#Unearthed: Skating In The Back Country

When you dig through skating history, you never know what you will unearth. In the spirit of cataloguing fascinating tales from skating history, #Unearthed is a once a month 'special occasion' on Skate Guard where fascinating writings by others that are of interest to skating history duff are excavated, dusted off and shared for your reading pleasure. From forgotten fiction to long lost interviews to tales that have never been shared publicly, each #Unearthed is a fascinating journey through time.

Mary Anne Barker's life cannot have been easy. Born in Spanish Town, Jamaica in 1831, she was widowed in her early thirties and forced to leave two children in England when she remarried and moved to New Zealand. While living halfway across the world, a third child died in infancy and her farm failed. Returning to England, she became a prolific journalist and author, writing everything from poetry to cookbooks. Later in life, her husband's work saw her living in Africa, Australia and The Caribbean.

An interesting and overlooked footnote in her compelling life story is the fact that she in fact wrote a widely read account of ice skating in New Zealand... in the nineteenth century. Published in her 1873 book "Station Amusements In New Zealand", her memoir "Skating In The Back Country" referred to the popularity of summer ice skating on Lake Ida in Canterbury, New Zealand. It is unique, charming and speaks to a passion for skating as a pastime in a time and place that we so little get to read about. Now in the public domain, I am sharing Barker's lengthy account below in its entirety.


Mary Anne Barker

I do not believe that even in Canada the skating can be better than that which was within our reach in the Malvern Hills. Among our sheltered valleys and sunny slopes the hardest frost only lasted few hours after dawn; but twenty-five miles further back, on the border of the glacier region, the mountain tarns could boast of ice several feet thick all the winter. We heard rumours of far inland lakes, across which heavily-laden bullock teams could pass in perfect safety for three months of the year, and we grumbled at the light film over our own large ponds, which would not bear even my little terrier's weight after mid-day: and yet it was cold enough at night, during our short bright winters, to satisfy the most icy-minded person.

I think I have mentioned before that the wooden houses in New Zealand, especially those roughly put together up-country, are by no means weather tight. Disagreeable as this may be, it is doubtless the reason of the extraordinary immunity from colds and coughs which we hill-dwellers enjoyed. Living between walls formed by inch-boards overlapping each other, and which can only be made to resemble English rooms by being canvassed and papered inside, the pure fresh air finds its way in on all sides. hot room in winter is an impossibility, in spite of drawn curtains and blazing fires, therefore, the risk of sudden changes of temperature is avoided.

Some such theory as this is absolutely necessary to account for the wonderfully good health enjoyed.
by all, in the most capricious and trying climate have ever come across. When strong nor’-wester.
was howling down the glen, have seen the pictures on my drawing-room walls blowing out to an angle of 45°, although every door and window in the little low wooden structure had been carefully
closed for hours. It has happened to me more than once, on getting up in the morning, to find
my clothes, which had been laid on chair beneath my bedroom window overnight, completely covered by powdered snow, drifting in through the ill fitting casement. This same window was within
couple of feet of my bed, and between me and it was neither curtain nor shelter of any sort. Of
winter's evening have often been obliged to wrap myself up in big Scotch maud, as sat, dressed
in high linsey gown, by blazing fire, so hard was the frost outside; but by ten o'clock next
morning would be loitering about the verandah, basking in the sunshine, and watching the light
flecks of cloud-wreaths and veils floating against an Italian-blue sky. Yet such is the inherent dis
content of the human heart, that instead of rejoicing in this lovely mid-day sunshine, we actually
mourned over the vanished ice which at daylight had been found, by much-envied early riser,
strong enough to slide on for half an hour. It seemed almost impossible to believe that any one
had been sliding that morning within few feet of where sat working in blaze of sunshine, with
my pretty grey and pink Australian parrot pluming itself on the branch of silver wattle close by, and
'Joey,' the tiny monkey from Panama, sitting on the skirt of my gown, with piece of its folds
arranged by himself shawl-wise over his glossy black shoulders. If either of these tropical pets had been left out after four o’clock that sunny day, they would have been frozen to death before our supper

It was just on such day as this, and in just such bright mid-day hour, that distant neighbour of ours rode up to the garden gate, leading pack horse. Outside the saddle-bags, with which this animal was somewhat heavily laden, could be plainly seen beautiful new pair of Oxford skates, glinting in the sunshine; and it must have been the sight of these beloved implements which called forth the half-envious remark from one of the gentlemen, "I suppose you have lots of skating up at your place?"  "Well, not exactly at my station, but there is a capital lake ten miles from my house where am sure of good day's skating any time between June and August," answered Mr. C. H——, our newly
arrived guest.

We all looked at each other. believe heaved deep sigh, and dropped my thimble, which 'Joey' instantly seized, and with low chirrup of intense delight, commenced to poke down between the boards of the verandah. It was too bad of us to give such broad hints by looks if not by words. Poor Mr. C. H—— was bachelor in those days: he had not been at his little out-of-the-way homestead for some weeks, and was ignorant of its resources in the way of firing (always an important matter at station), or even of tea and mutton. He had no woman-servant, and was totally unprepared for an incursion of skaters; and yet, —New Zealand fashion, no sooner did he perceive that we were all longing and pining for some skating, than he invited us all most cordially to go up to his back-country run the very next day, with him, and skate as long as we liked. This was indeed a delightful prospect, the more especially as it happened to be only Monday, which gave us plenty of time to be back again by Sunday, for our weekly service. We made it rule never to be away from home on that day, lest any of our distant congregation should ride their twenty miles or so across country and find us absent.

When the host is willing and the guests eager, it does not take long to arrange plan; so the next
morning found three of us, besides Mr. C. H——, mounted and ready to start directly after breakfast.
have often been asked how managed in those days about toilette arrangements, when it was impossible to carry any luggage except small "swag," closely packed in waterproof case and fastened on the same side as the saddle-pocket. First of all must assure my lady readers that prided myself on turning out as neat and natty as possible at the end of the journey, and yet rode not only in my every-day linsey gown, which could be made long or short at pleasure, but in my crinoline. This was artfully looped up on the right side and tied by ribbon, in such way that when came out ready dressed to mount, no one in the world could have guessed that had on any cage beneath my short riding habit with loose tweed jacket over the body of the dress. Within the "swag" was stowed brush and comb, collar, cuffs and handkerchiefs, little necessary linen, pair of shoes, and perhaps ribbon for my hair if meant to be
very smart. On this occasion we all found that our skates occupied terribly large proportion both of
weight and space in our modest kits, but still we were much too happy to grumble.

