Rollerskating in Cambridge – over 140 years of it


On rollerskating and ice skating in Cambridge – a look at the fate of the St Andrew’s roller skating rink.

I learned how to rollerskate with the Cambridge Rollerbillies – one of the best sporting clubs in Cambridge.

Although the modern day sport of Rollerderby is relatively new in Cambridge – the competitive team being one of the most high profile all-women’s sports teams in Cambridge, skating in Cambridge has been popular with women – and men, for over 140 years.

Cambridge Roller Skating Rinks 1875/76

The first call I can find for a roller skating rink in Cambridge is from a member of the Cambridge Union society – one of the main reasons for getting one being Oxford had one.

751023 Call for roller skating rink

The above in the Cambridge Chronicle, 23 Oct 1875 from the British Newspaper Archive

Given the institutionalised sexism that was rife in Cambridge, it’s interesting to note at the end of the letter that the rink would be for men and women alike. Interestingly, the Rink was opened in the same year that the new Cambridge Corn Exchange was opened. It was in February 1876

751030 Opening of CornEx and Skating Rink advert

That was the concert where the ex-public schoolboys at Cambridge University chose to have a riot, smash up the place, leave several police officers in hospital and ultimately smash the windows of the former Mayor of Cambridge’s house. The former mayor concerned was John Death (1874-75) – the man who ironically gave life to the Corn Exchange project and who laid the foundation stone.

Interestingly enough, the old corn exchange building (where the hotel now is on Downing Street) was converted into a skating rink upon the opening of the new corn exchange. But not everyone was happy about their treatment there.

760115 Complaint Old Corn Exchange Skating Rink

Cambridge Independent 15 Jan 1876 from the British Newspaper Archive

The roller skating rink on St Andrew’s Street opposite the baptist church – so on the site where Sainsbury’s and Maplin now are, opened in February 1876.

760212 St Andrews Rollerskating rink

Cambridge Independent 12 Feb 1876 in the British Newspaper Archive

Women were effectively excluded on Tuesday and Friday evenings (unless University members were allowed to bring guests) by the restriction on University members only – which in those days was men only.

Note that this was also a time when the playback of recorded music had not been invented yet. It’d be interesting to know how much as a percentage of expenditure went on hiring a band to play so regularly during the week.

Shortly after opening, the St Andrew’s Street rink was described as above in the Cambridge Independent.At over 35m x 12m it must have been a large rink for its time. It could only last so long however. In mid1890s the rink was replaced by a grand new theatre, opened on 20 January 1896.

960122 New Theatre Opens

The Eastern Daily Press from the British Newspaper Archive


Photograph courtesy of the Museum of Cambridge Archive

The New Theatre kept going until the 1960s, by which time it was struggling to make ends meet. There were calls to convert the site into either an indoor swimming pool (which Cambridge didn’t have at the time) or an ice rink, or both, in the late 1930s. But the war got in the way. In its final days, some locals told me that it got a reputation for showing nude performances before finally succumbing to the demolition ball. Today the site

The battle of roller-skate patents.

William Bown of Birmingham is credited with developing the system of roller bearings that transformed rollerskating. However various archives indicate a number of inventors were registering patents on roller skating technology as the sport increased in popularity. One of the inventors visited Cambridge in 1876 to give a display of his new rollerskates. This was Adolphus Frederick Spiller.

It didn’t end well for Spiller who got involved in a court case the following year involving his firm, which shortly afterwards went into liquidation.

Skating elsewhere in Cambridge

The old Chesterton Council (long since merged with Cambridge City Council) opened a new massive skating rink in 1909 – twice the length and twice the width of the St Andrew’s Street rink.

091217 Chesterton Rink Opened

It would later become one of the most splendid night clubs in Cambridge in the 1930s before its ultimate demise and demolition in 1979.

The Cambridge Corn Exchange prior to its conversion into a concert hall in 1986 also hosted rollerskating sessions in the post-war era as these wonderful photographs in the Cambridge News show. But what Cambridge no longer has – and I think could do with, is a permanent home for rollerskaters and rollerbladers so as to provide a home for the Rollerbillies. (That doesn’t mean it cannot be used for other purposes when not being used by skaters). The big barrier to such a move these days is always the money – but furthermore land prices. The nearest permanent skating rink I’m aware of is in Bury St Edmunds. I’d like to think that an expanding Cambridge could find home for a similar facility here.

The long wait for Cambridge’s Ice Skating Rink

Again first mentioned in the inter-war period, construction finally started in August 2017 on the Cambridge Ice Arena. A project long in the making, it’s being built by the Newmarket Road Park and Ride site – the most recent news report I can find being here.

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