A design for the wheels of roller-skates had been patented in Birmingham in 1876 by William Brown. He worked closely with Joseph Henry Hughes who patented a ball or roller bearing race for bicycle and carriage wheels in 1877. It was a further thirty years before the use of the roller-skate for pleasure, exercise and sport really took off. By 1909 there were better roller-skates using ball bearings with fibre wheels and the floors of the rinks were of maple wood instead of concrete or asphalt which greatly improved the skaters’ experience. This led to an explosive boom in roller-skating, known then as ‘rinking’, between 1908 and 1912: in 1910 there were 526 rinks in Britain, the largest of them catering for thousands of skaters and spectators, while a more typical size catered for hundreds. In support of the hobby there were at this time four specialist magazines, often covering the tours of the country put on by professional fancy and trick skaters such as the American, Harley Davidson, who finished his show by leaping backwards over seven chairs, turning a complete circle in the air. Roller push-ball, roller football and very popular fancy-dress carnivals were some of the range of activities that ‘rinking’ offered its followers. Racing and roller-hockey clubs were also formed. From 1911, however, popular interest around the country in roller-skating began to wane, largely because of developments in the moving picture industry: a less energetic, more passive, but equally gripping new craze was under way.
The Falkirk district was no exception to the way in which the craze developed and then faded away as this article will attempt to show, using the reports on the subject carried by the ‘Falkirk Herald’ at the time. It would appear that until specialised accommodation for the hobby was available some of the larger halls of the area were being used. On the 28th of August 1909, for instance, the Falkirk Herald recorded a ‘Roller Skating Accident’:
“On Thursday evening last a rather unfortunate accident occurred on the roller-skating rink conducted in the Masonic Hall. One of the rinkers, a young lady, had just risen from a seat and was in the act of setting off round the hall when she fell. Her arm doubled under her and on examination it was found that she had sustained a compound fracture of the wrist. She was at once taken home and medically attended to.”
This was probably not the only example of the risks of rinking! In the following month, 4th September 1909, the Herald recorded the proposed conversion of the Oddfellows’ Hall, Grahamston,
“into an up-to-date roller-skating rink…The enterprise is being run by Mr Peter Malley, cycle agent, and the rink will be under expert management. The large hall is being specially prepared for the purpose it is to serve both during the day and evening. …The best roller skate that is procurable, and which is used on 96% of the American rinks, has been obtained, and specimens of it are at present on view in the window of Mr Malley’s cycle shop. There will be a refreshment buffet and music will be provided during the evenings.”
Evidence is here of the social nature of the rinks, the refreshments and music, presumably for dancing among other things, provided. There is also a link to an earlier ‘craze’, the passion for cycling, among both men and women and across most sections of society, that was at its peak in the 1890s when 1.5 million men and women in the UK were cyclists: one of the best examinations of this in fiction being ‘The Wheels of Chance’ by H’ G’ Wells. The scholar and writer of ghost stories, M. R. James, took his French holiday tours on a variety of tricycles and bicycles. Mr Malley obviously saw a way to ride the coat-tails of the new ‘rinking’ craze at a time when the earlier passion for the bicycle might well have died down a little.
Large halls were not the only buildings converted or adapted for rinking. On the 2nd of October 1909 the Herald reported that
“the roller-skating rink which has been constructed in the old Diamond Foundry at Grahamston Bridge by the Scottish Provincial Roller Skating Rink Company Limited, will be opened on Friday first.”
The report provides interesting details on the conversion and on the companies carrying it out, in this case a national group and not a consortium of local business proprietors such as Mr Malley: reporting that plans had been submitted by Mrs Lillie Williams, The Gaiety Theatre, Dundee, the Falkirk Herald reported as follows:
“Edinburgh experts have laid the floor with the best quality of maple and, so the far as the flooring and floor space is concerned the skater will have every reason to be satisfied….Mr James Marshall, Falkirk, who has the painting contract, has performed his work in a thoroughly tradesman-like manner, the colours being beautifully blended and giving a pleasing effect to the interior of the rink. The premises will be illuminated with electricity by Messrs J E Cuthbertson and Co, electrical engineers, Falkirk, and in addition to large incandescent lights there will be numerous coloured and clear smaller lamps placed throughout the skating hall.”
A local architect, Alex Gauld, Falkirk, had designed the reconstruction necessary, and other local contractors employed were George Sanderson, builder, Messrs Drummond and Crowe, slaters and plasterers, George Summers, plumber, Messrs Christie and Miller, upholsterers. As with the Oddfellows’ Hall there was “a splendid refreshment buffet.” Also mentioned was the provision of “a smaller rink…for learners, to whom a staff of instructors will attend.” Lavish provision of music was also noted: “the services of a capital orchestra have been obtained;” described as “a military orchestra of twelve performers” they were accommodated on a specially constructed raised bandstand. It is clear that the rinks were a source of employment for local tradesmen and possibly local people, including the “boy attendants” who fitted on the roller-skates themselves. The opening ceremony was carried out by Provost Christie and many hundreds of people were present at the first evening of the rink’s operation, witnessing among other things, a roller-skate rugby match and several races for prizes.
