland for an international race in January 1885; he was beaten in the first round by Benedict Kingma. Two amateurs, Charles G Tebbutt and S Burlingham fared little better. A trip to Holland two years later was more successful. George See (Gutta Percha See’s eldest son) and James Smart (Fish Smart’s youngest brother) set up world records for 3100 m and 1 mile in friendly matches, and Charles G Tebbutt won an amateur race. The following year, 1887, James Smart and George See returned to Holland, with James Smart winning an international race over 2 miles at Amsterdam.

James Smart took the British professional title from his older brother Fish Smart at Lingay Fen in January 1889 and dominated fen skating for the next few years. He won the Dutch 1 mile championship in 1890/91 before successfully defending his British title. Two years later he did not compete in the British professional championship after falling out with the National Skating Association (George See won that year), but he regained his title in 1894/95. Several mild winters followed and when the championship was next held, at Littleport in February 1900, it was won by Fred Ward of Tydd Fen. That year, for the first time, the amateur championship was won in a faster time than the professional.

Littleport had become an important centre for skating in last decade of the nineteenth century, when Thomas Peacock (owner of the Hope Brothers factory), leased a piece of ground by the railway line, embanked it, and flooded it to form a skating ground known as the Moors.

Lincolnshire skaters, unhappy that the National Skating Association was holding so many matches in the southern Fens or outside the Fens, formed their own association in 1890 and held amateur championships at Vernatt’s Drain and Cowbit Wash.

20th century

During a fen skating exhibition at Bluntisham School in 1891, a voice was raised against the National Skating Association, accusing them of concentrating on international racing and destroying local racing. The National Skating Association also received criticism in the press: one article said that for various reasons the National Skating Association "has not commanded the confidence of the skating world" and that its off-shoot, the Metropolitan branch "has practically swallowed it up". ["Cycling", 19 January 1895, p 19.] In 1894 the National Skating Association decided to move their headquarters to London, from where they concentrated on figure skaters and rinkmen.

In 1902 the professional championship was for the first time won by an uplander, Wigan lamplighter Joseph Bates who skated with a heart condition. The days when fenland agricultural labourers were masters of the sport were numbered, although the last three professional titles before the 1st World War were won by fenmen; Fred Ward of Tydd Fen regaining his title at Lingay Fen in February 1905, and Sidney Greenhall of Landbeach winning in January 1908 and February 1912 at Lingay.

There were no official matches during World War I. A series of mild winters followed, giving an interval of 15 years with no championships. Fen skating during the late 1920s and early 1930s was dominated by amateur Cyril Horn of Upwell; the professional title was won by Don Pearson of Mepal. In 1947 the professional title made a brief return to Welney when R.W. Scott was victorious.

The second half of the twentieth century saw rinkmen winning most of the championships, which were last held in 1996/97. In recent years fen skaters David Buttress of Mepal, and Malcolm Robinson and David Smith of Sutton have competed in events in the Netherlands and Austria.

Recreational skating

Skating in all its forms was popular in the Fens. When it froze Corporations and landowners would flood their meadows to turn them into skating grounds. In Cambridge, the Corporation pumped water onto Stirbitch Common and there was also a skating ground at Granchester Meadows. Lamp-posts can still be seen in the middle of fields by the river at Granchester Meadows where the old skating ground used to be.

Bury Fen, near Bluntisham, was the home of the Bury Fen Bandy Club (unbeaten for a century). Under the captaincy of the Tebbutt brothers (grandsons of Potto Brown’s milling partner Joseph Goodman) the Bury Fen Bandy Club was responsible for formulating the rules of modern bandy and introducing the game into the Netherlands and other Northern European countries as well as other parts of Britain.

Cricket was also played on ice in the Fens, though it never became as popular as bandy. In February 1855 the "Cambridge Chronicle" reported on a match between March and Wisbech on the Ballast Pits at March. The home team beat the visitors by 118 runs, thanks to a century not out by Rhodes. "The fielding and batting of many of the players was considered to be far superior to and more graceful than any cricketing on the green sward". ["Cambridge Chronicle", 24 February 1855, p 8.]

Fen skaters

Norfolk skaters

The Norfolk village of Southery, on the River Great Ouse a few miles upstream from Denver Sluice, was home to a number of skating families. Larman Register (1829-1897), was champion in the early 1850s; his brother Robert (1820-1890) and nephews Larman, Robert, William and George were also skaters. A story is told of how a group of Southery skaters challenged some railwaymen to a race from Littleport to Queen Adelaide where the river runs alongside the railway. The skaters beat the train. Larman Register is said to have led the skaters; since the race took place in 1870 it was probably the young Larman, rather than his more famous uncle. The Porter family also produced a number of top skaters - including Job, Brewer, Tom, Holland and Charles - and skaters’ wives (both Larman Registers married Porters). Chafer Legge, skater and bare-fist fighter, was employed by Newnham College, Cambridge, to tutor their students in skating during the long freeze of 1895. [WH Barrett 1963 "Tales from the Fens". London.] Chafer Legge’s sons and daughter were also skaters, Noah being the most successful. Other skaters from Southery were the Butchers, and butcher Jesse Brown.

