FEN SKATING BY POTTO! At ‘Pottoing Around’ on the web!

Littleport is a large village (or perhaps small town) on the River Great Ouse about six miles downstream from the cathedral city of Ely. It is known chiefly for its part in the Littleport/Ely riots in 1816 and its connection with Harley-Davidson motorcycles. The Harleys of motorcycle fame originated from Littleport. One of the men executed after the riots was Isaac Harley, although I don’t know how closely he was related to the motorcycle Harleys. But Littleport, especially in the last decade of the 19th century, was also known as a venue for the sport of fen skating. The village did not produce any champions of its own; perhaps those executed or transported after the riots were the potential ancestors of top skaters.

January 1879 was a particularly cold month and skating matches took place all over the fens. The Cambridge Chronicle described a match that took place at Littleport on the 24th “… when there was a very large attendance of spectators. The course was a mile and a half. There were 32 competitors… A large and influential committee carried out the programme punctually, but it was nearly dark when the last race took place.” The last race was the final between N. Brown of Isleham and George See of Welney and was won by the Isleham man. Boxing Day of that same year, 1879, saw thousands of spectators converge on Littleport, which was easily reached by train from Cambridge, Ely and Kings Lynn, to watch a match under the rules of the newly formed National Skating Association. It was won by Albert Dewsberry of Coveney. There were matches for women too; in January 1890 they were skating over a half mile course between the Victoria and Littleport bridges. Miss Ambrose won 25 shillings, Rose Harwood won a fur boa and Hannah Crabb a muff and tippett.

The heyday of skating at Littleport arrived in the 1891 when Thomas Peacock decided to lease the Moors, an area of land beside the railway, and flood it to form a skating ground. The first match on the new rink was held in January 1892 in front of two thousand spectators. It was won by the champion James Smart, skating in his first match since returning from Norway and using Norwegian style skates. In the final he beat his cousin and namesake, Turkey Smart’s son.

Writing in Country Life Illustrated in 1897, Charles Silcock, described the rink at Littleport:

“There is now, in working order, a spacious artificial rink at Littleport, some thrity acres in extent. This was constructed by a benevolent resident, the late Mr. Thomas Peacock. It is managed by the Littleport Skating Association, under their able secretary Mr. Tillet. This rink is kept flooded all the winter months, and is soon available for skating, and here have been many of the best matches of late years…. To those who really want to see the fenman enjoying his one sport for he has no other, I should strongly advise a trip to Littleport: it is easily reached by rail from Liverpool Street”.

The author continues to describe how, if the river is frozen, the visitor may encounter: “String after string of hardy fenmen, all in a line like wild ducks flying, go hurrying past, all in the most perfect time with every movement synchronous, and should the visitor try to keep up with the party he will find there is more in straight ahead skating than meets they eye: for if not learnt in childhood it is very difficult to acquire.” The visitor will come away with admiration for “the best style of skater known in this country… the fastest and most enduring skaters of Europe, who have worthily upheld the position of England in international races”.

The Littleport Skating Club offered a 50 guinea challenge cup, 2ft 3in high and solid silver. You can see a photograph of it here. In December 1892 the cup was won by James Smart, in January 1894 by Norwegian Hendrick Lindahl, in 1894 by Fred Ward of Tydd Fen and in 1897 by Joe Bates of Leigh, Lancashire. The days when the fenmen reigned supreme were coming to an end. The cup was last competed for in 1912, when it disappeared. In 1900 Littleport hosted the professional championships, won by Fred Ward, and in 1895 the 3 mile professional race for the Hayes Fisher Cup, won by Walter Houseden of Wicken.

After the first World War there was a decline in the sport of fen skating. Milder winters, changing demographics, and the appearance of indoor rinks all had a part to play in this decline. But could long-track speed skating return to Littleport? Last September the Ely Standard published an article with the title “Littleport the perfect home for new ice stadium, former skater and coach says”. The article related how Lyn Guest de Swarte, former speed skater, ice hockey player, coach and referee, sees Littleport as the ideal site for a new ice stadium, similar to the Thialf stadium in Heerenveen in the Netherlands. She has set up a company, Littleport Ice Stadium Ltd, and has the support of Littleport Parish Council.

The old Fen flyer with a cork leg

The British team returned from the Sochi Winter Paralympic Games with six medals, all won in ski-ing and curling events. It was the 11th Paralympic Winter Games, the first having been held in Sweden in 1976. Speed skating is not a paralympic sport. But there have been disabled skaters, for example, the fen skater Albert Dewsberry, who continued to skate after his left leg had been amputated below the knee.

Albert Dewsberry was an agricultural worker who grew up in Coveney, a village in the Fens between Ely and the Bedford Rivers. He was, before the amputation of his leg, the only skater who posed a serious threat to the Welney champion George (Fish) Smart. As Bell’s Life in London and Sporting Chronicle (20 December 1879) said: “This pair inevitably meet in any stake in which they both start, sooner or later.” The competitors were not seeded, so it was sometimes the first round, sometimes the final. It was usually Fish Smart who won, although Albert Dewsberry had the occasional victory.

During the last week of January 1897, for example, when there were matches in the Fens every day except Sunday, Albert beat Fish in the final at Peterborough, but went on to lose to him at Huntingdon, Ely, Thorney, Swavesey, and at a second match in Peterborough. Crowds of thousands, brought by special trains, turned out to watch. At the second Peterborough match, there were about 12,000 spectators, including the Duchess of Manchester, Lord Mandeville and other members of the aristocracy.

It froze again that December and the first match under the rules of the newly-formed National Skating Association was held at Thorney. Fish and Albert met in the third round and Albert was beaten. The result was repeated at matches at Chippenham and Chatteris. Albert however won the traditional Littleport Boxing Day match and a match on the Hundred Foot (New Bedford) River at Downham, as Fish had gone to Lancashire to accept a challenge from Jack Hill to race on Carr Mill.

In January 1881 Bell’s reported that Albert had an injured ankle. In March 1882 the Cambridge Chronicle published the following article, under the title “Permanent disablement of a Fen skater”

“At a meeting of the General Committee of the National Skating Association held on Monday last, the following resolution was unanimously agreed to: ‘That this meeting learns with great regret that Albert Dewsberry, who for several years was second speed skater in England, has been deprived not only of the opportunities of skating but also of the means of obtaining a livelihood, through an injury which has rendered it necessary to have one of his legs amputated. This meeting recommends that a small fund should be raised to give him a fresh start in life in some occupation which he is still able to follow.’… Dewsberry is still at Addenbrooke’s Hospital, Cambridge. His left leg has been amputated just below the knee.”

Albert was still in his early twenties. The amputation did not keep him off the ice. There were several mild and wet winters when racing was not possible in the Fens, but in January 1887 he entered the 3 Mile Championship at Lingay Fen, Cambridge. Predictably, he was beaten in the first round. As a newspaper reported: “F. Brighton, London, beat A. Dewsberry, Oxlode. This was virtually a walk-over for the Londoner, as Dewsberry (who has a cork leg) could not hope to race. The old Fen flyer, however, went round respectably, and was rewarded with a collection”.