Where could you find a gayer quartette than started at an easy canter up the valley that fresh
bracing morning? From the very first our faces were turned to the south-west, and before us rose
the magnificent chain of the Southern Alps, with their bold snowy peaks standing out in glorious
dazzle against the cobalt sky. stranger, or colonially speaking, “new chum,” would have thought we must needs cross that barrier-range before we could penetrate any distance into the back country, but we knew of long winding vallies and gullies running up between the giant slopes, which would lead us, almost without our knowing how high we had climbed, up to the elevated but sheltered plateau among the back country ranges where Mr. C. H——'s homestead stood. There was only one steep saddle to be crossed, and that lay between us and Rockwood, six miles off. It was the worst part of the journey for the horses, so we had easy consciences in dismounting and waiting an hour when we reached that most charming and hospitable of houses. had just time for one turn round the beautiful garden, where the flowers and shrubs of old England grew side by side with the wild and lovely blossoms of our new island home, when the expected coo-eee rang out shrill and clear from the rose-covered porch.

It was but little past mid day when we made our second start, and set seriously to work over fifteen miles of fairly good galloping ground. This distance brought us well up to the foot of high range, and the last six miles of the journey had to be accomplished in single file, and with great care and discretion, for the track led through bleak desolate vallies, round the shoulder of abutting spurs, through swamps, and up and down rocky staircases. Mr. C. H–— and his cob both knew the way well however, and my bay mare Helen had the cleverest legs and the wisest as well as prettiest head of her race. If left to herself she seldom made mistake, and the few tumbles she and ever had together, took place only when she found herself obliged to go my way instead of her own. We entered the gorges of the high mountains between us and the west, and soon lost the sun; even the brief winter twilight faded away more swiftly than usual amid those dark defiles; and it was pitch dark, though only five o'clock, when we heard sudden and welcome clamour of dog voices.

These deep-mouthed tones invariably constitute the first notes of sheep-station's welcome; and
delightful sound it is to the belated and bewildered traveller, for besides guiding his horse to the right
spot, the noise serves to bring out some one to see who the traveller may be. On this occasion we
heard one man say to the other, "It’s the boss:" so almost before we had time to dismount from our
tired horses (remember they had each carried heavy "swag" besides their riders), lights gleamed
from the windows of the little house, and wood fire sparkled and sputtered on the open hearth. Mr.
C. H–– only just guided me to the door of the sitting-room, making an apology and injunction to
gether, — "It’s very rough am afraid; but you can do what you like;"—before he hastened back to
assist his guests in settling their horses comfortably for the night. Labour used to be so dear and
wages so high, especially in the back country of New Zealand, that the couple of men - one for indoor work, to saw wood, milk, cook, sweep, wash, etc. and the other to act as gardener, groom, ploughman, and do all the numerous odd jobs about a place a hundred miles and more from the nearest shop, represented wage-expenditure of at least £200 year. Every gentleman therefore as matter of course sees to his own horse when he arrives unexpectedly at station, and I knew I should have at least half an hour to myself.

The first thing to do was to let down my crinoline, for I could only walk like a crab in it when
it was fastened up for riding, kilt up my linsey gown, take off my hat and jacket, and set to work.
The curtains must be drawn close, and the chairs moved out from their symmetrical positions against
the wall; then made an expedition into the kitchen, and won the heart of the stalwart cook, who
was already frying chops over the fire, by saying in my best German, "I have come to help you with
the tea." Poor man! it was very unfair, for Mr. C. H—— had told me during our ride that his
servitor was German, and had employed the last long hour of the journey in rubbing up my exceedingly rusty knowledge of that language, and arranging one or two effective sentences. Poor Karl's surprise and delight knew no bounds, and he burst forth into long monologue, to which I could find no readier answers than smiles and nods, hiding my inability to follow up my brilliant beginning under the pretence of being very busy. By the time the gentlemen had stabled and fed the horses and were ready, Karl and between us had arranged bright cosy little apartment with capital tea-dinner on
the table. After this meal there were pipes and toddy, and as I could not retire, like Mrs. Micawber
at David Copperfield's supper party, into the adjoining bed-room and sit by myself in the cold,
made the best of the somewhat dense clouds of smoke with which was soon surrounded, and
listened to the fragmentary plans for the next day. Then we all separated for the night, and in two
minutes was fast asleep in little room no bigger than the cabin of ship, with an opossum rug on
sofa for my bed and bedding.

It was cold enough the next morning, I assure you: so cold that it was difficult to believe the
statement that all the gentlemen had been down at daybreak to bathe in the great lake which spread
like an inland sea before the bay-window of the little sitting-room. This lake, the largest of the
mountain chain, never freezes, on account partly of its great depth, and also because of its sunny aspect. Our destination lay far inland, and if we meant to have good long day's skating we must start at once. Such perfect day as it was! I felt half inclined to beg off the first day on the ice, and to
spend my morning wandering along the rata-fringed shores of Lake Coleridge, with its glorious enclosing of hills which might fairly be called mountains; but feared to seem capricious or lazy, when really my only difficulty was in selecting pleasure. The sun had climbed well over the high barriers which lay eastwards, and was shining brightly down through the quivering blue ether overhead; the frost sparkled on every broad flax-blade or slender tussock-spine, as if the silver side of earth were turned outwards that winter morning.

No sooner had we mounted (with no "swag" except our skates this time) than Mr. C. H - set
spurs to his horse, and bounded over the slip-rail of the paddock before Karl could get it down. We
were too primitive for gates in those parts: they only belonged to the civilization nearer Christchurch;
and had much ado to prevent my pony from following his lead, especially as the other gentlemen
were only too delighted to get rid of some of their high spirits by jump. However Karl got the top
rail down for me, and “Mouse” hopped over the lower one gaily, overtaking the leader of the ex
pedition in very few strides. We could not keep up our rapid pace long, for the ground became
terribly broken and cut up by swamps, quicksands, blind creeks, and all sorts of snares and pit-falls.
Every moment added to the desolate grandeur of the scene. Bleak hills rose up on either hand, with
still bleaker and higher peaks appearing beyond them again. An awful silence, unbroken by the
familiar cheerful sound of the sheep calling to each other - for even the hardy merino cannot live in
these ranges during the winter months, It brooded around us, and the dark mass of splendid "bush,"
extending over many hundred acres, only added to the lonely grandeur of the scene. We rode almost
the whole time in deep cold shade, for between us and the warm sun-rays were such lofty mountains that it was only for few brief noontide moments he could peep over their steep sides.

