Roller-skating seems to have had a shaky history. It started some time in the early 1700’s with strange experimentations, but didn’t really become noted until in 1760 Joseph Merlin of Belgium proudly revealed his skates by gliding around a masquerade party while playing a violin, eventually crashing into and smashing a gilded mirror worth £500!
This was followed by new designs (all still pretty much unable to corner) and a flurry of patents in the 1800’s across Europe and America. It was not however until James Leonard Plimpton of New York invented the quad skate (which could curve) that people started to show interest and the first skating rink opened in Rhode Island. Skating as a pastime has had numerous ups and downs in popularity. The 1870’s saw a craze start and then fall. A resurgence took place in the late 1880s/early 1890’s with the beginnings of artistic roller skating and roller hockey. Rinks reopened across the country and the Metropolitan branch of the National Skating Association in London held an “emergency committee” in 1892 to decide whether to include roller skating, providing it with bye-laws, track regulations, registration procedures to clubs and societies. They agreed, yet popularity soon dropped again.
Reasons for rises in popularity were often linked to the adaptations of skate design, making them cheaper or more functional. Reasons for declines, however, are only hinted at: “The decline of rinks in England was almost as rapid as their rise, and was mainly due to the abuse of the opportunities they gave for making promiscuous acquaintances” [1909.6.497].
Failures were attributed to low admission charges that were designed to attract the thousands, “This principle however did not conduce towards making the pastime one in which the better-class elements in the community could indulge with any degree of satisfaction” [1909.9.524].
By the time the Great Monohan appeared skating was on the up. Due to the influence of ‘better’ run American rinks, new rinks in Britain were “conducted in a manner that would do credit to many a ball-room” [1909.6.497] and had been “made places of enjoyment for the middle classes capable of paying for rational pleasure at a moderate price” [1909.9.524]. The Blackburn Standard in fact reported Monohan opening one such new rink, ‘decorated with representation of Swiss scenery’, on the 10th April 1909. As part of this clean up, skating Cinderellas (formal dances) were put on. Here skaters were expected to conform to conventional evening dress, though women could dispense with court trains, for “whilst adapted to the ball-room, they are scarcely suitable for skating” [1909.9.524].
Monohan’s guide is therefore timely. It is not a mere amateur’s manual, for it swiftly becomes clear that he expects great things of his readers:
Clog-dancing and barrel walking (he discourages doing this in public as it doesn’t often work).
Steeple chasing: “steeple chasing or hurdle racing over chairs … it isn’t at all easy to get the way of either taking off or landing comfortably,” “be content to ‘progress slowly’” he warns us “and make up your mind that you won’t mind a few bad falls”.
There is also toe-skating, demonstrating your skill by basically tiptoeing through a maze of candles and the rather scary sounding fire hat (no images) “It is just ordinary skating, spinning chiefly, while wearing a specially constructed helmet decorated with lighted fire-sticks. The helmet spins in the opposite direction to its wearer, and with the dazzling sticks in full blaze produces a rather weird effect” an idea for future professionals only.
He ends on some modest words: hoping that his guide will “attract a few recruits to the pastime [and] encourage a few hitherto disappointed novices to persevere” – as an ex roller-skater I say “It does, Great Monohan, it does indeed!”