Rinks were soon established in the surrounding towns of the Falkirk area. By the end of October 1909, the Larbert Skating Palace, with a rink of 90ft by 45ft and capable of accommodating 200 skaters, was ready for opening. Again, refreshments were provided, there was a maple floor, and “lighting the latest in incandescence.” In the same month one of the large sheds of the Broomhill Paper Works, Bonnybridge, was fitted up to “meet the requirements” of 280 skaters. The Bonnybridge Brass Band was present at the opening, but it is not reported that it was a permanent fixture at the rink. By the 27th of November 1909 the Herald was recording the opening of another rink, this time in the Public Hall, Glasgow Road, Denny. There were afternoon and evening sessions on a floor made this time of pitch pine and yet again “a refreshment buffet for the supply of temperance refreshments has been provided at the rink for the skaters and spectators.” In December 1911 a rink was opened by Thomas Laing in the hall at Laing’s Biscuit Factory in the main street of Slamannan.
The fullest details which are to be found about rinks in the area concern “the roller-skating rink at Brockville” also referred to as “the Hope Street Roller Skating Rink” and officially as the Olympia Roller Skating Rink. On the 25th of December 1909 the Falkirk Herald carried this report:
“The formal opening took place yesterday afternoon of the new Olympia Roller Skating Rink, which has been promoted by a local company, and which affords the public of Falkirk and district additional facilities for enjoying what has now become one of the most popular of modern pastimes and recreations. The new rink occupies a central and prominent site in Hope Street, easy of access from all parts of the town and neighbourhood. The building has been designed and constructed on the most up-to-date and approved principles. Externally it is handsome and imposing, the design being striking and pleasing, and from its ornate nature should add considerably to the architectural features of Falkirk. The front entrance, which is in the centre of the building, has been built in the form of a tower with a dome on the top, and from this tower and the subsidiary towers at each side, flags are flown, and add to the attractive appearance of the structure. The large skating rink occupies the main area of the building and has a surface of about 13,000 square feet. It has been covered with the finest lake and rock maple laid in the most approved manner, and carefully surfaced with a planing machine specially built for this purpose. It gives ample accommodation for many hundred skaters at a time. The roof over the main area is constructed on the Belfast principle, with trusses, thus giving a floor-space entirely free of pillars and other constructions. The lattices of the trusses give a very decorative effect. The lighting of the building is on the clerestory principle, no roof-lights being used at all, thus obviating leakage and condensation over the skating surface. The roof, being wholly of wood on the inside, this does away with the difficulty of condensation entirely. The bandstand is suspended from the centre of the roof, an arrangement, which gives the best results from the skaters’ and spectators’ point of view, as it centralises the music. The accommodation is sufficient to seat fifteen bandsmen comfortably. The idea of a central suspended bandstand was introduced into this country by the architect, and this is the second example of its adoption over here. Like all other good ideas, there is now a strong tendency to copy it in the most modern rinks. The pillars and rails separating the skating surface from the promenade have been thickly padded, which will minimise the risk of accident to skaters. There is ample terrace and seating accommodation for the use of spectators, and it has been elevated in such a way as to give a complete and unobstructed view of the rink. In the painting of the interior the blending of colours has been very tastefully managed, the general aspect being bright and pleasing. A learners’ rink, also laid with maple, has been provided for novices, who will thus be able to make some progress before going on to the main rink and interfering with the more advanced skaters. There is also extensive accommodation for the general purposes of the establishment, including ladies’ and gentlemen’s cloak-rooms, skate-rooms, manager’s office, and other offices, etc. A large and well-equipped tea-terrace is a prominent feature of the rink. Fire hydrants are situated at convenient points of the rink, and there are several exits in case of emergency. The lighting throughout is by electricity, and over the skating surface powerful arc lamps are suspended. The Falkirk Iron Company’s anthracite stoves are used throughout for heating purposes, and, as visitors will find, give excellent heating results. The skates are the new model “Wolf” skates, made in this country, and embodying the best features of the different skates on the market. They have met with universal acceptance and are now largely displacing American and foreign-made skates. The directors of the Olympia have endeavoured to procure the best musical talent available and intend to make a feature of the music by keeping it quite up-to-date and varied in character. Mr H. Balmer, the manager, has under him an efficient staff of instructors and attendants, and in all respects the Olympia is splendidly equipped for its purpose.
The building was designed by Mr George A Boswell, architect, Bothwell Street, Glasgow, who deserves credit for the manner in which the various features of the design have been handled. The general contractor was Mr Hall Nicol, Hamilton, and sub-contractors were: plumber work, Mr David Draper, Falkirk; electric lighting, Messrs Thomas Laurie & Co, Falkirk; painter work, Mr James Marshall, Falkirk; plaster work, Mr D McNair, Falkirk.”
185 feet long and 70 feet wide, the Olympia was built in the space of seven weeks.
This splendid building did not exist for long as a rink: On the 4th of March 1911 the Falkirk Herald announced that it was up for sale by public roup at an upset price of £1000. The skating craze had been overtaken, just as it had overtaken the cycling fad, and the movies had come to town. In July 1911, a few months after the sale of the Olympia, the Falkirk Herald announced :
“NEW PICTURE PALACE FOR FALKIRK
We learn that the building in Hope Street, lately known as the Olympia Skating Rink, has been sold to a gentleman acting on behalf of a London Picture Theatre Syndicate. It is his intention to re-model the premises to meet the requirements of an up-to-date picture palace, and pans are at present being prepared for submission to the Dean of Guild Court.”
Richards, Jay and Company, London, were the new proprietors and their cinema was to have seating for 900 people. It was due to open by the 22nd of December 1911.
The short-lived craze for indoor roller-skating gave way to the moving pictures which are still, in various guises, with us. That is another story.
Allan Ronald (2021)
For more information about what happened to the Olympia Roller Skating Rink building, CLICK HERE to read about one of the works of Falkirk architect, James G. Callander.