Turkey Smart and a Golden Age of Skating in the Fens
Though I never knew them, I grew up with the Fen Skaters. They seemed to be everywhere, those ancestors of mine, in old tales, in passed down memories and in the very air and damp of the wintery Fens themselves. The skater most often talked about was William Smart, better known as ‘Turkey’. As I grew older, I learned that he was my great, great, great grandfather and the tales of his skating successes, as well as the lives of all the Smart family, both ancient and modern, became the background to my childhood. Diane Calton-Smith, local author.
Winters in the mid nineteenth century were harsh, turning the flooded low lying fields into great sheets of ice. Even the rivers would freeze. Skating had long been the most practical way for ordinary folk to get around in such conditions and most children became proficient skaters by an early age. Skating had become a Fenland tradition, dating back to when skates were nothing more than shaped animal bones strapped to boots.
Left. Bone Skate. Found on Welney Wash, Norfolk. - Wisbech & Fenland Museum.
Metal blades were thought to have been introduced by the Dutch who came with Cornelius Vermuyden to drain the Fens in the mid seventeenth century. By the 1880s, fen runners, the long iron blades used for speed skating were in common use, secured to boots with leather straps and screwed into the heel of the boot to hold them steady. Skates were priced at a shilling and sixpence at this time.
Pictured right - Fen Runners - Wisbech & Fenland Museum.
Most Fenland folk made their living as seasonal agricultural workers, meaning that work often ceased altogether in the winter when the earth was covered in snow and ice. While doing nothing to help their financial wellbeing, this gave them more time for skating and it wasn’t long before races began to be organised for public entertainment.
The first recorded race was run in 1763 from Wisbech to Whittlesey. The prizes on offer were attractive; sides of beef or bacon, beer and purses of money. At a time when most agricultural workers earned a mere eleven shillings a week, such prizes encouraged keen competition. Entry to these early races was restricted to the working classes.Over the years, standardised rules for competitions began to be introduced.
The course was generally half a mile long, the sides being marked out with banked-up snow. At each end was a barrel with a flag inside, the skaters using these markers to make their turn into the return leg of the race. Usually, there were around sixteen competitors and they raced in pairs, lots being drawn to determine pairings and the order of skating.Larman Register of Southery was the undefeated champion at these races for four years. It was only when, in December 1854, that the twenty-four year old Turkey Smart took the title from him and Larman’s winning streak came to an end.
The reign of the Welney Champions had begun and would continue for forty years, with the Lamb and Flag pub at Welney becoming their favourite meeting place and watering hole.
The success of the Welney skaters was eagerly reported in the newspapers of the day, spreading their fame and increasing the popularity of the races, many of which were held at Bury Fen near Ramsey. The long and very cold winters of those times created perfect conditions for skating. Thousands of spectators, keen to see these celebrated skaters race, flocked from all over East Anglia, even from as far as London, to watch the major contests. A carnival atmosphere accompanied these events, with bands providing musical entertainment and stalls selling hot potatoes and roast chestnuts. There was also plenty of gin on sale!
A Champion of a golden age of Fen Skating
William 'Turkey' Smart was born in 1830 in the Fenland village of Welney. It is thought that he never attended school, starting work early as an agricultural labourer, as his forebears had done. At the age of twenty-two, he married Susan See with whom he had eleven children.
There are several ideas concerning the origin of William's nickname. One was that, as a child, he made a pet of the family's Turkeys. On Christmas Day, as the family tucked into their feast, young William apparently enquired as to the identity of the turkey they were eating. He is said to have gone rather quiet on learning that it was his pet. With the usual common sense and hard logic of the Fen people, however, he recovered his senses and went on eating.
Above - Turkey Smart. Image courtesy of The Cambridgeshire Collection.
One of the tales told about Turkey involved some financial advice he received. The local clergyman was concerned about the amount of money the skater kept at home and warned him that he risked having his fortune stolen. Apparently, Turkey told him not to worry; he had placed his money in the bank. This satisfied the clergyman, but Turkey failed to explain that the place of safety he’d chosen was a hole in the bank of the Old Bedford River.
The money Turkey won over the years must greatly have improved the family’s finances, but it is doubtful that Turkey, Susan and their eleven children moved to larger premises.
Most Fenland homes at that time were very simple. Because the peat on which they were built was still in a half-drained, spongy condition, houses were usually single storey. Where bricks were available, they were generally used as flooring, laid directly on to the earth without grout or filler. This was very practical in times of flood, events which occurred so regularly in winter that little fuss was made about them. When the water rose above floor level, the bed was raised on wooden blocks and a plank used to cross the water each night to reach the bed. When the flood water at last subsided, it soaked away between the bricks, leaving a layer of silt on the floor. Housewives took a bucket of clean water and swilled it over the floor, sweeping the water and mud through the gaps in the bricks with a besom brush.
