On this day in history : 15th January 1867 – Ice covering the boating lake at Regent’s Park gives way…. Hundreds of skaters are plunged into the icy water – 40 people lose their lives….
Ice skating was an extremely popular leisure activity during Victorian times – frozen ponds and lakes were often advertised in newspapers…. Up to 300 people were enjoying themselves on the ice in Regent’s Park this particular afternoon – skating, sliding, playing games of ice-hockey….
At around 4.15 the ice suddenly gave way with no warning – breaking into thousands of pieces…. Between 100-200 people were plunged into 12 foot of icy water – the weight of their heavy Victorian clothing dragging them down…. Boats were hurriedly launched to try and rescue those floundering in the water….passers-by reached out with branches broken from trees….
Those who lost their lives came from all walks of life, from gentry to the very poor…. Most were young men but there were also women and children among them…. 29-year-old James Griffin was on the ice selling oranges to the skaters – and another, John Bryon, was selling hot roasted chestnuts…. It took over a week to recover all of the bodies, fishermen from Kew were used to drag their nets along the bottom of the lake….
There was much debate at the later inquest, as to the cause of the accident…. Some blamed Skating Club members acting as stewards (known as ‘Icemen’) for breaking the ice around the edges to prevent access to the island…. They in turn blamed the ice-hockey players, people who had been jumping on the ice and even the sun for melting it…. Park keepers also came under scrutiny – as it was thought they may have broken the ice out of concern for the large collection of exotic water fowl housed on the lake…. But in truth the skaters themselves were chiefly to blame for their own misfortune….
The previous day 21 people had fallen through the ice – thankfully all had been rescued…. An overnight dusting of snow had covered the cracks so they were not visible…. Despite prominent signs being displayed, warning of the danger of thin ice, such was the enthusiasm to have fun that the signs were ignored….
As a precaution to prevent such a tragedy from happening again the lake was drained and the depth reduced to 4 or 5 foot with soil and concrete…. However, the public were slow to learn – years later a similar incident was to happen….only this time because of the depth none of the 100 or so who fell in received anything more than a very cold bath….