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London's Forgotten Disasters: Ice Skating Tragedy In Regent's Park

By M@ Last edited 16 months ago
London's Forgotten Disasters: Ice Skating Tragedy In Regent's Park

Continuing our series looking at the darkest chapters from the capital's history.

As London's ice skating season begins in earnest, it's apposite to remember an incident from Victorian times when fun on the ice turned to tragedy.

The date was 15 January 1867. Hundreds of pleasure seekers descended on Regent's Park to take advantage of the frozen-over lake in the south-west corner. Affluent Londoners of this period had something of a mania for ice skating, and frozen ponds and lakes would be frequently advertised in the press.

Despite warnings of thin ice, many visitors got their skates on and started taking a turn around the gelid surface.

Then, the unthinkable happened. The ice began to weaken close to the banks and eventually cracked. Around 200 skaters plunged into the frigid waters. The icy temperatures combined with heavy Victorian clothing and limited swimming ability all conspired to tragedy. Despite the best efforts of those on shore, who broke off branches and assembled ropes, there were many fatalities.

Recovering the bodies proved frustratingly difficult. The ice quickly froze over again, and channels had to be cut through. It took over a week to be certain that all the victims had been found. By then, 40 bodies had been recovered.

The disaster prompted measures to prevent similar incidents in future. The depth of the lake was reduced to 4 or 5 feet to make drowning less likely. While the authorities had learnt a valuable health and safety lesson, the public had not, and a similar accident occurred on the lake a generation later. The change of depth was all-important, and none of the 100 or so unwitting bathers suffered anything more serious than a chill.

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Image: The frozen lake in 2009 by LondonDave in the Londonist Flickr pool.

Last Updated 02 December 2015

Black Plaques

The lake was made shallow by chucking in the great piles of soil excavated from the new Underground tunnels.

James Guppy

Do you know if Central London's other Park waters were similarly shallowed off? I've often been suprised by how shallow they are relative to their size...

Julien Benney

I’ve heard that the disaster was caused in part by officials breaking up the ice for the benefit of waterfowl.

It’s possible that the ice was thinner than people thought because, although January 1867 was the coldest month of the 1860s (though every other decade up to 1895 equalled it) with a CET averaging 1.2°C or 34.3°F – and had on the 4th the third-coldest CET day on record at minus 9.3°C or 15.3°F – the rest of the winter was very mild apart from a cold snap in March. December 1866 averaged 6.1°C or 43.0°F, and February 1867 6.9°C or 44.4°F. Even January 1867 had a big thaw that reached 9°C (48.2°F) after the huge cold snap in the first week, and the water under the ice no doubt was still holding heat all along January’s second cold spell.