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17 January 2022
John Peck and Fen Skating
John Peck and Fen Skating
By Bridget Holmes
John Peck farmed in Parson Drove, near Wisbech, and kept a daily diary from 1814 to 1851. He recorded details of his life and that of his family, his farm, his duties as the Parish Constable, Surveyor of the Highway and interest in village life and activities; he also records his leisure time, books he read, visits to the theatre, travelling. In the winter time as a young man he enjoyed skating as all fenmen did at that time. For farm labourers unable to work on the land it would have been both a ‘fun time’ and chance for the good skaters to go to Skating Matches and win money to feed their families.
John’s diaries are now to be found at the Wisbech and Fenland Museum and it is from John’s original diaries these extracts about Fen Skating from 1814 to 1829 are taken.
The opening entries for 1814 are all about the freezing conditions in Fenland, the rivers and drains were frozen, this allowed the young men to enjoy this time skating, when it would have been impossible to do work on the farms, apart from care for the animals. John, records skating to Wisbech, Leverington and Upwell, visiting friends and for skating matches which were very popular.
1st January …Went to Wisbech skating….. and got into Mill Drain up to my neck coming home.
3rd January Skated with Mr Lehair round Shire Drain, through Tydd Fen, Leveington, up the canal to Well; dined at the Club Feast ….. slept at Mr Hartley’s.
During the next few days skating continued, a fall of snow stopped them from skating to Cambridge on the 6th January. On some days there was racing for a prize of a hat.
Diary entries mention several forms of prizes, money joints of meat. Gloves and hats – it is possible that the prize of ‘hat’ was money.
On 26th January 1814 he recorded, Began to thaw, after the severest frost that’s been known for many years, which commenced on 26th December 1813.
However it began to snow again by 29th January and the freezing conditions lasted until March.
John did not actually visit the Frost Fair which was held on the river Thames, but his entries for the 12th and 13th February shows his interest in national events as well as local which are written in full detail.
12th February Went to Wisbech Market. At Horseshoe Hole, the ice formed a bank completely across the river. The Ice Boat and hundreds of people employ’d in breaking the ice away. 10 foot 9 inches at the Bridge on the east side.
Above - Diary entry for 13 February 1814
13th February Rode from Newton. On the bank, ice all completely gone. At a mile below Wisbech the water since yesterday 4ft 6ins; at Wisbech it fell 2ft 6ins, at Southbank Mills 10ins and at Guyhirne 3ins. During the severe frost the river Thames was frozen over, that people pass’d and repass’d as on land. From the 1st to the 4th, a regular fair was formed: sheep roasted, booths erected and stalls of respectable tradesmen, with printing presses that continually employed in striking impressions recording the severe frost of 1814. When the thaw commenced all those amusements disappeared, and the whole country from a solid mass of snow and ice was changed in a few days to fields of water.
On the 9th March John wrote Frost continues. Boys skating. I rode to Tydd Fen and Newton etc, Sheep walking over frozen dikes; while the whole country is presenting a scene of distress.
11th March Snow fell from the east all night; everything is in appearance of dreary winter. Rode to Tydd Fen, on to Newton. Thousands of wildfowl…..All around, much drownedl.
On the of 18th March he continues Frost continues, distress everywhere.
But the spring weather eventually came, but it was to be a cold spring and still on the 21st June he recorded Very cold, like March, land drowned.
It is recorded at the ice lasted for 60 days in some places during the winter of 1814.
6th January J Peck and S Jealous ran two Gedney gentlemen for a pound bill and both won easy.
13th January Ran in afternoon for a hat, on ice pattens; came second best and got a pair of gloves.
25th January Skated to Wisbech
1st February Thaw
27th February John comments last year skating this day, this year plowing for seed
2nd February V. sharp frost. Skated to Wisbech and on to Well
Dined at the 5 Bells there. Racing on the Canal, home to Parson Drove by 7 o’clock. Thaw and rain the evening.
