Wednesday 19 February 2014

Skating On Thin Ice

Long before Oscar Wilde’s trial for gross indecency the trial of Captain Robert Jones for sodomy in 1772 hit the headlines and caused a stir. In the social circles of Georgian London he was well-known and the early press made his story known up and down the whole of England.

Capt. Jones became famous for more than just being convicted of sodomy. In the same year he published a book which paved the way for 14 lgbt Winter Olympians to compete in one particular sport – figure skating.

First, a brief history of skating as a sport which will reveal why Capt. Jones’s book “A Treatise on Skating” was such a pivotal moment.

People living in the frozen icy areas of the world have been skating on ice for thousands of years. Children have played on ice for just as long, but it wasn’t until the 13th or 14th century in Holland that the rough skates they all wore were given sharp edges. The freedom of movement generated by the sharp-edged skates meant you didn’t need to push yourself along with sticks (similar to skiing), so people could now skate more freely around the ice.

It wasn’t long before skating races became possible, and this is the origin of speed skating. It probably isn’t a coincidence (I don’t believe in coincidence) that the most successful speed skaters in history have been Dutch. In fact, 4 of the 9 known lgbt Olympic speed skaters are Dutch.

Robert Jones was born in north Wales in around 1740 (a character witness at his 1772 trial said he’d known Jones since he was about 15 or 16 some 17 years previously). By the time this witness first met Robert, the Jones family were living in London where Robert’s father was a tailor.

From hearsay reports that appeared in the press during his trial it seems that young Robert also had a fascination for fireworks which were popular forms of entertainment at the time. Because of his fascination none other than the future Prime Minister, William Pitt the Elder, enlisted Robert into the army – where else but into the artillery – and he joined the barracks at the Woolwich arsenal. From there Robert was to rise through the ranks to Lieutenant (not captain, as he was often reported as being and the rank under which his books were published). His love of fireworks stayed with him, and in 1765 published “A New Treatise on Artificial Fireworks”.

It was his second book, “A Treatise on Skating” which gave Capt. Jones his place in sporting history. This book was the first published instruction book for skaters. Robert Jones was an accomplished ice skater from his youth and gained such a good working knowledge of the sport. In his book Jones described how to score circles and figure 8s into the ice. I don’t know if this was a new idea, but it is generally accepted that the publication of the book was the moment at which figure skating was born.

But we have to wait almost a century before we see jumps, twists and movements in figure skating which we see in modern championships like the Olympics. There were popularised by an American skater called Jackson Haines in the 1860s. Music accompaniment and more dance-like movements were introduced a little later.

One element that has since been dropped from major competitions is the skating of figures as described by Capt. Jones in his book and after which the sport got its name.

Jones’s “Treatise on Skating” was published in the same year as his trial. Details of the trial and a great deal of background information can be found here on Dr. Rictor Norton’s lgbt history site. Sodomy was punishable by death in Jones’s day, so the fact that he was having sex with a 12-year-old boy several times meant that he was putting his reputation and life at risk if it was discovered. You could say he was skating on thin ice!

That ice finally cracked and gave way when the boy confessed to his family and Jones was put on trial. He was found guilty and sentenced to death. His execution was all set for the second week in August 1772 when his plea to King George III was successful in obtaining for him a royal pardon. However, there was a condition, that Jones should leave the country for good.

There are various reports of Capt. Jones’s whereabouts after his exile, though none, apparently, from himself. A newspaper report of June 1773 claimed that he was at that time living in Lyons, France, in some grandeur with “a lovely Ganymede” (his servant). Later reports in The Times of 1788 seem to place him in Constantinople. But we’ll never know for sure where he died.

Capt. Robert Jones’s “Treatise on Skating” is still in print, including a 2010 edition in which the whole of the first edition of 1772 has been digitised. HIs legacy to sport is the establishing of one of the most popular of today’s winter sports. Without him we would never have seen the likes of Peggy Fleming, Sonia Hennie, Scott Hamilton, Torvil and Dean and Evgeny Plyushenko, not to mention great gay skaters like John Curry, Ondrej Nepela and Brian Boitano.

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