Welney skaters

Welney, a small village on the banks of the Old Bedford River, in the heart of the Fens on the Cambridgeshire-Norfolk border and three miles from the nearest railway station, produced so many top skaters that it became known as the "metropolis of speed skating". Members of the Smart and See families dominated British skating for two generations.

Turkey Smart (1830-1919) was champion in the in the 1850s. Gutta Percha See (1832-1898) usually ran second to his brother-in-law Turkey Smart, although he had a better season in 1861. Both Turkey Smart and Gutta Percha See continued to race long past their prime, and were still taking to the ice for exhibition races in their sixties. Of Turkey Smart’s six sons only one – James - became a skater. Gutta Percha’s sons George and Isaac both became top skaters.

Fish Smart (1856-1909) was champion for a decade from 1878. He gained his name from his swimming prowess. His father, Charles Smart, had been a fast skater but had never mastered the art of slowing down for the barrel turn so had never featured in racing. Fish Smart’s younger brothers Jarman Smart and James Smart were also top skaters. Over a ten year period Fish Smart was virtually unbeatable. He was a popular sportsman; a poem was composed in his honour and a racehorse was named after him. ["Bell's Life in London and Sporting Chronicle", 31 December 1881.] Fish Smart left Welney to work on construction sites around England and had a spell in Egypt working on the unfinished Sudanese railway, but returned to skate in the Fens when it froze. In January 1889 he relinquished his title to his younger brother James. Fish Smart was killed in an accident at work on Hull dockyard railway in 1909.

James Smart (1865-1928) was the youngest brother of Fish and Jarman Smart. Unlike his brother Fish and uncle Turkey he always skated under his real name; attempts to call him Eagle to distinguish him from his cousin James Turkey Smart did not stick. He won the professional title of Great Britain in 1890, 1895 and 1900 and the Littleport Cup in 1892. He also won a world championship and a Dutch championship. Having spent some time training in Norway, he set up an agency to sell Norwegian skates in Britain.

George See (1862-1946) usually skated second to his cousins Fish Smart and James Smart, but took the British professional title in December 1892 when James Smart refused to defend his title. George’s younger brother Isaac See was four times placed in the professional championship but never won.

Other top skaters from Welney included: George, Robert and Tom Watkinson, John Hills, John Wiles, Robert Naylor, Knocker Carter, bricklayer Harry Kent, and the Hawes brothers, brickmakers Alfred, William and James. Jane Winters, one of the fastest women skaters, came from Upwell but lived in Welney after marrying a Welney man. The Loveday brothers were top amateur skaters.

Isle of Ely skaters

Albert Dewsberry, the second fastest skater of his generation and the only fenman to beat Fish Smart in his prime, grew up in Coveney on the Isle of Ely. In 1881 he was runner-up in the British professional championship. The next year he had his left leg amputated below the knee following an accident. He continued to skate and entered the 3-mile championship in 1887 with a cork leg, being beaten in the first round. "The old Fen flyer, however, went very respectably, and was rewarded with a collection"."

Cambridgeshire skaters

Cambridgeshire villages on the southern edge of the Fens produced a number of top skaters.

Isleham, on the River Lark, was home to the Wells and Brown skating families. Nathan Brown and Tommy Wells were the most successful of a number of brothers.

Nearby Soham Fen produced J Collins and Frederic Fletcher, who nearly drowned in a second round race against Turkey Smart on Welney Washes in January 1870. ["Times", 1 February 1870.]

Walter Housden from Wicken won the amateur championship in 1891 at the age of 19. He then turned professional and was the first winner of the Hayes-Fisher Cup. He was placed five times in the professional championship but never won.

Sidney Greenhall from Landbeach won the professional championship in 1908 and 1912, and the Littleport Cup in 1909. His brother, wheelwright William, and sister Nellie were also skaters.

Fen skating in art and music

Charles Whymper, husband of one of Potto Brown’s granddaughters, was well known for his skating scenes and portraits of skaters. JM Heathcote also drew skating scenes.

Duncan Stafford’s Fen-Skating Suite (for string quartet) was shortlisted for the Cornelius Cardew Composition Prize in 1990.


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