How London Became Home To The World's First Artificial Ice Rink

By Zoe Craig Last edited 39 months ago
How London Became Home To The World's First Artificial Ice Rink
Ice skating has been popular for many, many years.

Ice skating has happened in this city for centuries; there's a description of Londoners ice skating by a monk, William Fitz-Stephen, from the 12th century.

But it wasn't until the Victorian era that the technology emerged for Londoners to skate when London's rivers and ponds weren't frozen in winter.

London's first artificial skating rink, 1841

The world's first artificial ice rink was made in London in December 1841.

But it wasn't made from frozen water: the means to freeze large amounts of liquid simply didn't exist at the time.

Instead, it was chemically produced, using a frankly bizarre combination of salts, sulphate of copper and 'hog's lard, to render it more slippery', by inventor Henry Kirk.

artificial ice is extremely convenient for engaging in the graceful and manly pastime of skating

The very small ice rink, measuring just 12ft by 6ft, was created in the most unlikeliest of places: in a seed-room in the grounds of a nursery near Dorset Square.

In summer the following year, Kirk was at it again: laying down 'a sheet of ice' at the 'Colosseum' in Regent's Park in July 1842.

According to The Times, 'the most expert skaters may be daily seen practising' there.

Both these mini-rinks were used as showcases to tempt investors into a larger, more permanent rink.

Welcome to the Glaciarium, 1844

The third rink, with 'a surface of 3,000 feet' was opened at the Baker Street Bazaar in Portman Square in 1844.

This was the wonderfully named Glaciarium, decorated with painted alpine scenery, and featuring live music to skate by, courtesy of a resident 'promenade band'.

Not ice! Wonderful phenomenon! A fantastic poster advertising the Glaciarium in 1844.

Visitors included Prince Albert and Prince Alexander of the Netherlands.

On 8 May 1844 an issue of Littell's Living Age reported that the Glaciarium opened that afternoon in a new location, on Grafton Street East (now Grafton Way) off Tottenham Court Road.

The report said, 'the area of artificial ice is extremely convenient for such as may be desirous of engaging in the graceful and manly pastime of skating.'

But later that year, London's four-year obsession with ice rinks was over. Skaters had grown tired of the 'smelly' ice substitute.

It would be another 30 years before the city welcomed a 'natural' ice rink.

The Glaciarium returns, 1876

The world's first mechanically frozen ice rink was opened by John Gamgee in a tent within a gentleman's club, just off the King's Road in Chelsea, on 7 January 1876.

John Gamgee led an interesting life. Read more about him here.

Gamgee's rink was based on a concrete surface, with layers of earth, cow hair and timber planks. On top of these were oval copper pipes carrying a solution of glycerine with ether, nitrogen peroxide and water.

The pipes were covered with water and the solution was pumped through, freezing the water into ice.

Gamgee operated the rink on a membership-only basis, attracting a wealthy clientele, experienced in open-air ice skating in the Alps.

Apparently 'several noblemen and gentlemen — members of the London Skating Club' could be seen 'skating with expressed satisfaction'.

The Glaciarium moves to King's Road

In March, the latest Glaciarium moved to a permanent venue at 379 King's Road, where a rink measuring 40ft by 24ft (12.2m by 7.3m) was established.

Gamgee installed an orchestra gallery, which could also be used by spectators, and like his predecessor Henry Kirk, decorated the walls with views of the Swiss Alps.

Interior of the Glaciarium in 1876.

But there were problems with Gamgee's system as well.

This ice was just too cold: the intense chill meant skaters had to deal with a thick mist rising off the surface of the rink.

Despite these drawbacks, Gamgee opened several similar rinks across the England, including a 115ft by 25ft 'Floating Glaciarium' at Charing Cross.

For at least a decade, this remained the only way to enjoy indoor skating in London.

It took several more decades before the technology for creating artificial ice for skating on to be perfected.

Last Updated 19 November 2020