Montagu Monier-Williams: The Doctor Who Treated Figure Skating


"It will often be noticed that good figure skaters are also easy and graceful dancers." - Montagu Monier-Williams

Born September 19, 1860 in the town of Cheltenham, England, Montagu Sneade Faithfull Monier-Williams was the fifth son of Julia Grantham, the daughter of Rev. F.J. Faithfull, a rector in Hatfield, Herts and Sir Monier Monier-Williams, K.C.I.E., a Boden Professor of Sanskrit at Oxford University. It was at Oxford where Montagu got his first taste of the joys figure skating while skating with his father. In 1892, he recalled, "I do remember learning to skate at Oxford as a small boy, and admiring my father's movements on the ice. On Christchurch meadow, or on Worcester College pond, surrounded by a ring of enthusiastic spectators several deep, he performed... with a grace and finish rarely seen at the present day. Dressed in a swallow-tail coat, the then regulation uniform of 'The Skating Club', of which he was a distinguished member, he executed difficult movements, with his hands always quietly folded behind his back, and with a perfectly upright figure, stimulating me and my brothers by his example, and helping by many a useful word of advice our early steps on the ice, which thus came more naturally and perhaps with greater ease to us than to other boys less fortunately situated."

Lewis Carroll photograph of Montagu's father, Monier Monier-Williams

Throughout his education at Winchester, Christ Church, Oxford and St. George's Hospital, Montagu became entranced in the technical side of figure skating in the English Style and in particular, the writings of Henry Eugene Vandervell. In the period between 1871 and 1881, while studying at Oxford, he and his friend Winter Randell Pidgeon joined the Oxford Skating Society and began experimenting with many of the steps Vandervell outlined in his book. Specifically, they took Vandervell's counter and reversed it in the other direction. Pidgeon called this reversal the three quarter turn, which was later renamed the reverse rocking turn. When Vandervell's rocking turn was later called the counter-rocking turn, the name rocking turn was used for the three quarter turn... which was finally called the rocker.

In 1880, Montagu qualified at the Conjoint Board, got married and settled in Onslow Gardens, a posh area in South London, where he opened a medical practice. Although his work was demanding, he continued to devote countless hours to the study of figure skating technique. He developed friendships with both Vandervell and Edgar Syers and joined the Wimbledon Skating Club. He also served as an Honorary Secretary of the Oxford Skating Skating Society and later, as Vice-President of the National Skating Association, passing all of the Association's first-class tests.

Preaching the importance of reading as much written material about figure skating and joining a skating club to anyone who would listen, it was no surprise when he published his first book on the subject in 1883. Written with his brother Stanley, "Combined Figure Skating; being a collection of all the known combined figures, systematically arranged, named in according with the revised code of 'The Skating Club' London and illustrated by 130 scaled diagrams, showing the exact method of skating each figure; together with a progressive series of alternating 'calls'" was absolutely as heavy a read as the title would suggest, but it built greatly upon the teachings of Vandervell and was widely read in its day by British figure skaters.

In 1892, Montagu teamed up with Arthur Dryden and his old friend Mr. Pidgeon to pen his second book, "Figure-Skating Simple And Combined". These books not only offer fascinating insights into the the technique of English Style figures, but they are rife with information about British skating history during that era, including insider accounts of The Skating Club, The Edinburgh Skating Club, The Glasgow Skating Club and The Wimbledon Skating Club and descriptions of of early competitions held in the English Style of combined figures and how they were judged. In "Figure-Skating Simple And Combined", Montagu expounded upon the philosophy behind English Style figures: "To be a good combined figure-skater, a man must loyally and unselfishly obey his leader, and forget any opinions he may have of his own as to how a particular figure should be skated. He should not think of his own powers, and how he can show himself to be a stronger skater than those who are skating with him, but rather do his best to adapt his skating as accurately as he can to that of his fellows, who may possibly be his inferiors, co-operating with them unceasingly." This philosophy, in a different context, would certainly apply in the context of synchronized skating and even ensemble work today.

