Wednesday, 24 September 2014

The Regent's Park Skating Tragedy

You can't sift through skating history without coming upon tale after tale of "fancy" and pleasure skaters alike meeting tragedy by falling through the ice, especially in eras of long ago when the great outdoors was the only option for outdoor skaters. However, of the many quite frankly grim tales out there none is as dreadful as the Regent's Park Skating Tragedy.

On January 15, 1867 at approximately 3:30 in the afternoon, hundreds of skaters flocked to the frozen lake in the southwest corner of Regent's Park in London, England. In the Victorian era, not only was skating incredibly popular among people of means but the hot spots to skate were advertised in newspapers and Regent's Park was certainly one of these meccas for locals looking to catch an edge. On that frigid January day, skaters chose not to heed warnings of danger after they were clearly warned of thin ice but made the decision to go skate anyway. In fact, they were even told the ice had broken the day before and twenty one people had plunged into the icy lake. They were rescued by 'icemen' (stewards) of the Skating Club which used to lake on which to practice.

Close to the banks of the lake, the ice began to weaken under the weight of the large crowd and cracked. Anywhere from one hundred fifty to five hundred skaters (all four sources I cited in researching this blog provided varying numbers) plunged into twelve inches of frigid water. So, now you have all of these people in the incredibly freezing water wearing bulky Victorian garb and ice skates, many of whom can't swim. Keep in mind this wasn't our generation. I took swimming lessons when I was younger and am by no means a strong swimmer but I'd like to think I'd hopefully be a competent enough swimmer to save myself in a life or death situation. In icy winter waters in heavy clothing wearing skates though? I don't know. In that era, it wasn't uncommon for many people to have no clue how to swim. Police and doctors nearby rushed to the scene. Many on shore broke branches off trees or offered ropes to those struggling in the subzero water and a local boat builder even launched a vessel from the shore to aid victims battling what we now know to be hypothermia while they clung to ice floes. Those rescued were taken to hospitals, their homes and workhouses in the area. Sadly, for many it was simply too late.

Recovering the bodies of those who hadn't survived the tragedy proved immensely difficult as the ice quickly froze over again. Channels had to be cut in the ice and after a week of recovery efforts, a total of forty bodies were recovered from the lake. That's almost a quarter of the people that went skating that day if you go by the number of two hundred reported by most sources and you know what? As horrible as that number is it is remarkable it wasn't worse. The skaters were ultimately blamed for their decision to skate despite being warned of thin ice but it came out after the fact that park keepers had been breaking the ice around the edges of the lake to provide open water for the water fowl in the area.

A groundskeeper in Regent's Park breaking the ice for the swans in 1933
Following the Regent's Park tragedy, an inquest was held and measures were taken to ensure it didn't happen again. The depth of the lake was reduced by four to five feet and the lake bed was raised with soil and concrete to make drowning less likely. Sadly, the "it won't happen to me" mentality prevailed and a generation later, a hundred more skaters found themselves in the lake when the same thing happened again. The change of the lake's depth however proved to be a very intelligent measure as not a single person perished in the second 'big break' of the frozen Regent's Park lake. I wish I could tell you that this tragedy was the worst of it's kind, but I can't. In December 1900, forty nine children were widely reported to have perished in an almost identical incident in Des Moines, Iowa. The moral of the story? If someone tells you the ice is thin, do not dive in.

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  1. Cold water saps you quickly. When much younger, I was an engineman on a Coast Guard Cutter out of Boston. We did "Ocean Stations" and iceberg/weather patrols off the south tip of Greenland in Winter. In February the water temp was rarely above 34 degrees F. Mind this was in salt water. On the bulkhead leading from the mess deck to the weather decks there was a little plastic chart with two columns of numbers. The first column was the water temp in degrees F. The second column was your life expectancy in minutes. You don't live long in cold water. Hand for yourself and one for the ship, matey. After a trip like that we always enjoyed the hospitality of St Johns, Newfoundland where we'd find civilization and friendly faces in the bars on Water Street! Maybe all those bergs were why I took to figure skating...

  2. I'm feeling very fortunate I have never spent enough time around cold water to find out personally! You're absolutely right about Newfoundland - I've never met a Newfie I didn't like and end up drinking and laughing with! Glad you enjoyed the article and thanks for sharing your experience. Brrrr... Makes me want to put on a sweater.

  3. What’s interesting about this tragedy is that it occurred during a strange winter that was generally mild but featured two extremely sharp but short cold spells.

    With a Central England Temperature of 6.1˚C (43.0˚F), December 1866 was a mild month. However, a huge cold outbreak at the beginning of January brought the CET on 4 January 1867 down to minus 9.3˚C (15.3˚F). That constitutes the third-lowest daily CET value since that series began in 1772 – the only colder days have been 20 January 1838 (minus 11.9˚C or 10.6˚F) and Christmas Day, 1796 (minus 10.8˚C or 12.6˚F). Following this, the weather briefly tuned mild: on 7 January the CET reached 9.8˚C (49.7˚F) before the Arctic air returned on the 10th and by 13 January the CET was back at minus 5.0˚C or 23.0˚F.

    The weather then stabilised for a week of subzero CETs, though not as cold as in the opening week. On the day of the tragedy the CET was minus 2.9˚C (26.8˚F), but the mild December and the intense thaw from a week before no doubt meant the ice was less thick than usual with such cold temperatures – as you indicate, authorities probably knew this besides ice being opened to help wildlife.

    After the tragedy, the cold gave way to very mild weather for the last ten days of January and all of February. Consequently, the third-coldest day in the CET series and a major accident in a sport requiring cold winters unusually occurred in a winter that averaged milder than the long-term mean (though by a modest 0.7˚C or 1.26˚F).

    1. Extremely interesting insight into the weather during this era - thank you so much for the detail! :)