These days, conditions for ice skating in Welney are rare, due as elsewhere in England, to global warming, much to the frustration of the many keen skaters who live around here. Even when we do have a really cold spell, the ice is often only suitable for recreational skating rather than speed skating competitions. But fen speed skaters always live in hope!

But years ago winters were generally much colder and the sluggish straight rivers and flooded washes of the East Anglian fens often froze hard for long periods and skating provided an easy and fast way of getting around, as well as being fun, and many people learned to skate from an early age.

Victorian fen speed skating

Competitive skating

In Victorian times it was also a way for the most proficient, often agricultural labourers, to earn money when there was little employment on the land, by competing for cash prizes in speed skating matches watched by thousands of spectators.

There were two main types of competitions, one a pure speed test over, say, a straight mile often with a flying start; the other, needing considerable skill as well as speed, had a circuit with two barrels placed several hundred yards apart with two skaters racing against each other in 'heats' until just the best two were left to contest the final. The skaters started with the first barrel seperating them and they skated to the other barrel keeping on 'their side' of the circuit, then turning towards each other at the second barrel  & returning to the first on the opposite side of the circuit. Races could be for just a single lap, or two laps involving three turns. Total distances varied from ½ to 2 miles, even up to 10 miles for the very fittest. The photo on the right shows two skaters facing in opposite directions, the one on the right having turned first, but gone wide to avoid a collision.

Victorian fen speed skating
Victorian fen speed skating

Welney skaters dominated the sport

During the second half of the 19th century the sport was dominated by Welney men starting with William Smart who was born in 1830. Due to his unusual style of skating - bent low, leaning forward with his arms flapping behind him - and his beaky nose, he gained the nickname 'Turkey' by which he was, and still is, generally known. He became Champion Skater of England (fittingly on the Welney Washes) in 1854 and dominated fen speed skating until the late 1860s.

His main rival during that time was another Welney man, William See, two years younger than Smart. See was described as being very resilient or 'tough as old boots' and also gained a life-long nickname - 'Gutta Percha' - after the tough rubber material used to make the soles of boots.

The dominance of these two was ended by younger men in the late 1860s, many also from Welney such as John Wiles who beat Porter of Southery for the Championship of England in 1870, watched by a crowd of some 6,000 according to the Cambridge Chronicle.

Victorian fen speed skating
Victorian fen speed skating They were followed by other prominent Welney speed skaters including Robert & Tom Watkinson and the next generation of the Smarts and the Sees.

George "Fish" Smart (so called due to his excellence at swimming), the eldest son of Turkey Smart's cousin Charles, took the speed skating championship in 1878 and won nearly every race he entered for the next ten years. He was eventually beaten for the national championship by his younger brother James Smart in 1889. One of the few men to beat James was his cousin George See, son of Gutta Percha.

James Smart became arguably the best of Welney's speed skaters and went on to be professional world champion in 1895. An article about Fen Skating published in the early 1900s in Sandow's Magazine lists some of his records: 1 mile, oval track, 3mins; 1 mile, 3 turns, 3 mins 8 secs; 1½ miles, 3 turns, 4 mins 45 secs; and 10 miles in 35 mins 10 secs.

 Welney's supremecy waned after that, but Reg Scott of Welney was British Professional Champion in 1947.

Victorian fen speed skating
Extract from Sandow's Magazine from Giles Landscapes website.
Other sources as noted.
Text, design and layout:
Peter Cox
© 2014-2019 Welney Website
Photo top right © Mark Bullimore, others from the Welney Website Archives.

More information - and a word of caution

Wikipedia has an excelent and very detailed page about fen skating and its history.

Another excelent site is run by Welney resident, business-man and quite decent fen skater, Roger Giles. He has an extensive section about skating on his company website and during really cold weather the site has daily updates on ice conditions, available skating sites and news of possible competitions.

In the interests of safety, anyone thinking of getting out onto the ice in Welney, or surrounding areas as far afield as Bury Fen at Earith, ought to check Roger's site first.