My colleagues in the Japanese Department recently put up an exhibition in and around the Anderson Room / AOI Pavilion, celebrating this year’s Winter Olympics. Of course this prompted me to think about music and winter sports – surely among our massive collection of Victorian songs, we must have something to celebrate winter sports; after all the Victorians loved skating. And, yes, of course we do, but it’s also a little more complicated than you might think….
Have you spotted the mistake? The skaters, who seem to be twirling on ice, are actually roller-skating their way around the Royal Aquarium. Roller skating was enormously popular in the late nineteenth century, you can tell this by the plethora of roller skating music that litters the collections: from the skaters of the Royal Aquarium to a dedication to the ladies of the Prince’s Skating Club (each one a keen roller skater). This song substantially pre-dates the Prince’s Skating Club, which was founded in 1896 in Knightsbridge – this later club (almost certainly a development of the earlier club) was the site of the first Varsity ice-hockey match in 1900. It would later become a home to elite figure skaters, and was the base for the figure skating events at the 1908 London Olympics, the only time that Winter Olympic medals were competed for in this country.
So, roller-skating outnumbers ice-skating in our Victorian song collection. We do however have a small collection of ice-skating, and other winter sports related music, some of which is rather startling.
Ice-skating seems to have engaged people across all social classes. From the upper-crust ladies, all bustles, ribbons and feathers in Les patineurs galop (A1875.272) by Oswin Bede Hemy, to the working class boys slipping and sliding in John Pridham’s A winter’s morn (item no. 15 in A1877.1012). Amongst them can be spotted two rather alarming Charlie Chaplin lookalikes, before the little tramp was even created – perhaps he had memories of Pridham’s music?
Oswin Bede Hemy’s work was dedicated to Mrs. Logan of Beanly [sic], Alnwick. Hemy was a music teacher in Hartlepool, having formerly taught music at Ushaw College, Durham. Mrs. Logan was from a prominent local family, and was a stalwart of the Primrose League. As well as an interest in politics, she was evidently a keen skater, and, as I discovered browsing through the wonderful 19th century British library newspapers (accessible with a Raven password), had an interest in natural history.
Skating wasn’t the only winter sport that interested the Victorians. Sleighing was popular. The sleigh galop (A1879.77) by W. Smallwood (the bane of many a Victorian small child’s life, as he was the author of Smallwood’s piano tutor. Much loved by piano teachers (if not their pupils), by 1881, it was already on its 170th edition!), has a rather unusual cover, which seems to be advertising a new winter sport – part skating, part sleighing, and part curling – as a kindly gentleman attempts to push his lady love across the ice.
I did wonder, though, when looking at some of this music whether there wasn’t an underlying metaphor here about the ladies who go out sleighing. It was especially striking in Edwin H. Prout’s Fete des Patineurs, where two striking skaters figure-skate their way across the ice. Somewhat alarmingly, the female skater appears to be wearing skating sandals rather than boots. A dog hurries to get out of the way of the graceful couple, while in the background a servant, who appears to have stepped out of the Arabian Nights attempts to put the lady’s cumbersome long skirt in order.
All seems well, but to the left of the picture, another man and woman are making their way slowly across the ice. These two are very different to the happy creatures at the forefront of the picture, here the man is pushing a sleigh bearing a woman who looks very unwell. Looking back at Smallwood’s Sleigh Galop, one wonders if this is perhaps not such a happy picture after all. For surely here the woman is wearing black – could she be in mourning? She is also well bundled up against the cold and the snow or rain. Perhaps that is less a loving than a solicitous look that she is receiving from the gentleman skating behind the sleigh.
There is happiness to be found in sleighing though as Sleigh Bells musical drill shows. This was just one of a set of musical drills for children to be found at 1901.11.49. Although most music does end up, rather unsurprisingly, in the Music Department, there is the odd item that finds its home somewhere completely different; for example, printed books pre-1500 will go to Rare Books, manuscript music will go to Manuscripts (though some 20th century material is with us until it is fully catalogued), and occasionally ephemera has ended up in the Tower. This is particularly true of pamphlets relating to children’s music. Sleigh Bells musical drill is a great example of this.
Featuring music by Theodore Bonheur, it has actions choreographed to the music by A. Alexander, F.R.G.S. (It does seem rather unlikely that he should be a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society, but odd as it sounds there is a link between the history of British gymnastics, and the R.G.S.).
To add further interest Alexander advises the use of an additional piece of apparatus – “The apparatus required is a small sleigh bell fastened around the hands by a broad band of elastic. A better effect is produced when bells are also fastened on to the feet or ankles.” The bells are available from the Publishers with a varying price range. There then follows a series of rather alarming physical jerks.
None however are quite as alarming as another in the drill series – Gun drill with musical accompaniments. Also by Alexander, the aspiring gym teacher is reassured “Children always take kindly to the gun drill….The gun used should be a toy wooden one (to be had from the publishers), and harmless in every way. ” Perhaps in honour of the Olympics this could be combined with sleighing or skating to make a novel version of the Biathlon?
Enjoy the Winter Olympics!