Regent’s Park lake disaster that saw hundreds ‘struggle’ to survive

Solihull: Police tried to 'punch through' icy lake to save children

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The rarity of freezing cold winter spells in the UK, as was experienced last month with temperatures reaching as low as -9 degrees in Aberdeenshire, often brings about an air of wonder with many venturing out to play in the snow and observe frozen lakes. However, the latter in particular poses a hazard as was tragically played out last month when four children lost their lives in Solihull after falling through ice on a lake. A similarly devastating incident took place in the 19th century when dozens of people lost their lives in what was the UK’s worst-ever weather-related disaster.

On January 15, 1867, 500 people ventured to London’s Regent’s Park boating lake which was then four metres deep and used as an ice skating rink each winter. 

Today, ice skating in the UK is a pastime enjoyed all year round at indoor ice rinks, but its popularity dates back to the Victorian era.  

After becoming a popular sport in the 18th century with the first skating club set up in the 1740s in Edinburgh, Scotland, by the 19th century, outdoor skating was a firm favourite. 

Even Queen Victoria and Prince Albert took part. The monarch’s husband himself had a near-death experience in 1841 when he had to be rescued by Victoria from the icy water which came up to his head after the ice cracked while he skated at Buckingham Palace. 

But the dangers of the sport came to a head some years later.

On that fateful day more than 150 years ago, those skating on the lake were plunged into the icy water. Once the rescue operation ended, 40 people tragically lost their lives from hypothermia or drowning. 

The cold water, coupled with the weighty Victorian clothing and little-to-no swimming ability of those on the ice unfortunately sealed their fate. But to make matters worse, the incident could have been avoided entirely. 

The day before tragedy struck, others had been on the ice when it cracked and 21 people plummeted into the deathly cold water. Luckily, they all were rescued and survived. 

But by January 15, the following day, the ice had frozen over once again and the worrying incident of the previous day went unheeded, the warning notices ignored. 

Parkkeepers had also been breaking the ice around the edges of the lake in order to provide open water for the waterfowl. Not only this but snowfall had covered cracks in the ice meaning some were blissfully unaware of the dangers that lay ahead. 

Some 2,000 people were standing around the boating lake at approximately 4pm when the ice gave way. 

One survivor who was on the ice at the time with his two children, named only as Mr Dunton of Frederick Street, described in the Oxford Chronicle & Reading Gazette how “without a second’s warning the ice seemed to glide” from under them, leaving them in deep water. 

He continued: “Such a sight I hope never to see again. Quite 150 persons were struggling for life. Heads and arms were to be seen all around amongst the broken masses of ice. Two yards from me a little boy was drowning…”

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He held his children as high up as he possibly could in the water but said he could feel his feet sinking deeper and deeper into the mud. Luckily a “brave young fellow” came “plunging through the ice” to their rescue. 

Witnesses attempted to help retrieve those struggling in the water by tearing off tree branches and venturing out on the paddle boats. 

It took more than a week to establish that all the victims had been found. Recovering the bodies of the deceased proved immensely difficult as rescuers were obstructed by the lake constantly freezing over. 

To prevent such a tragedy from occurring again, the lake was then drained and the bed was filled with soil and concrete, making it just over one metre deep. 

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