The First Ice Rink

The first to produce a solution to help skaters overcome the problem of unpredictable weather conditions was Henry Kirk of Tavistock Square who, on November 2, 1841, patented “a substitute for ice for skating and sliding purposes” which, he claimed, produced a smooth surface to ice, using alum, a chemical salt known for its high water content. The alum was crushed into a powder and melted in copper until a liquid formed. Sulphate of copper was added to introduce some colouring and then hog’s lard to make it slippery. Once it had cooled, it was made into slabs, ready to be laid down to make “an extended continuous even surface, which may be a horizontal surface, an inclined surface, or a curved surface”.

Kirk first demonstrated his invention by constructing a rink measuring 12 feet by six in a seed room in the grounds of a nursery near Dorset Square, partly to attract investors. A second demonstration followed in July 1842, when “a sheet of ice” was laid down at the “Colosseum” in Regent’s Park. According to the Times, “the most expert skaters may be daily seen practicing” there. Providing a summer venue for skaters made Kirk’s point and he was able to raise the capital for a more extravagant enterprise.

In 1844 Kirk opened the Glaciarium, a rink with “a surface of 3,000 feet” made to resemble the Lake of Lucerne, an expanse of ice embedded in painted Alpine scenery consisting of snow-covered mountains and precipitous glaciers. Mounds of “snow” were piled around the edge of the rink. Littell’s Living Age claimed that “the judicious management of the light [gave] everything a cold and wintry appearance”. There was even a resident “promenade band” to serenade the skaters, led by Mr A Sedgwick.

Amongst is visitors were Prince Albert and Prince Alexander of the Netherlands, although there is no evidence that they took to the ice. The Glaciarium opened its doors at the Baker Street Bazaar in Portman Square, rather incongruously as an attraction to a cattle show, but by May 8th had moved to Grafton Street East, just off Tottenham Court Road. Admission cost a shilling, with a further shilling payable to skate on the rink.

Within four months the novelty of Kirk’s enterprise had worn off, the Glaciarium shutting its doors for good, the unremitting stench from the lard from the fifty hogs used to create the surface proving too much even for the most enthusiastic of skaters. Another three decades would elapse before another artificial rink was produced, the impetus to provide a solution prompted by a tragic accident.

An exceptionally cold spell of weather in January 1867 froze stretches of open water including the boating lake at London’s Regent’s Park, making them an irresistible attraction for would-be skaters. On January 14th the ice gave way, plunging twenty-one skaters into the water. All were rescued alive. Overnight the water refroze at Regent’s Park, prompting more skaters to take to the ice. At around 3.30pm the ice cracked again, and over two hundred of the revellers found themselves in the water. Impeded by heavy clothing and many unable to swim, forty perished, either from drowning or from hypothermia. The lake, which was twelve feet deep at the time, was made shallower to prevent such a tragedy recurring.

Ice rink technology’s next advance was a byproduct of John Gamgee’s attempts to freeze meat for importing from Australia. He developed, and patented in 1870, a method for making artificial ice, which involved running a network of oval copper pipes carrying a solution of glycerine, ether, nitrogen peroxide, and water, across a concrete surface with layers of earth, cow hair, and timber planks underneath. The pipes were covered with water and the solution pumped through, turning the water into ice.

To dip his toe into the water Gamgee demonstrated his rink in a small tent on January 7, 1876, before moving, in March, to permanent premises with a rink measuring 40 feet by 24 at 379, King’s Road. Operating as a members-only club, it followed Kirk’s template, decorated with Alpine scenes and with a gallery where spectators could view “several noblemen and gentlemen…skating with expressed satisfaction”. Gamgee also called it a Glaciarium. 

Emboldened he opened a second Glaciarium, on a barge moored off Charing Cross, with a rink measuring 115 feet by 25, and one in Rusholme in Manchester. Financially, Gamgee soon found himself on a slippery slope, the ice proving expensive to produce and skaters put off by the mist which the cold ice in a heated room gave off. Gamgee’s first Glaciarium did not see the year out and by mid-1878 all his rinks had closed. His system, though, was used at the Southport Glaciarium which opened in 1879.

It was not until refrigeration technology became more advanced at the turn of the twentieth century that ice rinks become more viable.

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