Thursday, January 19, 2012

On Thin Ice

There is no snow in London at the moment, and certainly no ice for skating on, but during the early 19thc century skating on the lakes and ponds in the parks was very popular – and could be perilous.

One of the best lakes for skating was the Serpentine in Hyde Park. It was formed in 1730 by damming the Westbourne, one of London’s lost rivers flowing down from Hampstead, and snakes between the Park proper and Kensington Gardens. It was in this water that Harriet Shelley drowned herself in 1816. The print on the left shows skaters in St James's Park with the Queen's House, later Buckingham Palace, in the background.

The Picture of London for 1807, a particularly handy guidebook (and one that I tend to prefer to modern volumes when exploring!) has this to say about the dangers of thin ice and the steps taken to deal with them:

In severe winters, when the Serpentine River is frozen over, the ice is almost covered with people. One winter there were counted more than 6000 people at one time on the ice. A number of booths were pitched for the refreshment of the populace; and here and there was a group of six, eight or more, fashionable young men, skating, and describing very difficult figures, in the manner of a country dance, with particular neatness and facility of execution… From the number of accidents which happen annually on this river when frozen over, his Majesty gave the Humane Society a spot of ground on its banks, on which they have erected a most convenient receiving-house for the recovery of the apparently drowned; it cost upwards of £500 and is worthy of inspection by the curious. The Society, during the times of frost, keep men on the river to guard the unwary from danger, and to relieve those who may require their aid.

The Humane Society, which later received its royal charter, and which still exists as the Royal Humane Society to reward acts of courage in saving life, was founded in 1774 by two doctors who were concerned about reports of apparently drowned persons not being resuscitated and then either dying or being buried alive. The society was at first called the Society for the Recovery of Persons Apparently Drowned. They set out to publish information on reviving the drowned, paid rewards to anyone attempting a rescue, paid pub keepers if they allowed their premises to be used during a resuscitation attempt and provided volunteers, such as the Icemen around the Serpentine, with life-saving equipment in key locations.

They also established other Receiving Houses around the Westminster area so that drowning victims might be treated. The Hyde Park building survived until it was demolished in 1954 and branches of the Society were set up around the country, mainly in ports.

Valuable as this work was, the methods used to revive the drowned were strange by today’s standards. Draping the body over a barrel was supposed to drain the water from the lungs, which might have had some effect. Spirits were often administered, which probably made the choking worse, but oddest of all, was the application of tobacco smoke.

This was supposed to be blown into the rectum of the unfortunate person, and, I suppose, the indignity of the operation might have brought round the merely semi-conscious. Fortunately for the person who was puffing away on a pipe as part of the procedure, devices like little bellows were invented to introduce the smoke into the rectum. At one time these were placed at strategic locations around London’s lakes and along the Thames and one rare survivor is shown in the photograph above.

If the weather is good and you are in London, a walk through Hyde Park taking in Apsley House at one end and Kensington Palace at the other, is described in Walks Through Regency London, available from



Alexa Adams said...

There are few things that delight me as much as 18th century medical treatments (particularly as I never have to undergo any of them). This cure for drowning is an excellent testament to the human imagination. Great post!

Alison said...

Good grief, I'm so glad I will never have to undergo that treatment!

Fascinating stuff though.