Pirates of the Puck: Ice Hockey, Commercialism, and Identity in Inter-war Scotland

Dr. Daryl Leeworthy, University of Huddersfield

Dr. Daryl Leeworthy is a lecturer in community history at the University of Huddersfield. A specialist in the history of modern Wales, he is particularly interested in sport, the labour movement, and the to-ing and fro-ing of culture, people, and ideas, across the Atlantic, especially to and from Britain, Ireland, and Canada. His first book, Fields of Play: The Sporting Heritage of Wales, was published last year and he is currently writing a social history of the inter-war years in Britain.

Living in Scotland between the wars was tough: with high unemployment and stagnation in the staple industries, the streets of major towns and cities became as a desolate landscape populated, in the words of Edwin Muir, by ‘idle, sullen-looking young men’ who hung about street corners for want of anything better to do. Even those who, by fortune, held onto their jobs faced the demoralising effects of the general economic suffocation and the sadness that accompanied it.

Many people have tales of surviving the Depression in their own family histories – few of us, after all, enjoy the rags to riches tales popularised, mythologised even, by programmes such as Who Do You Think You Are. My own family’s past is little different: they lived in a single-room tenement in the west-end of Paisley, then less urbanised than it is today; their clothes were made from hand-me-downs; and for five years my great-grandfather languished without work, occasionally turning to poaching to bring food to the table. They all knew the indignity of a dole official’s sneer and the look stayed with my great-grandparents for the rest of their lives. Few other periods in the recent past resonate so easily with our experiences today.

Amongst the many stories told to me by my grandmother are some about the sporting past of her hometown and nearby Glasgow. She told me of the ‘dates’ that her parents went on to the greyhound track, to the trips to cafés near George Square, and the occasional visits to the Citizens’ Theatre in the Gorbals during and after the Second World War. Now, you might wonder how that all fits with living on the dole but it’s worth remembering that the moral economy was rather stronger then and people genuinely did look after each other rather better. That’s how, up and down Britain and Ireland, people survived.

There was, though, another Scotland emerging out of the misery of heavy-industrial decline: a Scotland dominated by the service sector, with sport and entertainment a key feature. None other than William Beveridge, the intellectual force behind many facets of the post-war welfare state, noted the dramatic increase in the number of people working in sport and entertainment over the 1930s, so much so that between 1927 and 1937 it enjoyed the third largest increase in workforce in Britain. [1] That meant, in real terms, an insured labour force of 140,000, not far short of the 200,000 or so employed by the cotton mills that had been such a staple of Britain’s industrial revolution.

Many sports enjoyed rapid expansion as a result but few had quite the same trajectory of development as ice hockey, which came almost out of nowhere in the late-1920s to employ 1,000 people in Scotland alone by the outbreak of the Second World War. [2] With new, architecturally-ambitious rinks built across the central belt, imported players from Canada, and strong links to BBC radio, this was a sport that captured the possibilities of Scotland’s emerging commercial entertainment industry and did so, successfully, despite the economic challenges of the slump.

Putting it on Ice

Hockey on ice has been played across the British Isles for over one hundred years. Indeed, although we often think of ice hockey as the Canadian game, it has been an international sport for almost as long as it has been played. Cold weather, an annual event in Victorian Britain, brought people out onto the ice wearing makeshift skates or simply sliding around in their normal shoes. Eventually some of them picked up sticks and a rubber ball and started playing hockey or bandy with friends. Artificial ice, too, made an appearance in London in the 1870s. By the Edwardian decade enterprising players were importing rubber pucks and ice-hockey sticks from Canada. Down to the outbreak of the Great War in 1914, similar games with similar equipment were played in France, Belgium, Italy, Germany, Sweden, Bohemia (today’s Czech Republic), Austria, Hungary, Switzerland, and even as far away as Australia.

Until the end of the 1920s, though, this was a game played primarily by wealthy elites and university students. They were able to afford the equipment (or, in the case of Canadian students, had their own), could afford the trips to the winter resorts of Switzerland, Austria, France and Italy, and could afford the fees to use the relatively exclusive ice rinks. In the words of one British Olympian, ice hockey was ‘fostered and supported only by the enthusiasm of the players themselves’. [3] To put not too fine a point on it, the best players in Britain at this time were the Canadian Rhodes Scholars at Oxford University. Nothing suggested that a commercial revolution was just around the corner.