9th February Very sharp frost such is scarcely known in these latitudes. The thermometer thirty and a half degrees below freezing.
10th February To Wisbech. Skating on the Great River. A little boy drowned
18th February Skating on Shire Drain
The following day John records a thaw, and it appears that was the end of skating for the winter of 1816
However in on 18th December 1816 John again was skating on the Shire Drain and on the 22nd he reported
WISFM : 1857.27 Women's skates given to the Museum by John Peck in 1857
Skating in perfection, and racing all day. Susan and Mary Peck skating in their new dresses for the occasion, plaid vests and trowsers, trimmed with sable fur; cap of fur and plaid with a plume of ostrich feathers. Appearance grand. Won race in the morning and lost five shillings in the afternoon
Above - Diary entry for 22 December 1816
The following day Mr Traw appeared; there is one report of skating in January 1817 but then the winter appears to have been quite a mild one. On 1st December 1817 he records that he married Elizabeth Ullyatt. There were several days of skating during the Christmas period.
1st January Heavy roak and sharp frost. Skated with Susan Ullyat and M.A Peck out to Whittlesea saw some racing and started for home. Miss U, and Mr John Taylor got in up to their necks. Home by 7 o’clock.
2nd January Skated to Crowland; racing there – Staples winner beating Gittem and Young from Nordelph. Terrible journey home, owing to the mills going forced to walk the whole way.
John records that there was skating at the end of December.
In the appendix pages John records that he sent a piece to the Cambridgeshire Chronicle on 9th January 1818 –
‘During the late frost, skating amateurs of this county and the neighbouring county have had much amusement in their favourite science. On Thursday the 1st inst. A subscription purse given by the gentlemen of Whittlesea was won by Broughton from Crowland; and the next day young Staples, also a Crowland man, beat Gittem from Nordelph and six others. Two young ladies from Parson Drove, Mesdames Ullyat and Peck, in plaid vests and drawers trimmed with sable, and a cap of the same material, surmounted by a plume of black feathers, skated over the glassy surface with so much elegance, taste and precision, as to excite universal admiration from many hundred spectators.’ In the margin of the diary John states, sent to the paper by J Peck
Gittem, Young and Staples were excellent Fen Skaters and well know through out the area.
Above - John records his article being sent to the Cambridgeshire Chronicle in 1818
The winters between 1818 until the end of 1822 were a mixture of mild, wet and windy weather with some frosty days but not cold enough to freeze the rivers and drains for skating.
On the 29th December 1822 John writes Skated with Mr Ream to Whittlesea in 1 hour and 20 minutes; took some refreshments and home by dinner. He goes on to comment, This week has been remarkably fine still weather, altho’ frosty; this day really warm in the sun.
31st December Skated to Wisbech and back. Dine with Mr Ullyat, saw the racing. Mr Redhead the winner. Home by 6. Won 19 shillings.
1st January Skated to Crowland; a Mr Bradford from Yaxley thewinner.
On 11th January a Saturday when John normally went to the Market in Wisbech, he records that there was very little doing owing to the river being blocked up with ice by the sharp frost.
12th January Skated with Mr Ullyat to (Wisbech) St Mary’s; some running on Mill Basin.
13th January Some fine snow falling, to the depth of half an inch on the level. In the afternoon, skating on the Shire Drain for a hat; young Putteril from (Sutton) St James winner of the same. A prize of 10 guineas run for at March and won by May of Upwell.
14th January Very sharp frost continues; rare skating on Shire Drain in the afternoon. Poxon won a hat; Mr Pate beat T Andrews, £1; A Ullyat beat B Ream, 5/-. 2 measured miles run in 7 min and 15 sec.
On the 15th and 16th January John was busy at the Wisbech Sessions so no time for skating, but the following day
16th January Bright and frosty, much snow on the ground; folding the sheep. Skating on 30 Foot in the afternoon, when Jeremiah Ullyat won a hat.
Above - Diary entry for 20 January 1823
20th January Snow falling in small quantities all day. Carry hay and carting straw to all the sheep. Some skating at Crowland, Egan, contrary to all expectations, beat the famous Staples.
