On January 1, 1876, the Sporting Gazette ran a notice about a new type of skate invented by one Mr. Kemp. These skates, which he called “bicycle skates,” featured a large front wheel and a small rear wheel. They seem to have been intended for skating on roads normally traversed by bicycles.
The promised time trials don’t seem to have been successful—at least, the results were not widely advertised. I managed to find one oblique mention in the Sporting Gazette:
…the skating race on the rink did not bring out the talent, or, perhaps I should say, the pace that was expected; for Rücker, the winner, though he did his best and was far the best of the lot, was the wrong side of a minute for a quarter of a mile. The style of all was wretchedly ugly, and I think it is safe to predicate that, until some modification of the bicycle skate is invented, no good time will be made or graceful fast skating shown on the rink.“Athletic Notes,” Sporting Gazette, July 22, 1876, 723.
These skates never took off as touring skates; instead, Mr. Kemp and a couple of friends—Miss Lilly and Mr. Fletcher—spent the next couple of years traveling around Europe performing on them as the “Chinese bicycle skaters,” sometimes prefixed with “flying.”
The name of the group caused some confusion, as there seems to have been no actual link to China, except perhaps in the skaters’ costumes.
We do not know whether the “Chinese” applies to the bicycle skates, which are the great feature of the performance, or to the mode in which the skaters use them, but the term does not seem intended to apply to the nationality of the artistes themselves.“The Skating Rink at Valley-Parade,” Leeds Times, September 23, 1876, 3.
Despite their confusing name, the skaters were admired by many—and compared directly to roller skaters.
They appear to have complete control over the machines, some of the figures they describe even surpassing in elegance the most adroit manœuvres on ordinary rollers.“Bicycle Skating at the Reservoir Rink,” Birmingham Daily Gazette, June 6, 1877, 5.
However, not everyone was in awe of their performance, and the bicycle skates were found lacking when direct comparisons to roller skates were made.
The evolutions performed resemble very much those capable of being accomplished by the skater on the ordinary roller skates, except that they are by no means so varied, so graceful, or so telling; but, at the same time, apparently much more difficult to accomplish.“A Novelty at the Alexandra Skating Rink,” Nottinghamshire Guardian, May 26, 1876, 5.
It’s understandable why such skates wouldn’t be very popular. Why not just buy regular roller skates? Plimpton skates had been invented not long before and worked great. As a marketing ploy, these exhibitions weren’t the best idea because instead of highlighting the bicycle skate’s original niche, road skating, which roller skates weren’t very good for, they brought bicycle skates into direct competition with roller skates at indoor rinks, where they were sure to lose. The decision to make fun of beginning skaters as part of the performance probably contributed to the marketing disaster.
Much amusement is also afforded in one part of the performance by the illustration of a novice’s attempts to learn rinking, which it is needless to say as much cleverness is displayed.“The Chinese Bicycle Skaters at the Pavilion Skating Rink,” Cheshire Observer, October 7, 1876, 6.
After the tour, Kemp returned to England and focused on developing a new method for fishing. He lost a lot of money on it and other projects, and on September 26, 1904, the London Daily News published an article with the headline “Inventor in Poverty: Applies for Poor-Law Relief.”
“The Bicycle Skate,” Sporting Gazette, January 1, 1876, 6.
“A Novelty at the Alexandra Skating Rink,” Nottinghamshire Guardian, May 26, 1876, 5.
“Athletic Notes,” Sporting Gazette, July 22, 1876, 723.
Leeds Times, September 23, 1876, 3.
“The Chinese Bicycle Skaters at the Pavilion Skating Rink,” Cheshire Observer, October 7, 1876, 6.
“Bicycle Skating at the Reservoir Rink,” Birmingham Daily Gazette, June 6, 1877, 5.
“Inventor in Poverty: Applies for Poor-Law Relief.” London Daily News, September 26, 1904, 3.