The constant damp meant that houses never really dried out and tended to smell permanently of damp and peat smoke from the fire.
Pictured above - to the L. Gutta - Percha See and R. Turkey Smart
Turkey Smart was soon hailed as the greatest skater the Fens had ever seen. He was tough and sturdily built. He worked as a clay man, digging drainage ditches. The clay he dug was spread over the peaty soil of the banks to give them solidity. The work involved long days of hard toil and helped to develop his leg and thigh muscles, strength which was essential for speed skating.
His skating style was far from graceful, but it was powerful. His body was bent low in a crouching position, his head almost level with his knees. Each stroke could be twelve to sixteen yards long. He skated a very straight course along the narrow frozen drains of the Fens. He was known as morally straight too, never bending the rules or playing tricks on his opponents.
His greatest rival was his brother in law, William ‘Gutta Percha’ See, who also came from Welney. Their keen rivalry continued throughout the 1870s and 80s.
Two images above - Grand skating match on the River Nene, January 19th 1891 with Turkey Smart, James Smart (Turkey's nephew) and Gutta - Percha See.
Friends until the end
In 1861, Turkey was beaten by his great rival Gutta Percha, but then won against him two weeks later. That year the pair shared the championship title.
By 1867 Turkey was thirty-seven years old and had passed his peak. Younger skaters began to outpace him. The friendly rivalry that had existed for so long between Turkey Smart and Gutta Percha See continued into the next generation. Turkey’s three nephews, George ‘Fish’ Smart, Jarman and James Smart, competed with Gutta Percha’s sons, George ‘Young Gutty’ and Isaac See. By 1886, with other skaters such as ‘Knocker’ Carter, they were making a name for themselves.
Turkey and Gutta Percha continued to skate into their sixties and to entertain the crowds by racing each other. Gutta Percha died at 65, but Turkey lived to the age of 89.
He was buried in Welney churchyard, but his memory lives on, tales of his feats and his gentle humour continuing to be told to this day.
John Peck: Diaries and Skates
Local diarist John Peck (1787 – 1851) who set up a farm at Parson Drove and went on to live at Inham Hall in Wisbech St Mary kept meticulous diaries chronicling notable events and everyday activities throughout his life. The diaries are part of the Wisbech & Fenland Museum collection and since the diaries were transcribed in the 1990’s they have become a useful source of local history.
John was an accomplished skater who enjoyed watching competitive races. There are many references to skating in his diary entries from 1814 to 1851.
In one of Peck’s diaries we are transported back to 1823 with Peck travelling to Wisbech to see a series of races and skating matches:
Cold cutting black wind frost. Rode to Wisbech to see a grand skating match between 16 of the first-rate runners for a purse of 10 sovereigns, which was won by John Young of Nordelph. The course was about one and three quarter miles, and was run in 5 min. 33 sec. in the race between May and Young. Some thousands of spectators lined the banks of the river from the Bridge to near the Beerhouse, being the whole length of the course, and all seemed much gratified"
The diary entries are written up as a reportage. Readers can chart the range of fen skating matches and number of races held in this short space of time.
‘Jan. 1. A free prize of 3 guineas was run for at Crowland and won by a Mr. Bradford from Yaxley.’
‘Jan. 13. Some skating on Shire Drain for a new hat, which was won by a young man named Putterill of St. James. Same day, a free prize of 10 guineas was run for at March, and won by James May of Upwell, beating John Youngs, Bradford, and others.’
‘Jan. 14. Another hat run for on Shire Drain and won by R. Pogson of Wisbech St. Mary’s. On the same course William Eate beat S. Andrew, £1, and A. Ulyat beat B. Ream, 5/-. Same day, a free prize of 10 sovereigns was run for at Chatteris, and won by J. Youngs, beating May, Gittem, Bradford, and others; the day being remarkably fine, it was computed that 6,000 persons were present.’
The number of spectators grows as the skating season continues and the sums of money given as prize winnings become more significant amounts, for example, 10 Sovereigns would be the equivalent of a agricultural worker’s wages over a three-month period. Races were highly competitive with such high reward.
‘Jan. 15. A free prize of 6 guineas run for at Upwell by second - rate skaters, and won by young Trower of Upwell.’
‘Jan. 17. A hat run for on the 30 Foot Drain at Parson Drove, won by Jeremiah Ulyat. 31’
‘Jan. 20. A free prize of 6 guineas run for at Crowland and won by Mr. Egar* of Thorney Fen, beating the famous Charles Staples; none of the other first-rate runners were present.’
