Although ice hockey is considered to be a somewhat dangerous pastime, few expect a game to end in wholesale tragedy. Yet this is precisely what occurred in London during the winter of 1867 in the very infancy of the sport.
Then, as now, natural ice thick enough to skate on was a rarity in England's capital city. So when January brought temperatures of 13° and below for day after day, any Londoner who could beg or borrow a pair of ice skates made for one of the lakes in the city's parks. As many as 17,000 visited Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens; fortunately the 18 acres of the Ornamental Water in Regent's Park were chosen by a much smaller number, a mere 500.
Some of the Regent's Park crowd skated sedately; others executed elaborate curls and figures. A great many of the young bloods, however, chose to play a fast, newly popular game called "bandy," or "hockey on ice," in which two teams, armed with curved sticks of willow, attempted to score goals with a 2½-inch disk of rubber.
Although Jan. 15 was a normal working Tuesday, the scene in the park on that day was like a holiday. The banks of the lake were thronged with thousands of spectators enjoying the sport and the rare winter sun. Street vendors moved in with their carts to extol the merits of their oranges, brandyballs and hot chestnuts. The only people at work were the park keepers, who were busily breaking the ice around the edges of the pond for the benefit of the tame waterfowl.
It was the park keepers, during the early afternoon, who first noticed a few thin cracks appearing in the surface of the ice. They advised some nearby skaters—not too emphatically—of possible danger and suggested that they ought not to stay too long, but no one took much notice, least of all the bandy players, whose game went on with increased speed and vigor.
By 3:30 it should have been obvious to almost everyone that a breakup was imminent. The cracks had increased to such numbers that there was hardly more than a yard of unmarked ice. Water seeped through to spread visibly over the surface. Yet few people left. At 4, three children and two adults plummeted through the ice only 12 feet from the shore. Almost at the same moment a group of a dozen people near the opposite bank suddenly sank into the water as a crowd of 200 watched and foolishly remained on the ice. In the panic that followed, all 200 crowded toward an area where the ice looked the most firm. Within seconds 200 heads were bobbing in the water.
Those who were skating were the first to die, for even a strong swimmer can scarcely make progress when each foot is ballasted by a weight of steel. Swimmers and nonswimmers alike tried to grab the nearest slab of floating ice. A few flimsy rescue wherries were carried on spectators' shoulders and launched, but their rowers could make only slow progress through the jagged chunks of broken ice. Ropes were joined until they were long enough to span the whole lake, but it proved impossible to pull in the victims through the ice. They had to hold on in the hope that a boat might reach them while they were still strong enough to grip the freezing line. Suddenly one rope snapped, and a row of heads disappeared for the last time below the water. Their hats still floated on the surface, as did the baskets of the orange vendors.
One near victim of the disaster was also its best historian, a young man named Francis Skrine. He was one of the bandy players, and soon after the main breakup he found himself immersed in the center of the lake, 200 yards from shore, where he knew the water to be 12 feet deep. "I looked for a means of escape," he wrote later, "and saw close by an employee of the Royal Humane Society, with cork life belt and ladder, making his way gingerly towards the shore. My entreaties to be allowed a share of his life belt were answered by am imprecation and the remark that he 'would have enough to do' to save himself."
Skrine seized a four-foot floe and hung on to it while his strength waned. Soon he saw the Royal Society's ladder, now abandoned, floating a few feet away. Burdened by his skates, he made a few desperate swimming strokes and after two submersions reached it in safety.
"The entire surface of the lake was covered with human heads," he noted in his account of it all, "their owners clinging desperately to ice floes and rending the air with their entreaties for help. The shores were fringed by a yelling mob of spectators, intensely excited but utterly unable to assist their perishing fellow creatures close by; a stalwart fellow who had been one of the most eager and profane of our hockey players, was praying fervently for mercy. Seeing my ladder, he implored me to push it within his reach. The drowning wretch abandoned his temporary support and clutched at my ladder, but the effort was beyond his powers. He went under, and the last I saw of him was two clenched fists slowly sinking between two adjacent floes."
Some time later, according to Skrine, "a delicious dreaminess invaded my senses." He fainted and was the last person to be rescued, after four hours in the water. He was taken to a private house overlooking the park, where he recovered consciousness seven hours after the disaster. His frozen fingers were so tightly wrapped around the rungs that they had to carry him to the house complete with the ladder. He lost his fingernails, but otherwise suffered no permanent harm. Two days later he was up again, helping the authorities to drag the lake for bodies.
The great disaster, like most of its kind, produced unexpected heroes. Once ice starts to break, no part of its surface is safe. Yet an elderly laborer was seen to walk across the cracking surface to an island, sling an unconscious man across his back and then walk back to shore. A medical student named Whitefoord saved at least five people. He hauled them to the island with a rope, gave them brandy and then assisted them 200 yards to the shore.
That night eight bodies were recovered and taken to a temporary mortuary at the Marylebone workhouse; next day there were a further 15, including an orange vendor, a 9-year-old boy, a butler, a rich city merchant—a cross section of all London. In the end no fewer than 42 bodies were recovered. Many were young men in their prime; not a few were the players of the energetic young game of hockey on ice.