December 2015. For a few weeks over Christmas and New Year children of all ages enjoyed skating at the Calverley Gardens Ice Rink. Blue lights shone down on the ice. White tents around the edge conjured up snowy peaks above a valley. Festive songs sounded out from speakers. Skaters circled round – crawling or racing, careful or reckless. There were near misses, tumbles and lots of laughter.
December 21st 1875. 140 years ago a roller skating rink opened on Grove Hill Road, only a short distance away. On that first day several hundred people entered the large, plain building through a long, covered arcade decorated with mosaic tiles. Having paid a shilling for admission and sixpence to hire skates, they headed onto the smooth asphalt floor, where they skated by gaslight, to music from Mr Johnson’s band. Experts from London were on hand to give demonstrations and assistants to help anyone who fell over. Just as now, there were crawlers and racers, near misses and tumbles, plenty of laughter.
Roller skating dates back as far as the mid 18th century. However its popularity grew after 1863, when American George Plimpton developed four-wheeled skates which allowed the wearer to glide, turn and go backwards much more easily. Rinkomania swept America and soon crossed the Atlantic; by the mid-1870s rinks were opening all over England.
The Tunbridge Wells rink proved very popular – it attracted visitors to the town, brought together people from all sections of society and offered young men and women the opportunity to escape their chaperones and get close to each other. In May 1877 The Courier reported that a local clergyman had preached against ‘the demoralising influences of the evening assemblies at the rink’. However, the newspaper commented that naughty people would be naughty anywhere and behaviour at the rink was no worse than at the theatre or music hall. (Apart, that is, from one ‘repeated instance of somewhat advanced courtship’!).
If skaters wanted to take a break, they could watch from the spectators’ gallery, or enjoy refreshments in the buffet. From autumn 1876 these included including beer, cider and wine, provided by local greengrocer William Meggy. (The magistrates refused to issue him with a licence which would have also allowed him to offer spirits and porter).
In addition to skating competitions and fancy dress soirees, a wide variety of entertainments were held in the large hall. These included band concerts and attractions such as ‘The African Blondin’, who performed on the high rope, and Herr Holtum, ‘The Cannon Ball King’, who balanced cannon balls on his head and even caught one that was fired straight at him.
By the mid-1880s the popularity of roller skating was in decline. In 1884 the Tunbridge Wells Skating Company went into liquidation, the rink was sold at auction and the building taken over by the Kent & Sussex Courier, who housed their printing machinery there. However interest in the sport revived some years later, both nationally and locally, and in 1909 the ‘American Skating Palace’ opened on Culverden Down in St John’s. The proprietor was American entrepreneur and former horse breeder Louis Napoleon Schoenfield, whose company also owned rinks in St Leonards, Plymouth, Exeter, Maida Vale and on the Aldwych.
In advertisements it was claimed that the new rink was the largest outside London. Its maple floor, imported specially from America, covered 16,000 square feet (a much larger area than the earlier rink) and there was seating for several thousand spectators. Admission was still one shilling, but there was electric light instead of gas, and skates now had ball bearings, making them even more manoeuvrable. “Tunbridge Wells has succumbed to Rinkomania as badly as any town in the kingdom” reported The Courier in November 1909. As well as regular skating sessions, to music from military bands, there were speed skating races, exhibitions of fancy skating and rink hockey matches.
However, once again roller skating was not as profitable as had been hoped and in 1911 Mr Schoenfield appeared in the bankruptcy court in London. The main reason he gave for finding himself in this situation was that he had been ‘over confident’ in running his rinks.
The Tunbridge Wells rink continued to operate under local ownership for another couple of years, although in 1913 skating gave way to the Cinema de Luxe. Early in the First World War 250 soldiers were billeted in the building before they headed overseas and local recruits were drilled there. In December 1914 it was one of eight venues where solders were entertained to a lavish Christmas lunch. (This was the subject of a previous blog post).
- The 1875 Skating Rink was designed by architect Henry H Cronk, who was also responsible for the Great Hall (completed in 1872).