London History Bulletin – January 15

Forty ice skaters lost their lives on January 15th, 1867 when the ice on the Ornamental Lake in Regent’s Park gave way. This London History Bulletin tells the tale.


London calling.

London Walks connecting.

London Walks here with your daily London fix.

Story time. History time.

Long time ago now – probably 30 years ago – but there must have been something about today’s story that triggered a release mechanism. Brought it all back. I walked into the Editor’s office, closed the door, and said, “I want to be taken off hard news, I need a break. You’ve gotta move me onto Features or Sport. Or both. Lowndes asked why. I said, “I’ve had my fill of trafficking in other people’s misery, that’s why. I’ve supped full of war stories and bombings and famines and plane crashes – it’s beginning to do my head in. I need some gentle stuff – stories where nobody’s getting hurt, or if they are it’s an athlete who’s got an ACL but will be operated on, healed up and good as new in ten months. 

So that was the memory. And for some reason – and it’s not as though the story today is the first London catastrophe story I’ve put through its paces on this London history podcast series – heaven knows, London’s had more than its share of mayhem and death and seriously vile stuff – but some reason something about today’s story triggered that memory, that response.

Anyway, grim as it is, we’re going to go there. And I’m supremely confident that I won’t come apart at the seams for doing so. 

It’s January 15th, 1867. It’s all in the headlines, really. Here’s a sample.

Frightful Calamity on the Ice. Fearful Accident in the Regent’s Park. The Disastrous Loss of Life in Regent’s Park. The Catastrophe in The Regent’s Park. Appalling Accident in Regent’s Park. 

All cut from the same cloth, aren’t they. Ok, let’s close with it. What happened in Regent’s Park on this day, January 15th, 1867? 

An ice-skating catastrophe, that’s what happened.  

Here’s a contemporary account. “About half past three o’clock in the afternoon there were near the same spot on the Ornamental Lake about 500 skaters, among whom were many ladies, there being at the same time on the banks from 2,000 to 3,000 spectators. The excitement and fun were at their highest. Select circles were surround the more skilled skaters, men of all ages and classes were darting across in each direction, the park was resounding with sounds of merriment and life, when, without warning, the scene was terribly changed. The expanse of ice, covering nearly an acre of water, gave way. According to some it exploded. Others said it was agitated as if by an earthquake. The fatal cracks are described as shooting with sharp reports in every conceivable direction, and with such rapidity that it seemed as if the giving way was simultaneous in each direction. Within a minute the whole sheet of the ice over the full width of the lake gave way, and split up into fragments of a few yards square. A general rush was made for the banks. Unfortunately, this broke up the soft ice into still smaller pieces. Numbers of persons fells through the crevices into the water, which is, at this part 12 feet deep. About 200 people were struggling in the water, and screaming for help.”

Forty of them would drown. It was described as the worst London catastrophe in living memory. It took several days of dragging the lake and divers in those huge helmets and heavy, insulated suits probing those near-freezing, black waters to recover all the bodies.

I think what touched a nerve with me was the names – and the ages – the victims. Most of them were so young. James Justice was 21 years old. Edmund Pullum was 25. Thomas Wilson Spencer was 26. Henry Gamble was 14. Frank Glanfield was 14. Thomas Chadwick was 24. Harold Giles was 15. And that’s just the beginning of the roll call. It’s all desperately sad. The inquest of course also gave their addresses. Ordinary London streets. Ordinary London streets that would carry the blight of a desperate sadness for many years. 

I’m thinking, I hope there’s a feature or sports story come tomorrow. 

You’ve been listening to the London History Bulletin for January 15th. 

You’ve been listening to the Today in London History podcast. Emanating from – home of London Walks, London’s signature walking tour company. London’s local, time-honoured, fiercely independent, family-owned, just-the-right-size walking tour company. And as long as we’re at it, London’s multi-award-winning walking tour company. Indeed, London’s only award-winning walking tour company.

And here’s the secret: London Walks is essentially run as a guides’ cooperative. 

That’s the key to everything. It’s the reason we’re able to attract and keep the best guides in London. You can get schlubbers to do this for £20 a walk. But you cannot get world-class guides – let alone accomplished professionals.

It’s not rocket science: you get what you pay for. And just as surely, you also get what you don’t pay for. 

Back in 1968 when we got started we quickly came to a fork in the road. We had to answer a searching question: Do we want to make the most money? Or do we want to be the best walking tour company in the world? You want to make the most money you go the schlubbers route. You want to be the best walking tour company in the world you do whatever you have to do to attract and keep the best guides in London – you want them guiding for you, not for somebody else. Bears repeating: the way we’re structured – a guides’ cooperative – is the key to the whole thing. It’s the reason for all those awards, it’s the reason people who know go with London Walks, it’s the reason we’ve got a big following, a lively, loyal, discerning following – quality attracts quality.

It’s the reason we’re able – uniquely – to front our walks with accomplished, in many cases distinguished professionals: barristers, doctors, geologists, museum curators, archaeologists, historians, criminal defence lawyers, Royal Shakespeare Company actors, a bevy of MVPs, Oscar winners (people who’ve won the Guide of the Year Award)… well, you get the idea. As that travel writer famously put it, “if this were a golf tournament, every name on the Leader Board would be a London Walks guide.”

And as we put it: London Walks Guides make the new familiar and the familiar new.

And on that agreeable note…come then, let us go forward together on some great London Walks. See ya tomorrow.

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