Tuesday, June 18, 2019

The women curlers who first took to the ice in Switzerland

I have written before about the women who took up the sport of curling at the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth centuries. You can find my articles on 'The Women in the Painting: Scottish Curling Pioneers' here;  'Henrietta Gilmour: Pioneer Woman Curler' here; and 'When the Scottish Men Faced the Canadian Women in 1903' here. I have been seeking evidence for the earliest 'mixed' curling games, with women playing alongside the men. The results of that search has led to two articles, 'The Women on Rothie Pond' here, and 'The Women Curlers of Buxton' here.

But there's one place where women took to the ice that I haven't yet discussed. Women curlers were curling at the winter resorts in Switzerland in the first decade of the twentieth century. I would suggest that here, rather than in Scotland, is where 'mixed curling', or 'open curling', first became generally accepted. What is the evidence for such a statement? The photo above clearly shows women playing the sport at St Moritz, alongside the men. But when? The image is an undated postcard. It's an interesting photo, but never having been sent through the mail, it is impossible to date it accurately. I set out to find images of women curling in Switzerland which could be accurately dated.

This is the earliest that I have found. It is from an article, by E H Lawson Williams, published in the Badminton Library of Sports and Pastimes, Vol 17, July to December 1903. The author recounts his experiences of a first visit to St Moritz. The photo is captioned 'Ladies Curling at St Moritz', but there is no mention of the photographer. Williams says, "In my previous article I somewhat discountenanced the idea of ladies playing the 'roarin' game'. I must now make an exception of those who visit the Engadine. Aided by perfect ice and lighter stones no great strength of back is necessary. The ladies' branch of the club at St Moritz is a recent creation; but the game has caught on, and promises at an early date to rival the counter attractions of the skating-rink."

Lawson-Williams must have visited St Moritz in the winter of 1902-03. This image, from the Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News, is from a couple of years later, and appeared on December 10, 1904. It was simply captioned 'On the Ladies' curling rink'. This suggests that the women may have been playing separately from the men at that time, on their own rink.

This photo is from a page of a family album with other images from 'St Moritz, 1904'. Written below the photo is the name 'Heather'. I only have the one page of the album, and unfortunately do not have Heather's surname. I can see men in the photo, so perhaps this is early evidence of mixed curling at St Moritz.

This image is another postcard showing women curling, in a mixed game, at St Moritz. As seen, it is dated December 7, 1905, on the front, and postmarks on the reverse confirm that it was in the mail on December 8 and 9, 1905, having been sent from St Moritz to Biel.

This image, in the Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News in January 30, 1909, is captioned 'The Engadine Winter Season - Ladies Curling at St Moritz'. Is there one man on the ice?

Here is an image which clearly depicts a curling game, with women playing alongside the men, again at St Moritz. This was published in a French magazine Le Sport Universel Illustre, February 13, 1910. It is captioned 'Une partie de curling a Saint-Moritz'. The photographer is not stated.

Although images of women curling at St Moritz seem to be the most common, women were also on the ice at other Swiss resorts. This photo, by Mrs Mottram Hewett, Culverlea, Winchester, is captioned 'Curling at Davos, January, 1904'. This was already mounted on card when I purchased it, and there is no indication of where it was published.

The first decade of the twentieth century saw many Swiss resorts opening in the winter months, and offering activities, among which was curling. The photos above, which can be dated, show that women were playing the sport not just on their own, but in the same teams as men.

Who were these women, and where were they from? They were not Swiss, but visitors.

Some of the resorts formed curling clubs which became affiliated to the Royal Caledonian Curling Club in Scotland. The St Moritz CC and the Davos CC were the first to do this back in 1894. An article in the Royal Caledonian Curling Club Annual for 1903-04 (reprinted from the Alpine Post and Engadine Express), by William J Orthwein, about Curling in the Engadine, said, "In its home the sport has acquired the loving title of Scotland's ain game o' curlin', and while Scotsmen are generally found to be at least the introducers of the game in most of the other countries where the game is being played, we now find members of many other nations taking it up. Here in St Moritz this is probably the case to a more marked degree than anywhere, owing to the cosmopolitan nature of the place. Our club has numbered among its members Scots, English, Irish, Americans, Germans, Austrians, Russians, Italians, Swedes, Hollanders, and Belgians." In 1903 there were several curling rinks in and around St Moritz. As well as the rink at the Kulm Hotel, there was a rink at the Hotel Schweizerhof, while the Palace and Belvedere had also established ponds of their own.

Although visitors to Switzerland came from all over the world, the British were undoubtedly at the forefront of the 'winter holiday' movement. It is not too much of a stretch to suggested that if a husband and wife, or a family, holidayed in Switzerland, all would take to the ice if the opportunity was to be had.

The most enthusiastic of these visiting curlers, including the women, would have joined the local curling club. Some idea of who the first women curlers were can be found in the Annuals of the Royal Caledonian Curling Club. The membership roster of the St Moritz CC, presumably at September 15, 1903, and published in the RCCC Annual of 1903-04, listed thirteen lady members.

Umney being an unusual name, it is possible to identify who the first named of the St Moritz 'Lady Members' actually was. Mrs Ethel Umney was the wife of Percy Umney. He is listed among the 75 male 'regular members' of the Club. Percy was a solicitor, a partner in the private practice of Wood, Umney and Chambers located in Richmond. He also worked as a solicitor for his father Charles’ company, the wholesale druggists, Wright, Layman and Umney, who made Wright’s Original Coal Tar Soap. So the Umneys were English.

