Get Your Skates On!

Tuesday 17 August 2021

by Dr Jill Haley

While growing up, you might have owned a pair of roller skates. What we think of as a twentieth century pastime actually emerged about 200 years earlier.

In the 1760s, Belgian inventor John Joseph Merlin created a type of skate with a single row of multiple wheels (known today as in-line skates), enabling people to have an ice skating experience in warm weather. That design was commercially revived in 1987 by the well-known company Rollerblade.

Quad skates, the type with four wheels usually associated with the term roller skates, became popular in the 1860s. Unlike in-line skates that were hard to steer or stop, quad skates had the advantage of easy movement.

Early roller skates simply strapped onto the skater's shoes. A photograph taken by Christchurch photographers Standish and Preece in the 1880s features two men wearing strap-on skates. It shows a comedic situation with a well-presented man standing confidently in his skates while supporting a rather dishevelled man who is having great difficulty staying on his feet.

Black and white photo of two men on roller skates

Canterbury Museum 2021.18.71

During the mid-nineteenth century, public roller skating rinks appeared throughout the United Kingdom, the United States of America and Australia, offering the opportunity to indulge in year-round skating. At that time, due to limited refrigeration technology, ice skating was limited to the outdoors and only in freezing temperatures. However, a form of indoor skating with ice skates was possible on a rather unpleasant and smelly layer of lard and salt that somewhat resembled an icy surface. It wasn't until the 1870s when the ability to freeze large sheets of ice was developed that ice skating could move indoors.

In December 1866, New Zealand's first roller rink was opened by W L Sinclair and Charles Mothersill on Weld Street in Hokitika. Mothersill learned to skate from the American performer William Fuller, who travelled the world and entertained crowds with his skating skill. One of the places Fuller performed was in Melbourne in 1860, where Mothersill was living at the time. The West Coast Times described the rink at Hokitika as "an amusement of rather a novel character". Three days later The Press reported that it was "crowded to excess".

Fashion plate showing roller skating indoors

Fashion plate from an Italian women's magazine Margherita showing roller skating in an indoor rink, January 1880

The first skating rink opened in Christchurch on 10 April 1888. The ladies, gentlemen and young people of Christchurch could try their hand (or more appropriately their feet) at the novel pastime at the Columbia Elite Roller Skating Rink in the Tuam Street Hall. Afternoon and evening sessions were held for the general public but ladies could take advantage of morning training sessions for free. Teachers were available at all sessions for instruction, also free of charge.

Skating spread across Canterbury with rinks opening up in Kaiapoi, Prebbleton and Ashburton. A second rink appeared in Christchurch in October 1888, giving the Columbia Elite rink some strong competition. R H Donolly's Palace Skating Rink opened between Armagh and Gloucester Streets (now the site of New Regent Street) and offered patrons the novelty of electric light. Donolly promoted his rink as the "largest and best-appointed Skating Palace in the World". Indeed, housed in a building 240 feet (73 metres) long and 100 feet (30.5 metres) wide and offering 2,000 pairs of skates for hire or purchase, the Palace Skating Rink seemed to live up to that claim. However, the business was a short-lived venture and closed its doors in 1891, replaced on the site by O'Brien's Boot Factory.

Skating continued to be popular into the twentieth century and a number of new rinks were established in Christchurch. In 1902, the Colosseum Skating Rink opened in the old Palace Skating Rink building and patrons could skate-dance to a live band, test their skills with obstacle courses and even participate in couples racing. The Olympia Skating Rink on Hereford Street brought an additional venue to the city in August 1910.

The Sun 8 July 1916

The Sun, 8 July 1916

Competition skating began in New Zealand in 1936 when a test was held in Wellington to select amateur skaters to represent the country in the New South Wales Centennial Amateur Roller Skating Championships in Sydney. The New Zealand Roller Skating Association was soon formed, led by Arthur Power, who managed the Olympia Skating Rink in Christchurch, and G S Bright of the Royal Roller Rink in Wellington. In 1959, the World Roller Skating Congress International Amateur Championships were held in Christchurch.


Programme from the 1959 World Roller Skating Congress International Amateur Championships. Canterbury Museum E.C.174.537

Black and white image of a two-year-old Lynne Whittle skating

Two-year old Lynn Whittle of Christchurch (incorrectly captioned as Lynne), the youngest competitor at the 1959 Roller Skating Championships in Christchurch. Canterbury Museum E.C.174.537

Black and white photo of Joyce and Sandy Allchurch posing in roller skates

Joyce and Sandy Allchurch of Christchurch were the Pair and Dance Skating Champions of New Zealand from 1943–1949. Canterbury Museum E.C.174.537

Although skating had moved into the competitive arena, it continued to be a leisure activity, particularly for children. It was low cost and could be done either indoors as a social activity in a rink or outdoors on the streets with friends. In popular culture, roller skating became a widespread craze during the disco era of the 1970s and early 1980s. A number of Hollywood movies such as 'Xanadu' starring Olivia Newton John and Gene Kelly as well as the lesser-known 'Roller Boogie' and 'Skatetown USA' (Patrick Swayze's film debut) featured skating and glitzy roller disco routines. American television shows were quick to pick up on the revived passion for skating with 'Charlie's Angels' and 'CHiPs' filming scenes in roller rinks. Of course, all of this appealed to teenagers, who embraced the fad. If you were a teenager during the 1970s, you probably owned a pair of skates like the ones below.

1970s roller skates

1970s roller skates. Canterbury Museum 2008.192.1

In the twenty-first century, roller skating continues to be enormously popular. This has been particularly apparent during the recent waves of Covid-19 lockdowns across the globe, and New Zealand has joined the lockdown skating trend. In droves, people have donned roller skates (or purchased new ones – shops across the United Kingdom, the United States of America and New Zealand reported record sales and many shops quickly sold out) and taken to the outdoors for exercise that allows for socialising while being able to maintain social distancing. Rest assured, as the past 250 years of roller skating has shown, the hobby will live on after the pandemic has passed.

Jill HaleyDr Jill Haley is Curator Human History

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