Like the U.S. Open Professional Figure Skating Championships, World Pro Championships in Jaca, Spain, American Open Professional Figure Skating Championships and Canadian Professional Figure Skating Championships featured in parts one through four of this series, the early roots of open professional competitions in Great Britain are perhaps the least documented aspect of all professional figure skating competition history, so believe me, piecing together this fifth installment of this series was by no means a cake walk. That said, much of it is incredibly fascinating and complex. Grab yourself a cup of tea and get ready to learn!
As I explained in the Jaca article, the first professional competition in Great Britain was actually established by Britain's National Skating Association as a contest between male skating instructors. This sparked a series of sporadic professional competitions organized by the NSA. In April 1933, an ice dance competition open to both amateurs and professionals was held at the Westminster Ice Rink in London. Married couple Eva Keats of Great Britain and Erik Van Der Weyden of Belgium took home the gold. Two months later, a competition for professional ice dancers only was held at the Queens Ice Club in London. Perhaps controversially dancing with a woman other than his wife, Van Der Weyden and Elsie Heathcote won this particular competition.
Things got much more organized in 1936. The British Ice Teachers Association was founded that year as the Ice Teachers Guild. It was one of the first coaching associations formed in the world and played an important role in organizing competitions for professionals both pre-World War II and after, under the name the Imperial Professional Skaters Association. That year, before Great Britain even had an amateur ice dance competition, a professional competition for ice dancers called the British Pro Waltz Championships was won by Lesley Turner and Robert Dench. Annual professional competitions for singles and pairs skaters popped up around this time too, with skaters like Barbara Wright Sawyer, Pamela Prior and pairs team Sadie Cambridge and Albert Enders taking home titles. In April 1939, ice dance was officially added to the roster of the Open Professional Championships (which we'll learn went by many names) and Muriel Roberts and Walter Gregory, inventors of the compulsory dance the Rhumba took home honors. Mostly show skaters competed in these events from early on but many bigger names like Cecilia Colledge, Jennifer Nicks, Swiss brothers Jacques and Arnold Gerschwiler and Sonja Henie's coach Howard Nicholson dipped their foot in the water. Also competing were Herbert Aylward, Marilyn Hoskins, Ronald Baker, Len Liggett and Pamela Murray.
These events came to a halt during World War II. Some rinks remained open, others were taken over, damaged or closed and the ones that were opened served double duty as bomb shelters with gas masks in the cloakrooms. Incredibly, as quickly as amateur competition returned in 1947, by the following year professional competitions in England were back in full swing.
In her formidable textbook of ice dance history, Lynn Copley-Graves explained how the free dance, part of a May 1949 proposal by Reginald Wilkie and Bill Hickok to the International Skating Union, got its trial start in professional and not amateur competition, under their auspices: "Great Britain held a yearly Open Professional Ice Dance Championship. On December 9, 1949, two professional couples tried out the new ISU rules in England, the first reported use of the rules in a major competition. The free dancing of Gladys Hogg and Bernard Spencer won both acclaim and the title. Gladys and Bern, already two of the finest British dance trainers of the era, set a standard for what free dancing could be." Finishing second behind Hogg and Spencer but also noteworthy in their contribution to skating history by performing one of the first two ISU free dances in the world were another British couple, Violet Thomson and Kenneth Vickers.
In 1953, Australia's Reg Park won the men's title and two years later, another Australian - Jack Lee - took home the crown. In 1955 and 1956, Britons John and Joan Slater won the ice dance title for two consecutive years. A hugely important development for the competition came on May 31, 1958, when the BBC televised all four disciplines of the event held at Nottingham Ice Stadium, allowing television audiences in England their first glimpse at professional competition. With Alan Weeks and Max Robertson as commentators, this television coverage continued well into the sixties.
Martin Minshull of Brighton took home the men's crown in both 1959 and 1960 before narrowly edging out Michael Carrington of Leeds (the 1952 European Bronze Medallist) for a third win in May of 1964. As expected for a competition held in England and comprised mostly of British skaters, the gold medals often went to the home team. John and Diane Hulme, Jacqui Harbord, Anne Palmer and Roy Lee, Heather Hibbert and C. Robin Jones, Marjorie McCoy and Ian Phillips, Betty Loach and Howard Richardson and Iris Lloyd-Webb and Michael Webster all won the event in the swinging sixties... but the pendulum often swung in favour of international skaters as well. Italy's Anna Galmarini and Japan's Miwa Fukuhara managed to claim international titles that had eluded them as amateurs, where four time World Champions Eva Romanová and Pavel Roman of Czechoslovakia showed they were every bit as talented as pros when they took the title in 1968 at the Empire Pool in Wembley in 1968.
The following year, another pair of four time World Champions, Diane Towler-Green and Bernard Ford, claimed the World Professional Championship - now billed as the W.D. and H.O. Wills Championships at Wembley - defeating Yvonne Suddick and Malcolm Cannon and Vivienne Dean and John Phillips for the win. Perhaps the most compelling winner that came out of this event was 1965 ladies winner Marianne Althammer of West Germany, who tours later would spend eighteen days in jail in Poland after getting into a fight with Warsaw police while touring with Holiday On Ice.
In 1970, the event was again held at Wembley and with Towler-Green and Ford not returning to defend their title, Yvonne Suddick teamed up with her competition from the previous year, John Phillips, to take the ice dance crown. In the men's event, World Champion Donald Jackson of Canada managed to hold off some strong competition from American Paul McGrath for the win. Jackson also won the Embassy Trophy and British Professional Championship that year, receiving first place marks from every judge and the only three perfect marks of the entire competition. In my interview with Lorna Brown, who won her World Professional title in Jaca, she recalled finishing second in Wembley: "I then competed in the World Championships in Wembley the first time and came second to a European Champion who was also an Olympic and world bronze medallist by 0.2 and the pro marks were out of ten. I skated to 'On The Waterfront' and I remember the ice was liquid blue so I was in my element."
By 1974, the competition had moved to Jaca, Spain and rebranded itself as the Campeonatos del Mundo de Patinaje Artístico Professional sobre Hielo or in English, the World Professional Championships. Its rich heritage and back story is full of - in the words of one of my favourite Britons, Edina Monsoon - "names, names, names, sweetie" and although many of the performances and stories of this event (much like the other four) have not been preserved, I think the surface level understanding of the true scope of these competitions that went on for FOUR decades shows us that the history of open professional competitions goes back a lot further than we think. With the successful return of the U.S. Open in 2015, perhaps the future will hold many, many more. I certainly hope so, because the alternative isn't always - as the nineties talk show host guests used to say - all that and a bag of chips.
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