General view of Lake Ida, with skaters on the ice. New Zealand Free Lance : Photographic prints and negatives. Ref: PAColl-8602-04. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. Used with permission.

After two hours' riding, at the best pace which we could keep up through these terrible gorges,
sharp turn of the track brought us full in view of our destination. can never forget that first glimpse
of Lake Ida. In the cleft of huge, gaunt, barehill, divided as if by giant hand, by large black
sheet of ice. No ray of sunshine ever struck it from autumn until spring, and it seemed impossible
to imagine our venturing to skate merrily in such sombre looking spot. But New Zealand sheep far
mers are not sentimental am afraid. Beyond rapid thought of self-congratulation that such "cold
country" was not on their run, they did not feel affected by its eternal silence and gloom. The ice
would bear, and what more could a skater's heart desire? At the end of the dark tarn, nearest to the
track by which we had approached it, stood neat little hut, and judge of my amazement when, as we
rode up to it, young gentleman, looking as if he was just going out for day's deer-stalking, opened
the low door and came out to greet us. Yes, here was one of those strange anomalies peculiar to the
colonies. young man, fresh from his University, of refined tastes and cultivated intellect, was leading here the life of boor, without companionship or appreciation of any sort. His "mate" seemed to be a rough West countryman, honest and well meaning enough, but utterly unsuited to Mr. K——.

It was the old story, of wild unpractical ideas hastily carried out. Mr. K—— had arrived in New
Zealand couple of years before, with all his worldly wealth, 81,000. Finding this would not
go very far in the purchase of good sheep-run,and hearing some calculations about the profit to
be derived from breeding cattle, based upon somebody's lucky speculation, he eagerly caught at one
of the many offers showered upon unfortunate "new chums," and bought the worst and bleakest
bit of one of the worst and bleakest runs in the province. The remainder of his money was laid out
in purchasing stock; and now he had sat down patiently to await, in his little hut, until such time
as his brilliant expectations would be realized. I may say here they became fainter and fainter year
by year, and at last faded away altogether; leaving him at the end of three lonely, dreadful years with
exactly half his capital, but double his experience.

However, this has nothing to do with my story, except that can never think of our skating expedition to that lonely lake, far back among those terrible hills, without thrill of compassion for the
only living human being who dwelt among them. It was too cold to dawdle about, however, that
day. The frost lay white and hard upon the ground, and we felt that we were cruel in leaving our poor
horses standing to get chilled whilst we amused ourselves. Although my beloved Helen was not
there, having been exchanged for the day in favour of Master Mouse, shaggy pony, whose paces were
as rough as its coat, begged red blanket from Mr. K——, and covered up Helen's stable companion, whose sleek skin spoke of milder temperature than that on Lake Ida’s “gloomy shore.” Our simple arrangements were soon made. Mr. left directions to his mate to prepare repast consisting of tea, bread, and mutton for us, and, each carrying our skates, we made the best of our way across the frozen tussocks to the lake.

Mr. K—— proved an admirable guide over its surface, for he was in the habit during the winter of getting all his firewood out of the opposite "bush," and bringing it across the lake on sledges drawn by bullocks.We accused him of having cut up our ice dreadfully by these means; but he took us to part of the vast expanse where an unbroken field of at least ten acres of ice stretched smoothly before us. Here were no boards marked “DANGEROUS,” nor any intimation of the depth of water beneath. The most timid person could feel no apprehension on ice which seemed more solid than the earth; so
accordingly in few moments we had buckled and strapped on our skates, and were skimming and
gliding - and I must add, falling - in all directions. We were very much out of practice at first, except
Mr. K——, who skated every day, taking shortcuts across the lake to track stray heifer or explore
blind gully.

Whites Aviation photograph of skaters on Lake Tekapo circa 1950. Photo courtesy
The National Library Of New Zealand.

I despair of making my readers see the scene as saw it, or of conveying any adequate idea of the intense, the appalling loneliness of the spot. It really seemed to me as if our voices and laughter,
so far from breaking the deep eternal silence, only brought it out into stronger relief. On either hand
rose up, shear from the water's edge, great, barren, shingly mountain; before us loomed dark pine
forest, whose black shadows crept up until they merged in the deep crevasses and fissures of the
Snowy Range. Behind us stretched the winding gullies by which we had climbed to this mountain
tarn, and Mr. K——’s little hut and scrap of garden and paddock gave the one touch of life, or
possibility of life, to this desolate region. In spite of all scenic wet blankets we tried hard to be gay,
and no one but myself would acknowledge that we found the lonely grandeur of our "rink" too much
for us. We skated away perseveringly until we were both tired and hungry, when we returned to
Mr. K——'s hut, took hasty meal, and mounted our chilled steeds. Mr. C. H–– insisted on bringing poor Mr. K—— back with us, though he was somewhat reluctant to come, alleging that a few days spent in the society of his kind made the solitude of his weather-board hut all the more dreary.

The next day and yet the next we returned to our gloomy skating ground, and when I turned round in my saddle as we rode away on Friday evening, for a last look at Lake Ida lying behind us in her winter black numbness, her aspect seemed more forbidding than ever, for only the bare steep hill-sides could be seen; the pine forest and white distant mountains were all blotted and blurred out of sight by a heavy pall of cloud creeping slowly up.

"Let us ride fast," cried Mr. K——, "or we shall have a sou'-wester upon us," so we galloped home as quickly as we could, over ground that I don't really believe could summon courage to walk across, ever so slowly, today - but then one's nerves and courage are in very different order out in New Zealand to the low standard which rules for ladies in England, who "live at home in ease!" Long before we reached home the storm was pelting us: my little jacket was like white board when I took it off, for the sleet and snow had frozen as it fell. was wet to the skin, and so numb with cold could hardly stand when we reached home at last in the dark and down-pour. could only get my things very imperfectly dried, and had to manage as best could, but yet no one even thought of making the inquiry next morning when came out to breakfast, "Have you caught cold?" It would have a seemed ridiculous question.

