This is the story of a proud Colchester business, its family intrigues and its downfall- and its rise again. But mostly a surprising story of the largest skating rink in Britain – in 1882
Did you know that in 1882, Colchester was home to not one, but two of the first and certainly the largest roller skating rinks built in Britain at that time? It was in St. Johns Street, where Wilkinson’s and QD stores now stands, the whole area between Chapel Street and Abbeygate Street, stretching back as far as St Johns Green was the rose growing gardens of Benjamin Cant.
Cants of Colchester have been famous, perhaps world leaders in the cultivation and breeding of roses since the business was founded in 1765. Like some of our more modern horticultural business, Benjamin Cant, decided to diversify into leisure in 1881 and, inspired by tales coming from the United Stets, built two huge skating rinks side by side on his land in St Johns Street, one outdoor, and one indoor, seating 1200 people. It was a huge, elegant and beautifully built building, made from two kinds of brick with a terracotta frieze around the outside. The access to the rinks was via a new road, called Rink Road. The road is still there, but now renamed St. Johns Avenue.
While he kept some of the land and glasshouses for roses and other horticultural pursuits, much of the remaining land was given over to a pleasure garden. That was of course before Castle Park was opened, so this was the only formal garden that people could stroll around at dusk. However, unlike the notorious pleasure gardens of the Georgian age, this it seems, was highly respectable.
Mr Cant sent for 200 sets of skates from America. Plimpton’s roller skates were safer and easier to use than the existing versions, his “rocker skates” or quad skates allowed people to steer just by leaning to the left or the right. The boxwood wheels were mounted upon a rubber spring suspension. Roller-skating backwards was now also possible. James Plimpton’s contributions in 1863 to roller skates were the greatest leap in roller-skating since their inception. Although his roller skates were a major breakthrough in the evolution in roller-skating a major problem still existed. Wheels would wear out quickly as a lot of friction was being unleashed between the wheel and the skate axle. Plimpton’s solution was to add a brass ring seated between the wheel and the axle. To further eliminate the wear and tear he applied lubrication to this brass “skate bearing’. James’ efforts in the evolution of the design of roller skates netted him great profit. Plimpton also opened a skate club in New York where Gentlemen skated to impress the ladies.
Plimpton’s patent skate
The rinks were initially a big success, Mr Cant handed the enterprise over to a manager, who as well as skating sessions arranged a whole programme of skating demonstrations, roller gymnastics and international skating champion appearances. There were also concerts, dances, theatre, clairvoyance, mesmerism and public meetings. It was a huge craze for a while with rinks opening in Halsted, Clacton, Ipswich, Bury, and all over Britain.
Indicative of the extent of the craze was this wry comment by the editors of Harper’s weekly, in the form of a potential gravestone inscription for a departed skater:
Our Jane has climbed the golden stair
And passed the jasper gates;
Henceforth she will have wings to wear,
Instead of roller skates.
The popularity of roller skating helped lead to more freedom in dress in the form of special skating dresses, and a change in the permitted behavior for women
In less than a year, the person to whom he had entrusted the running had lost his shirt on the enterprise. Mr Cant, regained control and attempted to run it himself, but he, too, being very good at rose growing, but inexperienced in leisure matters, lost everything,
This must have been especially galling, as he had fallen out with his nephew Frank. Frank had asked his uncle to teach him the secrets of rose growing, which Benjamin readily acceded to on condition that the young Frank undertook never to start a rival business. However Frank reneged on this promise and started a rival enterprise at Braiswick. So, with the financial troubles the rink brought, the original business declined rapidly.
Despite a final concert to celebrate Jumbo (not the local water tower which had just been built, but P.T Barnum’s popular and famous elephant after which the tower had been nicknamed, who had recently passed away ), and a massive firework display, entitled “Farewell to Jumbo the Elephant” Mr Cant announced that the gardens were to be closed and everything sold off.
The first things to go in the sale were the fixtures and fittings of the rink. The sets of Plimpton skates were sold for a disappointingly small sum. Then the remaining glasshouses and the horticultural equipment was sold, followed by the land for the gardens themselves and the outdoor rink, which were sold for building. The final auction was for the rink buildings themselves. Bidding was apparently brisk and the building was sold to a mystery buyer. Speculation mounted as to who this was, until eventually it was revealed that the new owner was a certain General Booth, the founder of the Salvation Army.
Colchester at that time was part of what General Booth called “Darkest England” Drinking was rife. Music halls and other low establishments abounded and the workers in the boot and shoe industry were only matched in their depravity by the women of the lace factory – or so they said. Actually I suspect Colchester was much like any other town at the time.
General Booth arranged for Salvationists to come from miles around and assembled them in the cattle market at the bottom of North Hill where, led my Major Polly Perkins (not the sweet one from Paddington Green of the music hall song, but a fierce and proud Salvationist) They marched up the hill, and through the town with flags flying, drums banging and trumpets sounding, proclaiming that “their cannon were loaded with red-hot gospel and they were not afraid to fire them at the depraved and drunken people of Colchester”. They were met with a hail of bottles and other missiles, but made it safely to the rink, where they established their Citadel.
They stayed in this huge building for some years until the site was needed for Southway. Cants of course are still in existence and their roses are one of the things about which Colchester can be proud
Another roller skating rink opened in the ill=fated Corn Exchange behind the Cup Hotel. I can remember the kids skating sessions on Tuesdays and Thursdays after school. It too closed when the Cups and the associated building were – disgracefully pulled down to make way for a faceless council building, later the Job Centre. There is now a successful and famous roller skating rink in Colchester – Rollerworld at East Gates.