02 July 2013

Shocking skating disaster - Russia or Britain?

My grandmother lived in most of her young years in Jaffe in Israel, but when I was a young girl, I was most interested in her stories about her real homeland near Odessa. Ice-covered waterways dominated her memories of fishing, skating and social life amongst the children. And it was her story of a drowning tragedy in the late 19th century (before she was born in 1903) that was most mesmerising. Apparently dozens of ordinary people drowned when the ice broke on a lake much loved by skaters.

What I could never understand was how Russians, so respectful of treacherously cold weather, could drown so chaotically. Everyone knew that January in Odessa was the coldest month with the daytime temperature reaching 0c, but winter temperatures regularly fell to -20°C or lower. Strong, cold northeasterly winds could bring heavy snowfalls. Russian toddlers were taught about winter conditions earlier than Australian children were taught to swim!

Apparently the event actually happened in Britain, as reported in The Guardian and History House. Londoners of the mid 19th century who had enough leisure time to spend in sport were passionate about ice skating. It was not unusual to see frozen lakes advertised in the newspapers.

Skating disaster in Regents Park London, 15th January 1867. 
In the Illustrated London News. 

January 1867 was suffering through a long period of VERY cold weather and so hundreds of people went skating on the frozen ornamental boating lake in London’s Regent’s Park. A disaster took place when the ice gave way, plunging 500 people into 12’ of unbearably cold water. Byst­an­d­ers tore branches off trees and launched boats drawn up on the banks; ordinary spectators turned into desperate and brave rescuers. Many skaters clinging to broken pieces of ice, or able to stay afloat in the icy water, were pulled to safety. The Skating Club members, acting as stewards, managed to rescue dozens of hapless people. Police and doctors living nearby.. heroically dashed to the lake, and the rescued were taken off to their homes, hospital or nearby workhouses.

The ice quickly froze over again, and channels had to be cut through. It took over a week before the authorities knew that all the bodies had been located. In the end, a total of 40 people died in the tragedy, dragged down by their heavy skates and their heavy winter clothing. I am also certain that few Londoners would have known how to swim back in 1867.

A light fall of snow had disguised the cracks and the weight of 500 people had caused a sudden catastrophic collapse of the frozen surface. But should the skaters have known about the danger? Clearly there had been a break in the ice the previous day when 21 people had fallen through, although all of them were rescued. As a result, warning notices about the dangerous conditions had been posted everywhere.

Alas the enthusiasm for the sport among ordinary Londoners was so great that these warnings were ignored.

The skaters were blamed for their own crisis. Particularly since it was also noted that the park keepers, concerned about the welfare of the valued collection of water fowl on the lake, had been break­ing the ice around the edges to provide open water for the birds. This was said at the time to be the worst weather related disaster in Britain. As a precaution against a similar tragedy ever happening again the water was drained and the lake bed raised with soil and concrete, so the lake is now only 4’ deep.

One of the teenagers saved from certain death in Regents Park that day went on to become famous in adulthood. Frederick Courteney Selous (1851– 1917) became an explorer, officer, hunter and conservationist, who did his best known work in southern Africa. He was known to idolise Dr David Livingstone and to become a friend of Cecil Rhodes. What a fortunate lad he had been!






10 comments:

Merisi said...

Tragic black swan event. And hindsight always knows better.

Thank you for the history lesson,
Merisi

Andrew said...

Wow. What an amazing tale. My partner remembers skating on the Tyne River. It doesn't freeze anymore and I doubt much in London does either.

Hels said...

Merisi

sometimes natural disasters are as tragic as man-made disasters. We have no frozen lakes in Australia, but we do have appalling bushfires that kill indiscriminately.

Hels said...

Andrew

you never forget personally experienced events or events you heard about in childhood. Long after you have forgotten the details, you remember the sadness.

Deb said...

You said it yourself. The enthusiasm for the sport among ordinary Londoners was so great that all warnings were ignored. Skating must have been very appealing.

Parnassus said...

Hello Hels, What a tragic and horrifying event. Ice skating was also a fad in Victorian America, and there likewise were many accidents, although I never heard of one even approaching the scale of the Regents Park incident.

I once read a letter from the 1870's, detailing the death of a Yale student who was rescuing others from broken-though ice.
--Road to Parnassus

Hels said...

Deb

In 1867 ordinary working families with reliable incomes still didn't have a lot of pleasure in their life. Until 1871, British families were not allowed holiday leave, so winters seemed long and limiting. Skating was huge fun, a very social activity that didn't cost a fortune.

Hels said...

Parnassus

Lots of communities suffered tragedies, but the test was: how well those communities dealt with the losses? Did they support the families who suffered? Did they set up a royal commission into the events, with an eye to preventing such tragedies in the future?

My feeling about the Regents Park catastrophe is that nothing was learned. No ordinary family was supported.

dev smith said...

Wow. What a tremendous tale. My partner remembers athletics on the river. It does not freeze any longer and that i doubt a lot of in London will either.
Dalby builder

Warwick builder.

Hels said...

dev

*nod* At least for Regents Park, it will never happen again. As a consequence of this tragedy, the lake was shallowed out. But I wonder if the community learned any other important lessons.