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.
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.
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.
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.’
We are delighted to be able to explore the collection at Wisbech & Fenalnd Museum and the local history of fen skating working with community curators.Local stories about champion skater, Turkey Smart are and for the first time, the illuminating writings of local diarist John Peck and those of local people who were fans and collectors are being brought together.
Our thanks go to the Museums Association and Esmee Fairbairn Sustaining Engagement with Collections Fund. Our community curators, Diane Calton-Smith and Peter Holmes. We thank Dot Halfhide at Thorney Museum, Alex Davies and Josh Murfitt for providing images and sharing stories with us.
Special thanks to
Tin Fish and Curatorial Assistant, Sarah Cousins for their expertise in developing the exhibition pages.
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