Skate Guard is a blog dedicated to preserving the rich, colourful and fascinating history of figure skating. Over ten years, the blog has featured over a thousand free articles covering all aspects of the sport's history, as well as four compelling in-depth features. To read the latest articles, follow the blog on FacebookTwitterPinterest and YouTube. If you enjoy Skate Guard, please show your support for this archive by ordering a copy of the figure skating reference books "The Almanac of Canadian Figure Skating", "Technical Merit: A History of Figure Skating Jumps" and "A Bibliography of Figure Skating": https://skateguard1.blogspot.com/p/buy-book.html.

Sister Knows Best: The Raymonde du Bief Story

"The year that I first started to skate, my sister Raymonde was already a 'starlet', a kind of enfant terrible, and wherever I went I was always known as Raymonde's little sister. It took me many years before I was known simply as Jacqueline." - Jacqueline du Bief, "Thin Ice", 1956

"Hello, it's me. I was wondering if after all these years you'd like to meet..." No, I'm not about to break into an Adele song. I'm just preparing to introduce you to one of the most eclectic French skaters I've encountered while sifting through skating's equally eclectic history. I touched on Raymonde du Bief ever so briefly in the biographical sketch of her younger sister, who is of course 1952 World Champion Jacqueline du Bief. However, I think you'll soon realize why I wanted to give Raymonde her own chance to glisten in the Skate Guard spotlight.

Born in 1926 in Paris, France, Raymonde was eight when she first took to the ice with her younger sister. Though she showed promise while hustling around the ice on the city's frozen lakes, she opted to delay formal instruction in skating until she had studied ballet, believing the two went hand in hand. After becoming proficient at the bar, she came up with the idea of using ballet slippers on ice skates in place of the high laced boots fashionable at the time. Interviewed for an April 15, 1953 publicity piece with The Associated Press, du Bief explained that though it seemed "an almost unbelievable idea due to the fact that in skating the ankles need the added support... [she] had developed her ankles to a point where they did not require the support most skaters need. After finding a manufacturer who could make such a pair of skates and ballet slippers, [I] took to the ice."

Already you can gain a sense of the fact that Raymonde's path was certainly unconventional, but that's just the tip of the iceberg. When she wasn't honing her craft on her ballet slipper skates, she was racing around the rink on speed skates. In January 1937, she won the French women's speed skating title in Superbagnères, beating the French record for five hundred metres. That same year, she was also the French junior women's figure skating champion.

Raymonde's big break came in 1938, when she turned professional at the age of twelve and appeared at the historic Théâtre Mogador in Mitty Goldin's play "La féerie blanche". In the second act, an ice floor was unveiled and there was Raymonde, performing a foxtrot on ice - in HOCKEY skates - alongside the brilliant Belita Jepson-Turner. The January 9, 1938 issue of "Le Matin: derniers télégrammes de la nuit" described her as a "a charming vision of fantasy whose prowess remains an elegant and perfect art." The January 15, 1938 issue of "Le Monde illustré, Miroir du monde" noted that her performance of was "more than remarkable."

Raymonde was doing things that female (let alone male) figure skaters simply didn't do at the time and the people of Paris were eating her innovative approach right up. She continued to entertain the people of France during the bleak years of World War II. Jeanine Hagnauer, in her 1968 book "Patinage sur glace : historique", wrote "During these war years, many sought [to be like] Raymonde. [Not interested in] the classic skating, she created a personal style full of charm. Those who saw her number in tails and top hat, cane in hand, keep [it as] an unalterable memory."

After surviving the Nazi occupation of Paris and World War II, Raymonde headed to Jolly Old England, where she skated in the Tom Arnold ice pantomimes. In 1948, she appeared in Richard Pottier's film "L'aventure commence demain" alongside Isa Miranda, Raymond Rouleau and André Luguet. This film appearance sparked contracts for appearances in France, Belgium, Germany and Sweden. She toured with the Continental Ice Revue and Scala Eisrevue and in 1949 penned the instructional figure skating book "Le Patinage, Sport d'Élite", which was published by Vigot Frères.

With her book came considerable attention and invitations to perform overseas in North America. She toured first with Ice Capades and then with John H. Harris' Ice Cycles (Canada and U.S. tour) alongside Margaret Field and Jimmy Lawrence, Marshall Garrett and Bob and June Ballard. Her appearances in the "Gypsy Gold" and "Birds Of A Feather" acts drew tremendous praise from audiences in Canada and the United States.

In 1953, she returned to live on rue de l'Abbé-Groult in Paris' Javel quarter and for a time, starred in her own travelling French ice revue called Paris On Ice. By the later fifties, she turned her attention to coaching. In 1973, shhe worked with a young blind speed skater who was competing in the first International Winter Games For The Handicapped, a precursor to the Winter Paralympic Games, which was held in Courchevel.

The supporting characters in other people's stories often don't get the recognition they are absolutely due but Raymonde du Bief's insistence that dance come first and skating come second and her pursuit of performance art over point tallying offer what I think are two important lessons many skaters could still learn from today. I don't know about you, but I'll always have a place in my heart for skaters who do things on their own terms and Raymonde du Bief was absolutely one of those skaters.

Skate Guard is a blog dedicated to preserving the rich, colourful and fascinating history of figure skating. Over ten years, the blog has featured over a thousand free articles covering all aspects of the sport's history, as well as four compelling in-depth features. To read the latest articles, follow the blog on FacebookTwitterPinterest and YouTube. If you enjoy Skate Guard, please show your support for this archive by ordering a copy of the figure skating reference books "The Almanac of Canadian Figure Skating", "Technical Merit: A History of Figure Skating Jumps" and "A Bibliography of Figure Skating": https://skateguard1.blogspot.com/p/buy-book.html.