21st January Fine snow falling. Rode to Wisbech with young Ullyats and W Peck when John Ullyat ran Warby and another & beat both. Joh Ullyat beat Fardell & Nixon, and W Peck beat Chapman; but little betting against the PD boys only won 5/6.
24th January Cold and cutting wind and frost. Rode to Wisbech to see grand skating match between 16 of the first rate runners, for a purse of 10 sovereigns, which was won by John Young of Nodelph. The course was about one and three-quarter mileand was run in 5min 33 seconds in the race between May and Young. Some thousands of spectators lined the banks of the river from the Bridge to near the Beer house, (now Elgoods) being the whole length of the course and all seemed much gratified.
There are no more entries relating to skating, the thaw set in, and altho’ John records more falls of snow and very cold weather, there are no further skating entries.
On 16th February John writes about a disaster, which must have been due to the amount of water following the thaw on the land and in the drains.
This morning at about 2 o’clock, the Inner Bank near Nells Hundred Mill broke, and waters rushed into Wisbech Fen with great fury, lowering the river’s fall by 3 feet in 12 hours, the time before a sheet dam could be struck across the drain. In the afternoon I rode to the place, where many hands were a work barrowing earth into the Gull; if no accident occurs 2 days will repair the injury.
It is not until January 1826 that there are further entries relating skating when the first mention is on 10th January when John records skating to St Edmunds, followed by several days of skating. On the 11th John was at the Sessions Court and again the following day when 7 young men had been convicted of a riot in the Town Hall the previous November, but ends the entry with Home by 3. A Hat won by J Redhead at P.D.
13th January A sharp frost skated to Whittlesea. A free prize of £6 run for, and the last race between Bradford and Germain a dead heat; stakes divided. Home by 6 o’clock won 3/6, expended 3/2.
14th January Still frosty. Planned with Mr T Cole to have a sksting match at Parson Drove, and had bills printed accordingly.
15th January Sharp frost and thick roak (fen word for fog) Skated with Mr Cole and the young Ulyatts to look at the ice and pick a course for the Grand Skating Match to take place on Tuesday; fixed on Shire Drain. Skating at Murrow in the afternoon; idling away a good Sunday I fear is a sin.
16th January Frost and fog; skated with Mr Ream &c., to Whittlesea. A race between Bradford and Germain, £10 to £7, won by the former. The sun bursting out made the day glorious. Agreed to go to Peterboro’. Dined at the Talbot; off home by 3. Saw more racing at Whittlesea; home by 7.
A Race on Whittlsea Mere . From a sketch by J. M. Heathcote
A note about how skating matches were organised:
A course was laid out usually between one and two miles, with two or three turns round the barrel to ensure, that the race ended at the starting point. News of the Match would be spread by word of mouth and printed handbills, remember these were the days before telephones, so mostly the news of a match would be delivered by men on horses or skaters to each village and town. The competitors having heard about the match would just turn up. The Match committee would then draw up the list of competitors – they liked to select the best men in even numbers so that the eliminating contest took place without byes.
The following list and comments is taken from the end pages of the diary
17th January A Grand Skating Match at P.D. for a prize of 8 sovereigns, won by Germain, a Whittlesea man.
.The list drawn up of competitors on the 17th January was as follows:-
1 - W Barton 2 - Trower
G Hickling > Barton Green > Trower
3 - Germain 4 - Dr Pear
Bavin > Taylor > Dr Pear
5 - Farrow 6 - Putterel
Jackson > Farrow Redhead > Redhead
7 - Plowright 8 - Barton
Smith > Plowright Forvargue > J Barton
8 - Barton 9 - Barton
Forvargue > Barton Trower > Barton
10 Germain 11 Farrow
Dr Pear Redhead > Redhead
12 Plowright 13 Barton
Barton > J Barton Germain > Germain
14 Redhead 15 Germain
J Barton > Redhead > Germain
The above races were run on the Shire Drain for a free prize of 8 sovereigns, the winner of each race drawing a crown. The day being fine brought together one of the largest companies ever seen at this place; some compute the number at 5,000. John Peck.