In her wonderful 1992 book "Figure Skating History: The Evolution Of Dance On The Ice", Lynn Copley-Graves made a fascinating and apt connection between combined figures described by Montagu in his second book and the early origins of pairs skating and ice dancing (ie. dance steps): "In 1892 Monier-Williams, Pidgeon and Arthur Dryden published their second textbook, 'Figure-Skating Simple And Combined', again including brackets, rockers, counters, mohawks and choctaws. Thus the repertoire of turns was complete, and Monier-Williams et al. (1892) described their use as dance steps. For example, they described a side-by-side, hand-in-hand mohawk scud, an early dance step. For every Mercury scud, the most popular of the united progressive scuds, they recommended great speed. In doing it, the forward skater steered as the partners skated threes around each other, alternating the feet on which the threes were turned, i.e. a waltz if set to music! Other scuds such as the Q scuds (with a three and change of edge) and forward and back rocker scuds offered diversity. Monier-Williams et al., described these movements in which 'the skaters start face to face and dance over the ice by semi-circling round each other, first in one direction and then in another, with a freedom of movement and dash in execution.' They believed 'united figures' (ie. hand-in-hand figures) to be of an earlier origin than combined figures where the participants are in touch 'in a figurative sense only'. If united figures did evolve earlier, they did not become popular until the end of the 1800's, when united progressive figures almost eliminated the practice of individual figures."


In 1898, Montagu published a third volume on skating for the Isthmian Library and wrote a definition of figure skating for the Encyclopaedia Of Sport. It was also during this period that he designed the Monier-Williams Skate. Although he remained active as both an administrator and skater, the stories of his later years off the ice are perhaps even more interesting than his extensive contributions to the development of English Style skating.

According to the July 25, 1931 issue of the British Medical Journal, "He took an active interest in carrying out in London the methods of Émile Coué [de la Châtaigneraie], whom he visited at Nancy, where the new therapeutic treatment by auto-suggestion had superseded the hypnotic suggestion practised by [Ambroise-Auguste] Liébeault and H. Bernheim in the last quarter of the last century. He induced Coué to come to England to demonstrate his methods gratuitously, was physician to the Chelsea Clinic of Psychical Education, and had an auto-suggestion clinic free to the poor in King's Road, Chelsea." Perhaps he used his skill in auto-suggestion to make his colleagues buy his pseudonym. An accomplished croquet player, he competed in a number of matches under the name - wait for it - A.S. Kator.

Sadly, in 1925 his wife passed away after a long illness. He remarried to Cicely H. Baden-Powell, the widow of Henry Warington Baden-Powell in 1927 in Kensington and retired that same year to the artistic commune in Collioure in the Pyrénées-Orientales in the South Of France, which at one time or another was haven to some of the worlds greatest artists; people like Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso. Instead of skating grapevines, he took an interest in his later years in growing grapevines. Montagu passed away on July 4, 1931, leaving behind his second wife and many admirers both in the medical and skating communities. At the time of his death, his colleague Dr. E.L.B. Wilkes (who knew him for sixty years) remembered him as "a modest and upright gentleman [who] leaves many friends." Like or loathe the stiff English Style, the development of combined figure skating plays an enormous role in the history and development of the sport and Montagu Monier-Williams was one of its biggest champions.

Skate Guard is a blog dedicated to preserving the rich, colourful and fascinating history of figure skating and archives hundreds of compelling features and interviews in a searchable format for readers worldwide. Though there never has been nor will there be a charge for access to these resources, you taking the time to 'like' on the blog's Facebook page at http://www.facebook.com/SkateGuard would be so very much appreciated. Already 'liking'? Consider sharing this feature for others via social media. It would make all the difference in the blog reaching a wider audience. Have a question or comment regarding anything you have read here or have a suggestion for a topic related to figure skating history you would like to see covered? I'd love to hear from you! Learn the many ways you can reach out at http://skateguard1.blogspot.ca/p/contact.html.