A Sensation From Skövde: The Henning Grenander Story

"Grenander, though not the most accurate, is quite the most graceful skater I have seen, the effect of his manner of carrying the unemployed leg far away from the body, the toe always pointing downward and outward, the unemployed knee only slightly bent... the arms carried so as to assist the movement as much as possible, but always presenting a perfectly harmonious effect. As may be gathered from this description, Grenander is essentially a poseur in skating; but his attitude is always graceful, and his wonderful command of body and limb can only be the result of a long course of gymnastic training; in which the Swedes excel, and which no doubt tended to the evolution of their characteristic style." - Edgar Syers, "The Badminton Magazine Of Sports And Pastimes", January 1899

The son of Alfred and Julia (Hvalström) Grenander, Henning Gunnar Esaias Grenander was born August 4, 1873 in Skövde, Västergötland, Sweden. His father was a banker and he was one of seven siblings. He got his start on the ice as a school boy in Skaraborg. "At my school skating was actually made compulsory. We had to go to a neighbouring rink two or three times a week for the purpose of practicing." he recalled in "The Boy's Old Annual". By the age of fourteen, he won a school competition in skating in Stockholm, which according to "Sketch: A Journal of Art and Actuality, Volume 33", he followed up with wins at junior competitions in several Swedish towns. Two years later at age sixteen, he was considered age eligible to compete against 'the big boys' in the senior ranks.

Left: Henning Grenander and The Duchess Of Bedford. Right: Henning Grenander and Ragnhild Nissen.

Though he represented the Stockholms Allmanna Skridskoklubb when he started competing
internationally, Henning's considerable talent led to an invitation to train at Prince's Skating Club in Montpelier Square, London as a protege of The Duchess Of Bedford, who was an early advocate in England for skaters practicing the Continental Style. He first gained attention internationally when he appeared at the controversially judged 1893 European Championships in Berlin as a twenty year old then disappeared from the competitive arena for five years... but disappear from the ice he did not.

Henning was known as one of the finest skaters in the Continental Style of his era and particularly so as an excellent free skater with much flexibility and grace. He wore pointed skates and included spirals in his free skating program, which was the exception and not the norm at the time. In his 1930 book "Modern Figure Skating", T.D. Richardson noted that "Mr. Henning Grenander used to make a very beautiful figure out of them, and at his speed, it is difficult to conceive any one footed movement more attractive, particularly when used in conjunction with toe spins or loops." Although best remembered as an exemplary free skater, his school figures were far from shoddy. Montagu Sneade Monier-Williams wrote in 1900 of Henning: "He is certainly the finest performer of loops I ever saw." Speaking of loops, ISU historian Benjamin T. Wright noted, "Grenander was known for his prowess in free skating and there had been a long held belief that he was the first to perform a double jump (the loop, but not in competition)."

In 1896, Henning demonstrated the Continental Style at the National Skating Palace in London and was given an honorary lifetime membership to the National Skating Association. Two years later, he returned to the National Skating Palace and won the World title, defeating two previous World Champions and earning both admirers and detractors. Though practitioners of the English Style abhorred his style of skating, Henning's graceful free skating sparked a whole era of copycats in both England and Continental Europe. British skater Arthur Cumming literally followed him around like a puppy at Prince's and attempted to copy his every move. Henning, in turn, was one of the judges who helped Cumming win the silver medal in the special figures event at the 1908 Summer Olympic Games in London.

Henning Grenander's special figures, circa 1892

Captain T.D. Richardson noted, "Everyone, with of course varying degrees of success, tried hard to emulate the wonderful style of the graceful young athlete Grenander: in fact I think one is justified in saying that his extempore demonstrations on Sunday afternoon, when quite spontaneously, all the skaters would clear a large space in the middle of the rink and, no matter who was giving the usual formal exhibition, Henning would signal to the orchestra, which would perform quietly some waltz or mazurka or other piece, and he would play about just as the mood and the music made him. There was no set programme, and what is more there was no jealousy or annoyance by the advertised exhibitioners none that I ever heard."

Henning remained in London and divided his time between giving Swedish massages, studying medicine at St. George's University and teaching at the Prince's Skating Club. He was rather popular with the ladies too. Aristocrat Sydney Freeman-Mitford, The Baroness Redesdale wrote in her diary of her affection for her skating instructor: "I would do almost anything he asked me. I would let him call me Sydney, I would even let him kiss me." We don't know if The Baroness ever got to play tonsil hockey with the Swedish masseur, but it wasn't long before he was off the market. 

Henning met his wife Isabella Wilson on - of all places - the ice. They tied the knot on November 21, 1901 in Marylebone, London at the Parish Church of All Saints Margaret Street. Seven years later, they entered the waltzing competition at the British Championships, narrowly losing out on the first prize presented by the Duchess of Bedford to Miss Wilkinson and Mr. C.M.G. Howell.

Top: Engraving of Henning Grenander skating before the Prince Of Wales in 1898. Bottom: Henning Grenander showing off a back edge in Switzerland.

The Grenander's wintered at the popular skating resorts in St. Moritz. Harry Stone, the author of "Ski Joy: The Story of Winter Sports" recalled the couple's visits to the Swiss skating resorts thusly: "Very good looking, (Henning) would simply idle around the rink. Suddenly, apparently just as the mood took him, he would break into a dazzling display of world competition standard, for he had been world champion in 1898 and had given the first exhibition of the Continental style in London. After attracting quite a crowd, he would just as suddenly break off and start skating ordinarily as though he was quite another person. His wife owned the famous dress shop Lucille. So she was not given to wearing black tights but a multitude of different coloured petticoats which frothed as she whirled round the rink."

T.H. Deane of Knightsbridge, London manufactured 'The Grenander', a design of round toed iron skate popularized by the Swedish star. Henning continued to command attention on the ice well into his forties, partnering two time World Pairs Champion Phyllis (Squire) Johnson in Valsing competitions at Prince's Skating Club, passing the Gold Figure Test of the National Skating Association and teaching at Grosvenor House.

Even after the Great War, skaters were still emulating Henning's style... or being taught by coaches who did. Although often overshadowed by his Swedish successors Ulrich Salchow and Gillis Grafström, he has been largely ignored in modern accounts of figure skating history largely because he really didn't enter many competitions... which is unfortunately often the measure of one's true impact on the sport.

Surviving two World Wars, Henning passed away on March 11, 1958 at the age of eighty four. At the time of his death, he was retired and living at the Ashley Court Hotel in Torquay, England. How incredible it must have been for him to see free skating develop as it did and how unfortunate it is today that his influence hasn't been the credit it duly deserves.

