Hockey Night in 1930s Britain: Fast, Modern, and Exciting!

The fastest sport in the world! That’s the tag line given to ice hockey by the ad men of the 1930s. Glamorous, exciting, modern, hockey was up there with jazz clubs and television as part of the cutting edge of inter-war leisure. But how much do historians really know about hockey?

It’s only in the last twenty years, or so, that ice hockey has attracted critical scholarly attention in Canada. The publication of Richard Gruneau and David Whitson’s Hockey Night in Canada in 1994 may be taken as the starting point, I suppose. It’s not surprising that British historians haven’t paid much attention to it, after all the sport today is on the margins of popular culture and doesn’t feature on television like it did in the late-1980s and early 1990s. But should our study of the past be influenced by what’s popular today?

Over the last few years, I’ve been working quietly away on the academic study of British ice hockey and the history of its commercial revolution in the 1930s. I’m reaching the stage where I can contemplate putting this out for publication as articles and as books, some of it will appear next year in Canada. This blog is, therefore, part of that work in progress and gives some insights into my thoughts and my findings. I tell the story using the case of one club, whose history is definitely forgotten.

Bristol in the 1930s was not a fashionable place to live. From being one of the major cities of medieval and early modern England, it was eclipsed during the industrial revolution by Manchester, Liverpool and Birmingham. Its reputation in the early part of the twentieth century was made by the militancy of its dockworkers led by charismatic, fiery Bristolian Ben Tillett. But during the Great Depression, Bristol suffered enormously: the only stable industries were tobacco (the Wills Imperial Tobacco Factory dominated) and, albeit to a lesser extent, chocolate. Still the trades unionists remained. It was to Bristol that Welsh miners went on their hunger march in 1927; it was in Bristol that the earliest of the major riots of the 1930s took place, on the Old Market in the city centre; it was from Bristol that British volunteers for the IRA escaped; and so on it went.

Yet, the city also enjoyed modernity. Read the front pages of the Bristol Evening Post and you’ll find scores of adverts offering cinema, theatre, opera, roller skating, ice skating, dancing, music, speedway, greyhounds, and the usual sports. It was in this environment that, in 1934, the Coliseum Ballroom and Ice Rink opened on Park Row, near the university. Like Richmond, Glasgow, Oxford, Birmingham, and Belfast, the city offered artificial ice for speed- and figure-skaters four or five times a week. There was residential orchestra and special acts provided, usually on a Friday night. This was a place to go with your missus.

Around Christmas, 1936, a group of young men, including a number of Chicagoans and Canadians living and working in the city, decided to form an ice hockey team. Well, in fact they formed two: the Bristol Bears and the Bristol Cubs. The clubs were consciously modeled on the university sides of Oxford and Cambridge right down to the dark blue (Cubs) and light blue (Bears) jerseys they played in. With the rink booked, and a few skating sessions behind them, the Bears and Cubs faced off on January 15, 1937 in the first ice hockey match played in Bristol. The Bristol Evening Post had this to say:

[It’s] certainly something of a lightning switch for players and onlookers alike, there being thrills galore.

The paper didn’t quite know what to make of it, or how to express what was going on. At least not yet.

A fortnight later, the Bears and Cubs faced each other again in front of 1,000 people. Amongst the crowd was Ernest Appleton, director of the BBC’s Western Region and a keen proponent of sports broadcasting. He was there because the match on January 29 was broadcast with running commentary on the radio, the first time an ice hockey broadcast in England had taken place outside of London. Before the end of the season, the club, which adopted the Bears as their outward identity, had played against amateur sides from London including the Earl’s Court Marlboroughs, the London Canadians, and the Richmond Redwings.

Gaining entry into the Provincial League, the amateur second tier of English ice hockey in this period, the Bristol Bears contested the 1937-38 season enjoying mixed fortunes. They won, for example, against Cambridge University but lost to superior opposition from Oxford University and to the Birmingham Maple Leafs, whose captain, Robert Giddens, was the editor of Ice Hockey World. That was Britain’s dedicated ice hockey newspaper, by the way! Although they suffered a number of defeats, particularly against teams with a large number of Canadians on their roster, the Bears acquitted themselves in the championship and survived into the 1938-39 season. Over the summer, they changed their name and became the Bristol Bombers.

The Bristol Bombers Ice Hockey Club. Taken from the Bristol Evening Post, 1938.

The bombers were so named partly because many of the players on the roster worked at the aircraft factories in the city and because the venue had been an aircraft factory itself during the Great War. So who was playing ice hockey in Bristol and where did they come from? Let’s start with their coach, Mr Rudge. He was a Briton, a former professional soccer player turned boxing and soccer trainer. His players, well they’re a mixture. Some were young lads abroad for the first time, such as John Hunter, the club’s left wing. He was 19-year-old out of Montreal. There was Les Griffin from Chicago and James Tweedie from Toronto. That so many were Canadians is not surprising, for that’s how British hockey was in the 1930s.

It was a Canadian game enjoyed by a few thousand people on a Friday night at the top of Park Street. There were the hallmarks of Canadian hockey, too, such as the violence; that is, the rough stick play and likelihood of fisticuffs on the ice. Often enough did the St John Ambulance volunteers have to slip and slide onto the ice to rescue a player whose jaw or arm had been broken. Not that sitting in the stands was any safer, as one young lady discovered when she was knocked unconscious by a puck flying into the stands and hitting her above the eye.

The Bears, later the Bombers, played two season in the Provincial League before the Second World War put a stop to all but the elite hockey in London. Those familiar with the history of Bristol, know the next bit of the story. In 1940, the city was heavily bombed by the Luftwaffe and the Coliseum’s ice rink was destroyed. It was an abrupt end to the rink and to the club and deprived Bristol of hockey until the 1970s. Poetic irony, I suppose, the bombers being destroyed by bombs.

If the above portrait hints at a remarkable sport, then it’s worth noting that the Bristol team were on the fringes of British hockey. The glitz and the glamour were to be found at the vast rinks of London, Glasgow and Edinburgh where hundreds of thousands of pounds were spent, in the midst of the Great Depression, providing for hockey and skating. Wembley Arena was said to be as impressive as Madison Square Garden in New York and surpassed Toronto’s famous Maple Leaf Gardens. But that’s a story for another Hockey Night in Britain.