[From Manx Quarterly #6, 1909]
That there is nothing new under the sum is an adage applicable to the roller-skating craze which has during the last Month or so taken hold of the people of Douglas. About a generation ago in 1875 or 1876, to be more precise a very similar condition of things to that which now obtains in the town prevailed One Greatrex, a dryly-humorous gentleman, whose great cleverness was neutralised by lack of what is termed ballast, is to be credited with the introduction of roller-skating in the Island. Then, as now, the rage originated in the land of wooden nutmegs. Mr Greatrex had spent several years of his somewhat chequered life in the United States, and had there observed the popularity of wheel skates. It struck him that there was money to the business, and accordingly he, with the idea of raking in the shekels, took a hall in Douglas known as Belle Vue, which was approached from the Parade. By the way, this hall, which had a frontage to the beach between the Victoria and Red Piers, is now a portion of the Isle of Man Steam Packet Company's premises. Mr Greatrex had the floor dressed until it presented a very passable surface, and by dint of advertisement and the judicious issue of invitations the opening night was a pronounced success. Roller skating at once "caught on" and in the course of a week almost assumed the proportions of a mania. Everybody went skating; members of the upper ten and others of low degree commingled on the rink, and in their efforts to become proficient in the art came croppers just as they are doing in these days. To revert to the opening night at Belle Vue, it maybe remembered by elderly and middle-aged residents of Douglas that the proceedings were enlivened by a pugilistic encounter. Two gentlemen they must have been perfect gentlemen collided, and as both were quick-tempered, there was wordy recrimination, which ultimately developed into fisticuffs. The combatants were useful men with their hands, but as they were on roller-skates and were far from proficient as skaters their exhibition of the noble art was not very edifying, and though the onlookers dearly delighted in a " scrap," they ultimately sundered and separated the floundering gladiators. Mr Greatrex did not for long enjoy a monopoly, and herein has history again repeated itself in Douglas. The Wellington Hall was converted into a rink by Messrs Joe Condliff and W. F. Marsden the latter a brother of the present Mayor of Douglas both of whom have joined the Great Majority. Further misfortune overtook the pioneer of the movement in the fact that he was compelled to surrender the tenancy of Belle Vue. Mr Greatrex, however, was both resourceful and courageous, and on being turned out of Belle Vue, be took what was then the Drill Hall, a building situate on the Lake, and now used as a spinning shed in connection with the rope manufactory of Messrs Quiggin and Co. Doubtless he would have done well enough in the Drill Hall but for the fact that still another piece of bad luck came to him this time in regard to the skates he let out for hire. These were of English manufacture, but the outcome of some expensive litigation was that they were declared to be an infringement of the patent granted in England to the Yankee gentleman, hight Plimpton, who was credited with the invention of roller-skates Though the English skates were a considerable improvement on the original article, their manufacture was suppressed, and those which were in use were called in. With the calling in, the enterprise of Mr Greatrex was brought to an untimely end, and he eventually left the Island a poorer and perchance a wiser man than when he set foot on our to him inhospitable shores. But the Wellington Hall people were not suffered to have a walk over so far as bidding for popularity was concerned. They had just laid down a cement rink when the late Mr Tom Handley, of the Bowling Green Hotel, formed an outdoor rink upon the ground which is now used as the lower green in the rear of the hotel ; and about the same time the late Mr. Charles Udall, the builder of the Railway and Villiers Hotels, set out a rink also on al fresco lines in the rear of the Marina Hotel at Port Erin. But all these were eclipsed by the erection of a spacious rink in Buck's Road. The building was of corrugated iron and glass, while the floor was of Val de Travers asphalt, the surface being a superb one. In addition to the covered rink there was an outdoor floor, and combined, the area was probably about three-quarters that of the Palace.
Ramsey folk, too, were smitten with the craze, and a pretty building with an excellent floor was erected for the accommodation of skaters in Waterloo-road. This building still stands, though of course it is no longer used for skating. But who knows how soon it may revert to its original purpose? Then the citizens of Peel, not to be outdone by the mere towns of the Island, provided facilities for indulgence in the prevalent pastime somewhere in the vicinity of the Peel railway station. If we are not mistaken, the cement surface at the Marina Hotel now the Eagle at Port Erin is still in being, though somewhat dilapidated. In those days of over thirty years ago there were some famous skaters evolved on the Manx rinks. In the matter of fancy and ornamental performance on the rink, several amateurs constantly frequented the Wellington Hall and Buck's road rinks who could give points and a good beating to present-day professionals, while those of the accomplished skaters who devoted their energies to the attainment of high speed could get up a tremendous pace. Some of these yet survive, but time, the inveterate enemy, has put a period to their feats of agility and swiftness on the rollers. Yet can some of them make a creditable show in 1908. The skates used in the seventies had wooden rollers and were not fitted with ball bearings ; indeed they were altogether inferior articles to those now in evidence on the rinks. High bicycles then popularly known as "spiders " came in about the same time as roller skates, and in the Buck's-road rink cycling and skating races were frequently held. Although these competitions for a time attracted good "gates," they were generally unsatisfactory affairs. The course was necessarily a small one, and as there was little or no "straight" in it, the cyclist or skater who managed to get smartest away at the start usually maintained his or her advantage throughout owing to the difficulty of passing at the almost constant curves That accidents of a serious character did not occur in the cycling races is something to marvel at ; but as a matter of fact falls were infrequent, and hard as was the asphalt floor those competitors who did come to the ground were never any the worse for their involuntary contact with the adamantine surface. As for skating risks, it may inspire confidence in modern aspirants to learn that accidents to skaters of thirty odd years ago seldom occurred. One or two cases of fractured arms and a few of sprained ankles took place, but on the whole the immunity from casualty was remarkable. The craze lasted but a very short time, and nobody made any money out of it in Douglas rather was it the other way about. It is not likely that latter day revivalists of rink-laying will be able to extract much comfort from this, but as faithful chroniclers we have to set down the truth, no matter bow unpalatable it may prove to the people who have invested in rink floors of maple and skates of steel. All the rinks except that situate in Buck's-road were closed within a couple of years, and Buck's-road, though it had a longer existence, was never a financial success. Its original promoters soon parted with it to the late Mr James Taggart and Mr Richard Clucas the latter one of the Kionslieu Clucases and they in their turn made it over to a Mr Stokes. Eventually nobody would go skating, and the stock of skates was sold by auction. Most of them got into the bands of Douglas small boys, who used the cement footways of the town as rinks, and thereby made miserable for a time the life of the ordinary pedestrian. About ten years ago an effort was made to again popularise roller-skating in Douglas. The building then known as The Marina now the Gaiety Theatre was utilised as a rink, and for a few months the pastime had some vogue among Douglasians of the bourgeois class. But the rage was even more evanescent than in the 'seventies, for it died out in the course of one winter. Whether the craze which has now seized upon the people will prove more lasting remains to be seen, but, judging from past experience, the great likelihood is that once the days lengthen appreciably, the desire to go rinking will wane.
Isle of Man Examiner, Dec. 1908.