So what changed? Above all it was a desire to provide for the popular expansion of ice skating that enabled ice hockey to develop in the 1930s: at the core of most ice rink developments was skating as a leisure activity that could appeal to the masses, particularly to women. Nevertheless, investors recognised that, in the words of one Edinburgh councillor, ice hockey ‘makes money’ and willingly developed rinks that were large enough for the fastest sport in the world. [4] The figures involved were truly remarkable given the economic context. Within just a few years, from 1936 to 1939, the amount invested in ice rinks in Scotland stood at nearly £500,000 providing for facilities in Glasgow, Aberdeen, Dundee, Perth, Falkirk, Kirkcaldy, Edinburgh, and Paisley. Given historian Stephen Jones’ estimate of £1,000,000 invested in the development of ice hockey over the course of the 1930s, the level of provision in Scotland was, per capita, by far the largest across the British Isles. [5]

There was also a growing awareness of Scotland’s potential as a destination for winter sport. When the Crossmyloof Rink was opened on 14 January 1929, the Duke of Montrose, a leading figure in the nationalist Scottish Party (and founding member of the SNP), declared in this vein that ‘it seemed almost a scandal that people had to go to Switzerland to indulge in the old Scottish sport of curling’. [6] The buildings themselves were designed to attract patrons from across the islands. Neon lights lit up the façades in a similar fashion to cutting edge Odeon cinemas. Indeed, with their colourful exteriors, well-provisioned cafés and dining halls, floodlit ice and live jazz orchestras, the rinks were places to see and be seen, to take your girlfriend on a night out, and somewhere to test out those dancing skills. This was modernity in a freezer.

Skating for Supper

Ice hockey, then, exuded glamour. But, the players who filled the team sheets often came to Scotland in much less happy circumstances. Like Britain, Canada experienced a severe economic slump in the 1930s and emigration provided a way out of the hardship provoked by the decline in agricultural and industrial output. For men living in the prairie provinces of Manitoba, Alberta, and Saskatchewan, or in the traditionally poor Maritime provinces of Canada’s Atlantic coast, the growing presence of ice hockey in England and Scotland offered a viable alternative to a life on the dole. The attraction was a simple one: the Ottawa press regularly reported that ice hockey players in the old country were earning as much as $60 a week (that’s £10); the British newspaper Ice Hockey World had it as much as $72 (or £12). [7] Not bad wages! Just to offer a comparison: even as late as the 1950s the top players in the Football League, including the Busby Babes of Manchester United, earned a maximum of £15 a week. Then as now, whether the game was at the centre of British life or on the margins, sporting labour was valuable and the labour market was an international one.

Without imported stars from Canada, ice hockey would never have undergone its commercial revolution but success came at a price: few Britons took up the game themselves, preferring instead to be spectators and consumers. They bought newspapers, programmes, team photographs, and hoarded cigarette cards. From such objects, Britons gained a mental geography of small-town Canada – the kinds of places rarely seen on maps hanging up in the classroom in school. Although the Scottish Ice Hockey Association implemented a strict limit of seven Canadians per club, ostensibly to encourage the development of domestic talent, the relatively sparse number of Scottish players ensured high ratios of Canadians. A typical team, such as the Kirkcaldy-based Fife Fliers, for example, had two Canadians for every one Scot on their roster.

Conclusion

Ice hockey in inter-war Scotland, then, was a sport that gave voice to the nation’s growing reliance upon the entertainment industry as a distraction from everyday concerns and as a form of employment.

It also gave voice more simply to the idea of Scotland as a nation of something more than Edinburgh and Glasgow with teams defining themselves as the representatives of cities and towns outside of that central core or distinctive regions such as the Kingdom of Fife, which otherwise were left out of the metropolitan story. Whereas soccer established Edinburgh and Glasgow as pre-eminent and rugby provided a means of expression for towns in the borders, ice hockey placed Kirkcaldy, Perth, Paisley and Dundee in the top rank of modern sporting endeavour, as the embodiment of the nation’s resilient, independent spirit.

Appropriately, when the national side toured England or lined up against Canadian clubs, players worse yellow jerseys reminiscent of the Lion Rampant and emblazoned with the lion itself. Rather than wear the blue and white of the Saltire, Scottish ice hockey settled for the iconography of a much earlier age. For all its novelty, its imported glamour, and its modernity, ice hockey willingly reached back into the past.

References

[1] William Beveridge, Full Employment in a Free Society (London, 1944), p. 63.

[2] The Scotsman November 15, 1939.

[3] Carl Erhardt, Ice Hockey (London, 1936), p. 10.

[4] Glasgow Herald, March 1, 1939.

[5] Stephen G. Jones, Sport, Politics and the Working class: Organised Labour and Sport in Interwar Britain (Manchester, 1988), p. 45.

[6] Glasgow Herald, January 15, 1929.

[7] Ottawa Citizen, October 13, 1937; Ice Hockey World, March 10, 1937.

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