Skate Guard is a blog dedicated to preserving the rich, colourful and fascinating history of figure skating. Over ten years, the blog has featured over a thousand free articles covering all aspects of the sport's history, as well as four compelling in-depth features. To read the latest articles, follow the blog on FacebookTwitterPinterest and YouTube. If you enjoy Skate Guard, please show your support for this archive by ordering a copy of figure skating reference books "The Almanac of Canadian Figure Skating", "Technical Merit: A History of Figure Skating Jumps" and "A Bibliography of Figure Skating": https://skateguard1.blogspot.com/p/buy-book.html.

The 1932 Winter Olympic Games

Franklin Delano Roosevelt officially opening the 1932 Winter Olympic Games

The 1932 Winter Olympic Games in Lake Placid, New York were really a prime example of something coming together marvellously at the eleventh hour. Construction of venues in what was then only a village of less than three thousand began only two years before the Winter Games made their first trip to North America. However, just a few days before the Games began, the village had no snow. It wasn't until February 3, 1932 that the sky opened up and a blizzard blanketed the ground just in time for the opening ceremonies of the Games the very next day.

American stamp designed in conjunction with the Lake Placid Games

Three hundred and sixty four athletes from seventeen countries were in attendance and although the figure skating competitions in New York were held decades before Olympic coverage was televised, America and the world were transfixed on the newly built two thousand seat indoor arena and every figure, step and spin performed on the ice surface that February.

The excitement on the ice all really started the month before. Many figure skaters from outside of the U.S. came to the country on passenger liners by way of New York, where they performed exhibitions before heading to Lake Placid in mid-January. As they arrived to practice in the newly completed indoor rink, audiences - and judges - were already filling the seats. The Official Olympic Report of the Games compiled by George M. Lattimer notes that "afternoon and evening during this pre-Olympic period the huge building was thronged with spectators. They were entranced with the grace, artistry, and ease with which the ranking ice stars executed the difficult figures."

Gillis Grafström and Karl Schäfer in Lake Placid

In the March 1932 edition of "Skating" magazine, Joel Liberman (the referee of the men's event) noted that defending Olympic Gold Medallist "Gillis Grafström immediately upon his arrival exhibited his Tango, Waltz and Swedish Mazurka, all containing skating moves definitely composed and adapted to a set piece of music." Another defending Olympic Champion, Norwegian Sonja Henie, established herself as something of a media darling with the American press. She also got hit on at the Cellar A.C. (athletic club) bar at the Belmont Hotel (where scotch was only fifty cents) by a newsman from Park Avenue. Her father and manager Wilhelm 'Papa' Henie sent him running.

Clipping featuring Sonja Henie, Megan Taylor and Yvonne de Ligne

The figure skating events began on February 8, 1932 with the men's compulsory figures. Three-time Olympic Gold Medallist Grafström looked unbeatable on paper as the three time and defending Olympic Champion. However, in his late thirties and hampered by an injury sustained when he dropped a camera on his knee, he almost withdrew before the event even began. Even if he hadn't been injured, he also had the much younger Karl Schäfer of Austria nipping at his heels.

Speaking of nip, you have to wonder if Grafström filled up a flask at the Belmont Hotel competing. He was rumoured to have taken more than a few swigs when he was sick at the Chamonix Olympics... and in Lake Placid he performed the wrong figure entirely in one case. Don't know. Just saying. At any rate, Grafström ended up with 1496.0 points to Schäfer's 1553.0 and had a lot of ground to make up if he wanted to make his Olympic gold medal count four. In third place was Bud Wilson of Canada with 1477.6 points; in fourth Marcus Nikkanen of Finland with 1450.8.

Sportswriter Howard Bass made an apt and perhaps glaringly obvious observation in his 1971 "International Encyclopedia Of Winter Sports" that usually rang true even back in the dirty thirties: "In how many sports do the majority of supporters only watch half of a championship? This is a novel aspect of figure skating. The spectacular appeal of of freestyle jumps and spins magnetises capacity stadium crowds... but the compulsory figures which precede all this usually take place at a comparatively deserted rink, in a hushed atmosphere of almost cathedral-like dignity, when a sudden burst of laughter would seem quite out of place." Although that was true ninety nine percent of the time, the women's school figures at the Lake Placid Games - held the next day on February 9, 1932 - were a marked exception.

Sonja Henie in Lake Placid

Perhaps owing to the Sonja sensation, the rink was quite packed for the women's school figures. The competition started early in the morning and took up much of the afternoon, and after the six prescribed figures had been performed, Sonja Henie had amassed a seventy point lead over American Maribel Vinson and Austria's Fritzi Burger.

Sketch of the Olympic Stadium

Let's move on to the men's free skate, held on the evening of February 9, 1932. George and Stephen Ortloff's wonderful 1976 book "Lake Placid: The Olympic Years 1932-1980" noted: "The music was live, played by a military band in one section of the crowded bandstands, and all the competitors skated to the same tune: a medley that began with that big-top favourite, 'Orpheus In The Underworld'." I guess it could have been worse and everyone could have picked "Phantom Of The Opera" like in the 2014/2015 season. And yes, I just made that shudder that Sideshow Bob made every time he stepped on a rake on The Simpsons.

Men's competitors in Lake Placid

Grafström couldn't catch a break and had to settle for silver in the most ironic of ways. After injuring himself by dropping a heavy camera on himself before the competition, in his free skate he collided with a photographer. Karl Schäfer ended up taking the gold with a very strong performance that left him with an almost eighty eight point lead. Canada's Bud Wilson was over sixty five points back of Grafström, but he took home the bronze medal. Marcus Nikkanen was fourth and in fifth was future Olympic Gold Medallist in pairs skating, Ernst Baier of Germany. Rounding out the twelve man field were four Americans, two Japanese men and one eccentric millionaire who claimed to be a baron. We'll look at that man - Walter Langer of Czechoslovakia - in a future Skate Guard blog.

Although the men's event was well attended, the women's free skate the next day was by all accounts standing room only. Every seat was sold and scalpers stood outside of the arena selling tickets at up to fifty dollars a pop. With inflation, that's well over eight hundred and fifty dollars today. The best part? People were buying. Everyone wanted to see Sonja Henie's free skating performance on February 10, 1932.

