Roller skating was one of Edwardian Britain’s ‘crazes’ – to be enjoyed, as this comic card shows us, by all the family. One could, of course, as I did as a child in the 1950s, roller skate in the streets, but in the years before the First World War entrepreneurs hoping to cash in on the craze ventured to erect roller skating rinks in towns the length and breadth of Britain.
While I am sure that many individual suffragettes and suffragists enjoyed a spin around their local rink, there was one episode of suffragette history that centred on a specific London roller skating rink. For on census night 1911 – 2 April – it was at the Aldwych Skating Rink that the militant suffrage societies – the Women’s Social and Political Union and the Women’s Freedom League, together with related societies such as the Tax Resistance League – urged their supporters to muster. Here, out of their homes, they would escape detailed enumeration.
When interviewed in the 1970s by Sir Brian Harrison (Women’s Library 8 SUF/B/024), Marie Lawson, an important figure in the Women’s Freedom League, remembered that ‘We formed immediately a census resistance group – women who said ‘we don’t count; we won’t be counted’ – that they would stay out somehow – out of a house or roof during the period when you had to be recorded. Our group took the Aldwych skating rink for the night – we hired it. Nobody was supposed to be sleeping there. We had roller skates and we spent the night on roller skates and there was no-one to declare us and when we went away in the morning we were very weary, very tired with our roller skating but we felt we had done the government out of so many names on the census resistance. It wasn’t very useful really but it was something to do. We used to grab at every little thing, you know, that we could make a protest about. It was advertising really.’
So it was that, after a late-evening rally in Trafalgar Square, the suffragettes promenaded down the Strand to the Aldwych where it was estimated by the Census Office that 500 women and 70 men gathered at the Skating Rink. Although the numbers were recorded, the identity of most of that 570 is lost – only those whose names are mentioned in the Votes for Women report (7 April 1911) can be placed there with certainty. These included Mrs Pankhurst, Ethel Smyth and, among members of the Actresses’ Franchise League who provided the entertainment, Decima Moore and her sister, Ada, Adeline Bourne, Winifred Mayo, Inez Bensusan, Rosa Leo, Sidney Keith, Miss Laing and Natalia de Meix. Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence was also there. She certainly did her bit to disrupt the census, being enumerated in three separate places- once in her Clement’s Inn flat, once in her Surrey country cottage and, again, here at the Aldwych. By way of contrast, no trace of a census paper for Christabel Pankhurst has been found – but she was there in the Skating Rink, bringing the entertainments to a rousing conclusion at 3.30 am.
Here is Decima Moore photographed that night inside the Skating Rink. I am pretty certain that she is captured doing her party piece -Laurence Housman’s ‘Women This and Women That’. In the photograph we can see, behind the audience and the NWSPU ‘No Vote No Census’ banner, the walls of the skating rink – rather bare as one might expect. ‘What kind of structure was it?’, I wondered and, moreover, ‘where was it?’ ‘Aldwych’ was a rather vague address.
I discovered that the Aldwych Skating Rink was first listed in the rate books in 1911, provisionally numbered 10 Aldwych. The Kingsway/Aldwych area that to us today looks so solidly Edwardian was, in 1911, still in a state of flux.
Kingsway had been driven through – it was formally opened in 1905 – and the curve of the Aldwych formed, but it was not until well into the 1920s that all the plots were sold and developed. Thus, from the rate book, I could see that no 10 Aldwych was surrounded by vacant lots enclosed in advertising hoardings, the hoarding company paying a rent for their advertisements.
But I was still unclear as to precisely where no 10 was. However, the rate book came to the rescue, recording that on one side of no 10 the lot was owned by the London County Council and was ‘used for advertising station on frontage line from Houghton Street to roller skating rink. On its other side –provisionally numbered no 8 – was an advertising station north-east on the frontage line east of the roller skating rink. So this seemed to establish that the skating rink was on the north-east curve of Aldwych, to the east of Houghton Street. Clement’s Inn, the WSPU headquarters, virtually abutted the rear of the plot. What more suitable venue to book for such an evening than this, probably the nearest large hall?
The owner of the skating rink was Edward Johnson Wilson who had formed his company, ‘Rinkeries’, in 1909. In 1911 the company also ran ‘ideal skating palaces’ on the Holloway Road, as well as in Exeter, Plymouth and St Leonards. Like many other roller-skating rink companies, whose liquidations, as recorded in the London Gazette, are a sad testament to so many lost hopes, ‘Rinkeries’ does not appear to have been very successful; Edward Wilson was doubtless glad of the windfall of a night’s rent from the WSPU.
But I still did not know what the skating rink looked like. It is difficult now to conjure up the appearance of that Aldwych curve before the arrival of the imperial solidity of the buildings we see today. From looking at contemporary photographs of Kingsway, dominated by empty plots and high advertising hoardings, I could imagine that the area must have felt strange and impermanent. The old higgledy-piggledy rookery streets around Holywell Street and Houghton Street – that many of the suffragettes would have remembered – had been swept away, but the new order had not yet arrived. In this aerial photograph, probably taken c 1918 after the completion of Australia House (in the centre foreground), the Aldwych Skating Rink would have been – and perhaps still was – one of the low buildings in the bottom right of the picture.
But in 1911 the southern side of the road had not been developed at all. With few buildings to throw out light, the area was doubtless rather dark. What kind of building was it that the suffragettes waited outside that night – surrounded by, in effect, a building site – while posses of hooligans attempted to storm the rink’s doors?
I have not been able to locate a photograph, but, as luck would have it, I found the answer in the ‘Rinkeries’ file in the National Archives – its presence there a consequence of the company’s eventual liquidation. There, as a heading to ‘Rinkeries’ notepaper, was an engraving of the Aldwych Skating Rink. I could now see that it comprised four linked, gabled structures –chalet-type – single storey. The effect, for all the panache of many flying union flags, was somewhat temporary – as it was no doubt in reality. What a contrast to its successors.
During the First World War the Aldwych Skating Rink was used as a clearing house for Belgian refugees. This watercolour, in the Imperial War Museum collection, shows the building after it was hit in a Zeppelin raid on 13 October 1915. The church in the background is St Clement Danes. The Rink must have been swept away by the end of the war, to make way for the monumental buildings that still occupy the central section of that Aldwych curve. It takes an effort to reimagine its former appearance – but to do so helps us to enter the 1911 worldview of the census evaders.
To listen to a talk I gave on the suffragette boycott at a National Archives conference on the 1911 census click here