Mrs Bird's husband is not listed amongst the club's members. Note that of the thirteen names, eleven are listed as 'Miss'. It would be great to find out more about these women, although, without any first names, this is difficult. Having the resources to be able to holiday in Switzerland in the early twentieth century does suggest that curling in these resorts was for the well-off! The sport of curling is traditionally proud of its egalitarianism, but those who played while on holiday in the Swiss Alps were from the 'upper-class' end of society at the time.

The Grindelwald Curling Club listed a Mrs Sidney Galpin as the lone woman member of the club from 1902 through to 1906. Her husband was a regular member of the club. He is described in the Scotsman of December 14, 1904, as one of the best known curlers in Switzerland. In 1907, Mrs Galpin was joined by other women as 'regular members', namely, Mrs Marsh, Mrs Keighley, Mrs Gaye, Mrs Grant, Mrs J E Collister, Mrs Scott and Miss Williams. I've not come across any images of the women at play at Grindelwald.

Unlike the men, the women who curled in the Swiss resorts in the early years of the twentieth century did not have major competitions in which to compete. The men had the Jackson Cup, instituted in 1898, and the Swiss International Bonspiel began in 1905.

There is an interesting reference to a women's competition at Villars in January 1908. The Villars Sports Club ran 'Golden Competitions' in a number of sports, with prizes on offer in both 'ladies' and gentlemen's events'. The Sheffield Daily Telegraph in January 28, 1908, reported that the men's curling points competition attracted a large number of entries and was won by G W Lunn, but, "The ladies' curling competition created a good deal of amusement, all being novices at the 'roaring game'. Miss Bicknell scored five points out of a possible 24, being one point better that Miss Wharton." Her prize was a golden curling stone!

The St Moritz CC, with the largest complement of women members, had a number of competitions in which the women played. Erwin Sautter in his book Curling Vademecum records that during the 1909-10 season Major Lindsell and Mr Garlick supplied prizes for team competitions for 'ladies skipped by men'. Miss Bridson offered a prize for ladies' play. Erwin also notes that a committee was formed from the women members, and comprised Mrs Hewitt, Mrs Francis, Miss Constable, and Miss Bridson, who was the honorary secretary and treasurer. A ladies' points competition for a prize given by Miss Constable was held at the end of January 1910, and won by Mrs Bott.

Miss Bridson was an accomplished curler. In February 1908, the Globe reported that she had skipped her rink of Miss Dunn (3rd), Miss Caton Thompson (2nd) and Miss Linau (lead) to win 'Mr Cutlack's prizes for ladies' at a curling competition in St Moritz.

The 'Lady Muriel Watkins Challenge Cup for Ladies' Ice Curling' was first played at Murren on January 30, 1911, in beautiful weather and on splendid ice. It was a points competition. The Scotsman reported on February 1, 1911, "The result was a tie between Miss Brooke and Miss M Bell. Miss Brooke won on the tie being played off."

This wonderful image of mixed curling is on a postcard that was sent from Fleurier on December 15, 1908. The postcard has no indication of where the action is taking place. Erwin Sautter sent the same image to me some years ago, and on the back is captioned 'Mixed curling at Lenzerheide (Switzerland) about 1910'. The place may be correct but Erwin's date is a year or two out, as the postmark on the postcard shows. But what a beautiful setting for the sport of curling!

In The Book of Winter Sports, published by Edward Arnold, London, in 1908, Bertram Smith has a section on curling. Four pages are devoted to 'Curling in Switzerland'. Smith writes, "St Moritz generally leads the way in all winter sports, and curling is no exception to the rule. Grindelwald is also a great curling centre, with a club membership of over a hundred. In both of these clubs, and also at Davos, there are a large number of lady players, who have no difficulty at all on the keen Swiss ice in holding their own, though the game is rather beyond their strength in Scotland." Really?

J Gordon Grant's The Complete Curler was published by Adam and Charles Black, London, in 1914, and subtitled 'Being the history and practice of the game of curling'. Chapter 5 of the book is titled 'Curling in Switzerland'. He lists the following places where curling was played at that time: Adelboden, Andermatt, Arosa, Campfer, Celerina, Chateau d'Oex, Diablerets, Davos, Engelberg, Grindelwald, Kandersteg, Klosters, Lenzerheide, Leukerbad, Montana, Morgins-les-Bains, Murren, Samaden, Beatenberg, Saint-Cergue, St Moritz, Villars-sur-Ollon, and Wengen. But in the chapter's twelve pages, the author makes no reference to women playing the sport.

This image is a favourite, showing as it does women competing with the men in two rinks at Villars. The postcard was mailed on November 21, 1913, and the action probably dates from the previous winter.

Last word here goes to 'A.H.' who penned an article 'Curling: The Roaring Game' which appeared in the Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News on January 1, 1916, after a spell of cold weather at the end of 1915. He writes, "It is pleasant and interesting to observe that curling is increasing in popularity among ladies and they prove very dexterous in handling the stones and broom. Many of them acquired a taste for the game in the Alpine winter resorts, and gradually began to practise it at home." I would like to believe this last statement, but I really have not uncovered any evidence to substantiate it. Did they really bring their enthusiasm for curling back to England in the first decade of the twentieth century? If so, where did they play?

The Great War, 1914-18, was to change the world. Curling returned to the winter holiday resorts of Switzerland in the inter-war years, but that's another story. So too is the formation of the Swiss Curling Association in 1942, and the remarkable growth of indoor clubs throughout that country from the 1960s.

The sources of the images are as indicated in the text. All except those found via the British Newspaper Archive are in my own collection.

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