Regency Ice Skating
Updated: Jan 24
We did not take our walk on Friday, it was too dirty, nor have we yet done it; we may perhaps do something like it to-day, as after seeing Frank skate, which he hopes to do in the meadows by the beech[…] It is one of the pleasantest frosts I ever knew, so very quiet. I hope it will last some time longer for Frank's sake, who is quite anxious to get some skating; he tried yesterday, but it would not do. (Jane Austen January 7, 1807 Southampton)
While Jane Austen’s brother Frank was eager to skate, it seems that the women in his household—his sisters, his wife Mary, his mother, and their friend Martha Lloyd—did not partake. Although she describes being an active walker in her letters, maybe Jane was afraid she would end up like this if she tried to skate. But that doesn’t means that ice skating wasn’t common among women and even children then.
Skating in Georgian England usually meant using a wooden frame shod with iron and then bound to the boot and ankle—like gladiator sandals—with leather straps. Iron skate blades from Holland replaced blades made from animal bone in the 1660s and the pass-time picked up popularity. In the winter of 1683, Londoners brought out sleds and went “sliding with skeets” on the frozen Thames. The word skate likely comes from a Dutch word schaats, and it's possible that the modern sport came to England from the Low Countries.
It’s also possible that sliding across ice for fun is just universal.
When the Thames froze solid, as it did for the final time in January of 1814, Londoners promoted “frost fairs” on the ice. The first of these fairs date back to at least 695 AD when booths selling goods were built on the river after it froze. From 1400 until the removal of the medieval London Bridge and embankment of the river later in the 19th century, there were 24 winters in which the Thames was recorded to have frozen at London.
Illustrations of the Frost Fairs on the Thames in 1716 and in 1740 show enthusiastic participants skating and sliding, along with nine-pin bowling, races, puppet-plays, music, and food vendors. In 1814, a 124 page souvenir book was allegedly printed on the river. The sixth chapter is devoted to the “Art of Skating”, complete with history and rules for those just learning the sport.
Frank Austen might have have already been familiar with the finer points of skating by reading Robert Jones’ 1780 Treatise on Skating.
The author begins by describing all of the incorrect ways of fastening skates; their defects usually resulted in not leaving the skate pliable enough and a sprained ankle. He suggests that buckles, straps, and rings around the shoes will do for those who will only try skating for a few minutes at a time and who “think skating consists of an awkward shuffle over the ice, for 10 or a dozen yards.” Given how anxious he was to get some skating in, I hope Frank was a little better than that.
Jones suggests the following method for constructing your own skates:
Let the skates be prepared with toe and heel straps as usual; but instead of heel pegs, let the heel screws be made with flat heads and long enough to go through the heels of the shoes in which holes must be bored, and the heads of the screws sunk even with the leather to prevent hurting the feet. To guard against which more effectually let a piece of leather be sewed to the quarter of the shoe large enough to cover the whole heel, which will defend it sufficiently from the screw.
We don't know what method Frank Austen used, but it sounds like he might have been interested enough in skating to go to some effort to make decent, permanent skates. We know Jane didn't skate that day, but we don't know if Frank skated with anyone else. From contemporary images and also the author of the Art of Skating we know that skating wasn’t an exercise only for men.
“I see no reason why ladies are to be excluded; to object to it as not being hitherto practiced is the effect of prejudice and confined ideas.”
Maybe Jane Austen was brave enough to try skating on another occasion, and we’re just not fortunate enough to have a letter to Cassandra describing her thoughts on the exercise.