Scalping tickets wasn't the only shady business going on off the ice though. In the press box, newsies were conducting a poll as to which skater was the prettiest between Sonja or Belgian Yvonne de Ligne. Hoping to thicken the plot like a good gravy and make good on their hype coverage of three eleven year old British girls competing - Megan Taylor, Cecilia Colledge and Mollie Phillips - the press also (according to the Ortloffs' book) "applauded loud and long, trying to root their 11-year-old Briton to victory, thinking it would impress the judges by an exceptional ovation. But Mollie Phillips' marks were not that good - the judges didn't vote by what they heard, but by what they saw - they gave her 698.1 points."

Megan Taylor and Maribel Vinson

In the end, Fritzi Burger moved up to claim the silver ahead of Maribel Vinson and Henie earned 932.00 in free skating to claim her second of three Olympic gold medals. In her book "Wings On My Feet", Henie commented on her second Olympic win thusly: "There was no little Hilde (Holovsky) to thrust her way through the front rank, but the rank was strong and the victory equally gratifying. Fritzi (Burger), Maribel Vinson, and Constance Wilson-Samuel were in the field, and placed in that order behind me... I felt I had really achieved something when the title was still mine at the end."

On the other side of the coin, on the wonderfully crafted 1999 HBO documentary "Reflections On Ice: A Diary Of Ladies Figure Skating", Fritzi Burger reminisced on her rivalry with Henie at the Lake Placid Games: "I think I had the hope against hope really that maybe one day I could beat her. Maybe one day she'd break a leg, maybe one day she has a cold or can't skate or whatever. Didn't happen. I don't think Sonja ever had a cold in her life."

Constance Wilson (left) and Fritzi Burger (right)

The final of the figure skating events in Lake Placid was the pairs competition, which of course only consisted of a single free skate... and the Spokane Daily Chronicle affirmed that this event too was in front of "a packed house". That said, in true Olympic figure skating fashion, there was of course talk of judging. The gold medal went to married couple Andrée and Pierre Brunet of France and the silver to New York City's Beatrix Loughran and Sherwin Badger... and it was a close fight that all came down to math. Loughran and Badger actually earned 77.5 points to the Brunets' 76.7 but the ordinals gave the French pair the victory. The Ortloffs' book noted that "two judges ranked the American pair first, but three judges picked the French Champions Brunet and Brunet. Each of these three judges ranked Loughran and Badger second by a mere tenth of a point, while the judge from Finland picked the American team over the French team by 1.2 points, and that amounted to the difference in the point totals." 1931 World Champions Emilia Rotter and László Szollás edged out 1931 European Champions Olga Orgonista and Sándor Szalay for the bronze medal and Canadians siblings Constance and Bud Wilson had to settle for fifth place of the seven teams competing. Fifty two year old USFSA President Joseph Savage, who finished last with partner Gertrude Meredith, earned his rightful place in the record books as the oldest figure skater to ever compete at the Olympic Games.

The Brunet's in Lake Placid

Following the Games, a good many of the competitors from overseas just simply stayed put in North America and headed directly to Montreal, the site of the 1932 World Figure Skating Championships from February 28 to March 1, 1932 and performed exhibitions prior to the competition. In fact, all four of the Olympic Gold Medallists would attend those World Championships and win gold medals. You don't see that too often in an Olympic year these days, do you?

All of this said, looking back at this competition and seeing how four European skaters claimed gold medals and the hearts of North American audiences in the period in between two World Wars certainly serves as a reminder that skating is a universal language of peace.

Skate Guard is a blog dedicated to preserving the rich, colourful and fascinating history of figure skating. Over ten years, the blog has featured over a thousand free articles covering all aspects of the sport's history, as well as four compelling in-depth features. To read the latest articles, follow the blog on FacebookTwitterPinterest and YouTube. If you enjoy Skate Guard, please show your support for this archive by ordering a copy of the figure skating reference books "The Almanac of Canadian Figure Skating", "Technical Merit: A History of Figure Skating Jumps" and "A Bibliography of Figure Skating": https://skateguard1.blogspot.com/p/buy-book.html.

A Twenties Threesome: The Julius Nelson, Karl Engel And Chris Christenson Stories

The three men whose stories we're going to explore today on the blog both have three things in common. They were born in Europe, they won medals at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships in the roaring twenties and they worked tirelessly behind the scenes as 'builders' in the figure skating world in their era. Their names may not ring a bell, but their stories are nothing short of compelling. Time to meet Julius Nelson, Karl Engel and Chris Christenson!


The son of Nils and Lisa Maria Johansson, Julius Bernhard Johansson was born April 22, 1887 in Åsa, Småland, Sweden. He arrived in America on the S.S. Caronia at the age of twenty three in June 1910 - changing his name to Julius Bernhard Nilsson and then Julius Bernhard Nelson - and boarded on a farm in Douglas, Minnesota with two Swedish brothers.

Julius Nelson's vaccination card for U.S. immigration. Courtesy Emily Abraham.

Julius' relative Per Anders Johannssen theorized, "I fully understand why he changed his name from Johansson to something else. English (or American-English) speaking persons just can't pronounce the name 'Johansson'. When they try the result sounds ridiculous. I guess he couldn't bear that. So - I guess - he took his father's first name, Nils, and made a patronymicon of that, and at the same time [anglicised] it. Et voilà - his name then was Nelson." His great granddaughter Emily Abraham added, "Family lore has it that the last name was later changed to Nilsson because of an overabundance of Johansson's in the area."

Julius Nelson's skating pass for the 1908-1909 season. Courtesy Emily Abraham.

Though he registered for the draft late in World War I, Julius was fortunate not to have found his American dream cut short by military service. A talented skater who had learned to skate at the Stockholms Allmänna Skridskoklubb, Nelson arrived in Minneapolis in 1917 and began teaching skaters from Minnesota the Swedish style of figure skating. He travelled the midwest during the post-war era and the roaring twenties, offering his expertise to skaters in Duluth, Superior, Grand Forks and Fargo. The Hippodrome Club, an enclosed natural ice surface on the State Fair Grounds in St. Paul was for several winters his home base. In 1923, he entered the U.S. Figure Skating Championships in New Haven, Connecticut, finishing third in the senior men's event behind Sherwin Badger and Chris I. Christenson. Later credited as the man responsible for introducing the International Style of skating to the Northwestern United States, Julius had a hand in the early development of many of the region's star skaters. Roy W. McDaniel recalled Julius thusly: "A fine stylist... His skating and counsel had a tremendous and far reaching effect on northwestern skating. Margaret Bennett, Roy Shipstad, Erle Reiter and [Bobby] Specht were some of his early pupils."