‘Jan. 21. At Wisbech John Ulyat, William Peck and Jeremiah Ulyat ran 5 races and won them all.’
‘Jan. 24. A grand concluding skating - match at Wisbech between 16 of the first - rate runners for a purse of 10 sovereigns, which was won by J. Youngs of Nordelph beating May, Trower, Egar* and Torry. Many thousand spectators lined the banks of the river from the great bridge to Barton Lane End, near the whole length of the course, which was about 1 and three - quarter miles (twice round), and was run, in the race between Youngs and May, in 5 minutes and 33 seconds.’
Artist Josh Murfitt started to look at his family history when he visited The Limes, and number 16, the house where his Great Uncle Philip and Great Aunt Rosemary and generations of his family before them lived. The artist explains that ‘Through speaking to family and friends of Philip I hoped to learn something about the house, my family, and the way life has changed in the Cambridgeshire Fens over the last century.’
Above - Josh Murfitt's Book 'The Limes' and his Great Uncle's newspaper cuttings. Photo credit Josh Murfitt.
Murfitt's Great Uncle was a keen follower of the sport and kept a record of championships and newspaper cuttings.
He owned 18 pairs of skates which are listed in his hand-written inventory.
A series of letters from local merchants dating back to the 1960s and kept in his files ever since responding to his requests for a particular pair of Norwegian ‘Fagan’ speed skates also form part of the collection.
The last letter in the sequence is from R.S. Bennett & Co. Ltd. Agricultural Engineers, Ironmongers & Builders’ Merchants of King’s Lynn, reporting that they had a pair in stock and reserved for him.
'The Limes', is a combination of documentary photography, archive material, reflections and narrative and is a one of a kind contemporary artist's response to fen skating.
Above - Skate inventory of Josh Murfitt's Great Uncle.
Above - Letter from R. S. Bennett & Co. Ltd, informing that the Fagan speed skates have arrived.
The Fen Sport of Bandy
The winter sport of bandy is a fast-paced form of ice hockey and has been described as ‘ancient hockey on ice’. Bandy began in the Fens and it was a sport that was popular and played locally up till the First World War.
The first bandy match was played on Bury Fen in Bluntisham, Huntingdonshire. The local team were the Bury Fen Bandy Club who were unbeaten in 100 years of playing the sport competitively. James Tebbutt, was team Captain of the Bury Fen Bandy Club and responsible for creating a formal set of rules for the sport. His team toured in Europe in 1891 promoting the sport. Today Bandy is becoming a global sport, it has its own World Championships and has been recognised as an Olympic sport. It was played as a ‘demonstration’ sport in the Olympics at Oslo in 1952 however it has not been played.
Today, a petition is gathering momentum to instate Bandy as one of the sports in the Winter Olympics of 2026.
Cyril Horn from Wisbech to the Olympics
Olympian and Wisbech Blacksmith, Cyril Horn began his skating career competing in Fen Skating championships.
Horn grew up locally in nearby Upwell. During World War 1 he worked as a blacksmith in Wisbech producing horseshoes for the British Army. He became a farmer after World War 1 and this is when his skating career really took off. He won four British championships and was a record holder in one-mile races. Horn competed in the 1924 and 1928 Winter Olympics in Speed Skating.
He was a popular and well-known sportsman, even featuring on a series of cigarette cards shown left. The inscription tells the story of Horn’s Skating Championship win at Lingay Fen in December 1933.
Frederick Fincham Long
Race winning skates were uncovered and a family history search brought to life following a chance encounter on social media in November 2020.
The fenland skates pictured above with a handwritten note belonged to Frederick Long. The skates are marked as Sheffield Steel from the factory of W. Marples and date back to the late 19th Century. Speed skater, Frederick Long won a One Mile Race on Cuckoo’s Hollow, Werrington in the early 1920s. Cuckoo’s Hollow at this time was made up a series of dykes pastureland and a stream/ brook running through and the mile race took place on the frozen brook.
Cuckoo’s Hollow was landscaped in the 1970s becoming a nature reserve with the creation of a lake to replace the Brook. Nearby, Skaters Way is a reminder of the sporting history of the site.
We are delighted to be able to explore the collection at Wisbech & Fenalnd Museum and the local history of Fen skating with the help of our community curators during lockdown. Local stories about champion skater, Turkey Smart are shared for the first time by his descendant, local author and historian, Diane Calton-Smith in this first installment of our exploration of Fen skating.
Our thanks go to the Museums Association and Esmee Fairbairn Sustaining Engagement with Collections Fund and our community curator, Diane Calton-Smith.
Special thanks to
Billy and Mark at Tin Fish and Curatorial Assistant, Sarah Cousins for their expertise in developing the exhibition pages.
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