The oldest university in the English speaking world, Oxford's history traces back to the late eleventh century. Among its alumni are over twenty British prime ministers, kings of Norway and Jordan and fifty Nobel Prize winners. What many may not be aware of is the institution's important role in skating history.
Recorded evidence of ice skating's popularity at Oxford University dates back to the eighteenth century. John Scott, who grew up to twice serve as Great Britain's Lord Chancellor and as the first Earl of Eldon, wrote of the popularity of ice skating on Christ Church meadow in his days as a student at Oxford in his "Anecdote Book". He recalled, "I was skaiting over a part of the meadow where the ice, being infirm, broke in, and let me into a ditch, up to my neck in water. When I had scrambled out, and was dripping from the collar, and oozing from the stockings, a brandy-vender shuffled towards me and recommended a glass of something warm: upon which Edward Norton, of University College, a son of Lord Grantley, sweeping past cried out to the retailer, 'None of your brandy for that wet young man; he never drinks but when his dry.''"
By the third decade of the nineteenth century, figure skating was a popular pastime among the university's students. A student from Pembroke Street named Henry Boswell instructed other skaters in the intricacies of skating combined figures. With fellow skating enthusiasts at Oxford, he also experimented with different lengths and curves of iron blades and designed a seven inch curved club skate.
Skates inspired by Henry Boswell's design, circa 1865
Boswell commissioned a smith from Birmingham fashion four dozen pairs and distributed among the mechanics, tradesmen and college servants who comprised the Oxford Skating Society, founded in 1838. Henry Eugene Vandervell and T. Maxwell Witham, in their 1869 book "A System Of Figure-Skating: Being The Theory And Practice Of The Art As Developed In England, With A Glance At Its Origin And History" are believed to be the first to write of the Oxford Skating Society and Boswell's efforts. They recounted, "The great aim of the members of the society in combined skating was accuracy, and the attention they paid to this accounts in a great measure for the dexterity obtained. The demand for Boswell's skates was so great that the making of them was taken up by a Sheffield firm, and the improved form of iron came into general use. Mr. Boswell was not only the ingenious inventor of the skate which, so far as the iron is concerned, is the club skate of the present day, but he was also considered the best skater in the Oxford society, and, with one of the other members, was professionally engaged to skate on the artificial ice which had been moved from Baker Street to the Coliseum. It has been suggested that the germs of combined skating emanated from the efforts of this society at Oxford, and not from the London Skating Club; but with this we cannot agree, as the London Skating Club was in existence some eight years before the Oxford society, and it is reasonable to suppose that the members who formed the Skating Club were to a certain extent proficient in their art; and we find on inquiry of the now, alas! few remaining original members, that all the figures which are described in the first series were skated by the members of the Club in 1830, and that figures in combination were skated by the men who afterwards formed the Skating Club some fifteen years before that period. The Oxford society seems to have flourished during the time that Boswell was residing at Oxford; but he came to London some fourteen years ago, and from that time the society fell off, and has now, we believe, ceased to exist. We have previously stated that the names of the originators of the germs of our art are unknown to fame, and it is therefore with pleasure that we notice the name of Henry Boswell, as he is entitled to the gratitude of all figure-skaters for the careful experiments he made, and the improved form of iron which those experiments caused him to invent."
The Reverse Centre Eight And A Half, designed by Henry Boswell
Vandervell and Witham were quite correct in their assertion that the Oxford Skating Society ceased to exist. However in 1880, a second organization called the Oxford University Skating Club was formed. Montagu Sneade Monier-Williams recorded that the club's entrance test consisted of "the forward and back cross-rolls and the figures 'forward eight' and 'forward three'" and that the badge of the club's members consisted of a "model of an orange in silver-gilt engraced with the letters O.U.S.C." In 1889, "The Oxford Magazine" noted that "the annual general meeting of the Skating Club was held on Tuesday, Nov. 27 at Trinity" and that a teacher named E.F.A. Hext and a reverend named A.H. Johnson were among the officers for the coming winter. It was "hoped that in the event of a frost this winter, both the club meadow at Iffley as well as the pond at Worcester College, kindly placed at the disposal of the club by the Provost, will be available for the use of the member."
"The Cambridge Review" recorded that the Oxford University Skating Club was still in existence two years later and that its skaters expressed an interest in participating in speed skating races against skaters from Cambridge University under the auspices of the National Skating Association. A letter included in the "Review" notes that "in spite of the badness of the ice everyone has been skating all the afternoons, and some all the mornings too, the latter having the satisfaction of feeling as they cut their figures, that they are cutting their lectures." Monier-Williams' book attests to the fact that the club would have still been in existence the following year but by the dawn of the twentieth century, evidence of the club's existence is spotty at best. One thing is for certain though: Oxford University wasn't just home to brilliant minds, it was also home to dedicated and resourceful figure skaters.
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