This article was first published in the January 2010 issue of BBC History Magazine
Developed in Europe and America, roller skates enjoyed a brief vogue in the 1870s. Then, after three decades of comparative neglect, they became a veritable craze in 1909. (Roller-skating seems to have been the first craze actually to be called a ‘craze’ at the time.) At least 38 companies operating roller-skating rinks were registered in that year and the music hall virtuoso GS Monohan published Roller Skating for Novice & Expert by the “Great Monohan’’, though the Roller Skating Annual (Official Yearbook) did not begin appearing till 1910.
The respectable tradesmen and city clerks who dominated the civic life of the Metropolitan Borough of Stoke Newington (now part of the London Borough of Hackney) were alarmed by the danger to health and limb and shopfront displays posed by children racing on eight miniature wheels down Stamford Hill and along Stoke Newington High Street. In October 1910, a bye-law prohibiting roller-skating on the pavements of the borough was submitted to the Home Office for approval.
Sir Edward Troup, the permanent under-secretary of state, and Charles Masterman MP, the parliamentary under-secretary (author of well-known books such as In Peril of Change and The Condition of England, and a future cabinet minister) regarded the terms of the Stoke Newington bye-law as far too sweeping, and quite unnecessary.
“It is always the amusement of the poor which is found intolerable by the middle classes,’’ minuted Masterman. “A very good case could be made out for prohibiting hide-and-seek and other children’s games (elderly passengers are knocked down) dancing with street organs or whatever other children’s amusements are possible in a town where not one in ten of them ever reaches a public park or playground… Why should the demands of one local authority be allowed to create a fresh criminal offence for children?…
“If children are allowed to run at full rate on the paths, why should not they be allowed to propel themselves on small wheels fixed to their feet?
“Perhaps the local burgesses would like a ‘speed limit’ both for running and roller skating.’’
Winston Churchill, the home secretary, was not so sure. Having just stuck his neck out by sending troops to confront striking coal miners at Tonypandy, he was concerned at the unfavourable press reaction to the Home Office’s cool initial response to the Stoke Newington roller-skating bye-law.
“Apparently the function of the adult pedestrian is, in Mr Churchill’s view, merely to pay the rates out of which the pavements are kept up, and let himself be knocked down or elbowed aside by sporting youths on roller skates,’’ trumpeted one daily. Churchill instructed Troup and Masterman to “consider how we shall best take up a strong position to defend ourselves from inevitable attacks’.’
The mills of Whitehall grind slow but they grind exceeding small. A few months later the Metropolitan Borough of Stoke Newington received a copy of an impressive-looking document headed:
AT THE COURT AT BUCKINGHAM PALACE
The 4th day of May, 1911
THE KING’S MOST EXCELLENT MAJESTY
and stating: “whereas a Byelaw was made by the Town Council of the Metropolitan Borough of Stoke Newington on the 18th day of October, 1910, in the following terms:–
“No person shall on any public footway in the Borough rink or skate on rollers, wheels or other mechanical contrivances…
“His Majesty, having taken the said Byelaw into consideration, is pleased, by and with the advice of His Privy Council, to disallow the said Byelaw, and the same is hereby disallowed accordingly. ’’
And having struck this blow in support of technologically up-to-date children’s toys, Churchill moved on to take charge of the Royal Navy.
AD Harvey’s most recent book is Body Politic: Political Metaphor and Political Violence (Cambridge Scholars Publ., 2007).