To return to the daily entries, John wrote on the 17th January:
The number of hungry people coming to the public houses ate up all the provisions. So, that many scores went away unfed. Such a day was never seen in Parson Drove before. Being the principal manager, I never betted one sixpence, consequently all my loss was in victuals and drink, which my friends were most welcome to. A band of music attended.
18th January Stopped at home with the manure carts, being rare weather for such work. Many went to Whittlesea to see a free prize of 8 sovereigns run for, which was won by Bradford. Thaw came on making it bad coming home.
In the days following there was a thaw and no mention of skating until 26th January when another Grand Skating Match was held on the river. 16 first rate skaters raced that day for a prize of 8 sovereigns.
John wrote, The above races were run on the Wisbech River near the Brewhouse for a free prize of 8 sovereigns, the winner of each race to draw a half sovereign. Contrary to expectations Farrow beat Germain after which Drake run him an excellent race.
21st February Skated to Peterborough on the Great River. Dined at the Talbot, 9 in company, started for home at 4 o’clock; owing to the sun thawing the ice forced to walk home, where I arrived at half past ten. Remember never to skate so far from home so late in the season.
22nd February Skated to my brother Joseph’s, he having the misfortune to put his ankle out of the way; found it going on alright.
January and February appears to have been cold, with some snow and frost but not much skating.
20th January Sharpe frost, put on the ice patternand skated round the commons rivers to Mr Ullyat’s farm. In the afternoon some racing at Parson Drove.
22nd January Sharp frost, A hat run for at Parson Drove. John also says that J Ream & J Peck with Mr and Mrs Culy dined at our house (all members of his family)
An interesting entry for 23rd January:
Skated to Guyhirne and on to the Bedford Arms on the North Bank, where I overtook J Ream and Jos. Peck; skated with them across country to Mr Whych’s in Postland. Dined there and drank some most excellent wine. Started for home quarter to 5 and arrived at Mr Ullyat’s just at 6; very severe running. Coming from Mr Ullyat’s Jeremiah Ullyat dropped into the Drain up to his neck; being near home, the consequence not so bad.
25th January Some skating on marked course on Shire Drain.
A thaw began the next day, but again there was a skating match on the 4th February at Wisbech
Rode to Wisbech to see the Great Skating Match between 16 first rate runners, which was won by Young of Nordelph, beating Bavin and Plowright &c. A gentle rain fell all day, which by the time the skating was over had completely wetted many thousands of spectators. On the whole the skating was bad
Finally at the end of December in 1829, John wrote:
In the week prior to Christmas there had been some falls of snow, even on Christmas day, the year had been a difficult year for farming but John spent Christmas with his family and was moved to quote a poem
England was Merry when again -
Old Christmas brought his sport again
‘Twas Christmas broached the mightiest ale,
‘Twas Christmas told the merry tale;
A Christmas gambol oft would cheer
The poor man’s heart through half the year.
29th December Rode to see Mr Ream still very ill. Skating at P.D. in the afternoon for a hat, won by John Ullyat, his brother Henry 2nd best. Mr Ullyat to tea.
31st December Frost continues, without wind or sun.
By 1830, John was in his 40’s and had a growing family, also beginning to suffer with aches and pains so did not take such an active part in skating. However, in the Fenland area when ever skating was possible, people would have taken the opportunity to skate and matches would have been arranged – details of skating matches can be found, there were several well known Fenland skaters. (see the Museum’s blog).
Today winters when the local waterway freeze and are safe for skating are very rare. As a child in the late 1940’s and 1950’s I do remember skating taking place on the Welle Creek in Outwell and Upwell, matches were arranged at Welney Wash and further afield. Today ice skating takes place in the safety of Ice Skating Rinks and I suppose Ice Hockey has replaced the thrill of Fenland Skating.
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