The Nelson Sisters skating in the Ice Follies in 1938

During The Great Depression, Julius turned to painting and interior design to support his wife Ella, son Bernhard and daughters Marie, Vera, Virginia and Martha. However, he continued to perform in skating carnivals throughout the Midwest well into the forties.  His daughters Marie, Vera and Virginia - joined by a fourth woman named Genevieve - appeared in the Ice Follies as a fours act billed as The Nelson Sisters. Julius' daughter Martha, a talented skater in her own right, was to have been the fourth Nelson sister but instead chose to attend a bible college.

Julius Nelson passed away on August 22, 1962 at the age of seventy five, his pioneering efforts in developing figure skating in the Midwestern United States all but forgotten today.


Born January 16, 1891 in the historic town of Bienne, Switzerland, Karl (Carl) Rudolf Engel emigrated to the United States in June 1913 at the age of twenty two after serving three months with the Swiss military. After arriving at Ellis Island, he took up residence in New York City and worked for a time as a draftsman on Broadway before a short stint with the U.S. military in World War I. While in the Big Apple, Engel amazed the locals with his proficiency on ice skates and joined the Skating Club of New York... which actually speaks a great deal to his ability as a skater as the rather exclusive club wouldn't exactly have welcomed a lowly draftsman with open arms had he not been particularly impressive. He proved his mettle at an international figure skating competition that was later deemed to be the 1918 U.S. Figure Skating Championships, where he placed second behind Nathaniel Niles of Boston.

Following his win, Engel headed west and found a job as a civil engineer in a paper mill in Chicago, taking up residence in a small rooming house operated by a Scottish woman named Christine Gregory and her daughters Alice and Grace. Work was a means to an end for Engel, who spent more of his free time tracing eights and threes on the ice in the winters than socializing with the Gregory women. In 1921, he was one of a group of twenty skating aficionados who formed the Chicago Figure Skating Club. In those days, skaters took to the ice at an outdoor rinks adjacent to the Chicago Beach Hotel and Edgewater Beach Hotel, and on ponds in the Forest Preserve. The club was accepted as one of the USFSA's original seven member clubs and that same year, Engel and Charles McCarthy became the first two skaters to represent the club at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships in Philadelphia. During that period, Engel served as Chicago Figure Skating Club's President, a judge and worked with McCarthy and Henry Denninger to bring USFSA testing in figures, free skating and ice dancing to the Windy City. It was through the club's organization that he met Margaret 'Maggie' Robb, who soon became Mrs. Karl Engel.

In 1925, Engel travelled to New York City for U.S. Figure Skating Championships, where he won his second medal (a bronze) in the men's event behind Nathaniel Niles and George Braakman. He soon relocated to Orangetown, New York and took a job as a mechanical engineer in a paper factory and rejoined the Skating Club of New York. In 1938, Engel and his wife Maggie headed to California, where they were warmly received as the first 'imported' judges from the East Coast at the Pacific Coast Championships at the St. Moritz Ice Skating Club. The Engel's moved to Chesterton, Indiana during World War II and remained active in skating circles - judging both ice and roller competitions - for some time thereafter.


Born in Norway on June 2, 1875, Chris I. Christenson emigrated to St. Paul, Minnesota when he was eight years of age. Throughout much of his young life he toiled away as a labourer to help contribute to his family. Yet, as all work and no play make Jack a dull boy, Christenson found time to pursue and excel at all manner of Victorian era pursuits: swimming, gymnastics, fancy diving, cycling and roller skating. He wasn't a dull Jack; he was a Jack of all trades! In 1914, at the age of thirty nine, he decided to add another to the list... figure skating. Carving his way through grapevines on frozen ponds and cranberry bogs near his home, he coined the term "swamp skating" according to Joseph Chapman. On those 'swamps', he soon achieved the same proficiency that he'd achieved on rollers. Off the ice, he worked for the Northern Pacific Railroad.

In 1919, the Minnesota Skating Association, a charter member of the USFSA interested in International Style skating formed. Its skaters met at St. Paul's Lexington Rink. Christensen didn't just prove to be one of the club's most enthusiastic new members... he stepped up as the Association's first President. Two years later, another USFSA charter member club was formed in St. Paul called the Twin City Club. This club absorbed the membership of the Minnesota Skating Association and the Minneapolis Municipal Figure Skating Club, and Christenson served of the first President of that club as well.

Photo courtesy "Skating" magazine 

After placing fourth at the 1921 U.S. Figure Skating Championships in Philadelphia, Christenson made the trip from St. Paul to New Haven, Connecticut for the 1923 U.S. Championships, where he surprised many by winning the silver medal behind Sherwin Badger. After winning the bronze in 1924 in Philadelphia, he entered the 1926 U.S. Championships in Boston, Massachusetts, where he defeated hometown favourite Nathaniel Niles to win the gold... at the age of fifty one. An unattributed newspaper 1926 article cited in a 1996 "New York Times" piece published around the time of Rudy Galindo's U.S. title win reportedly noted, "His figures were smooth and precisely correct. He looped and spread-eagled with an unhurried calm that must have piled point after point in his favor on the score-pads of the judges. But his was an exhibition of mathematical certainty. It was a typically masculine performance, devoid of teeming nervous energy and one of cold and accurate calculation." After his competitive career ended, Christenson became an international level judge. Though he passed away on March 8, 1943, Christenson remains the oldest U.S. men's champion in history... a distinction I'd bet my cat (sorry Angelikah!) that he'll never lose.

Skate Guard is a blog dedicated to preserving the rich, colourful and fascinating history of figure skating. Over ten years, the blog has featured over a thousand free articles covering all aspects of the sport's history, as well as four compelling in-depth features. To read the latest articles, follow the blog on FacebookTwitterPinterest and YouTube. If you enjoy Skate Guard, please show your support for this archive by ordering a copy of the figure skating reference books "The Almanac of Canadian Figure Skating", "Technical Merit: A History of Figure Skating Jumps" and "A Bibliography of Figure Skating": https://skateguard1.blogspot.com/p/buy-book.html.

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