Hockey night in…Shrewsbury?

Darwin playing Ice Hockey

Darwin playing Ice Hockey

This week, a bombshell rocked the world of winter sports – hockey is, apparently, not from Canada. What drew our attention to this revelation is a letter from Charles Darwin used as evidence for the game’s roots in England. With several Canadians working on the Darwin Correspondence project, we were intrigued by the notion that Darwin had been an early participant in a much-beloved sport.


The letter in question is to Darwin’s eldest son William, who was then about fourteen years old and away at school. It would have been a very late spring, because Darwin mentions hockey in reference to William’s younger brother George “sliding”: “Georgy has learnt to slide & enjoys it very much, & goes down by himself to the village-pond: but this day’s heavy snow will stop sliding & your skating. Have you got a pretty good pond to skate on? I used to be very fond of playing at Hocky on the ice in skates.” In 1840, Leigh Hunt included hockey in his description of a typical winter day: “as you approach the scene of action (pond or canal) you hear the dull grinding noise of the skaits to and fro, and see tumbles, and Banbury cake-men and blackguard boys playing “hockey,” and ladies standing shivering on the banks” (Leigh Hunt, The indicator and the companion (London: 1840) part 2, p. 19). By the middle of the nineteenth century hockey was a common enough occurrence in England to produce a rant in an article for London Society 3: 14 (1863) against the dangers of it being played on thin ice. Even Charles Kingsley, author of The water babies, referred to ice hockey in Madame How and Lady Why (1870).


As an adult, Darwin generally preferred more sedentary activities, and although he enjoyed playing Billiards with his sons, he tended to leave more vigorous physical activity to the younger crowd. Finding gems like these, about the day to day activities of Darwin and his family, is one of the benefits of having access to such a complete archive of correspondence. The letters obviously provide important access to the formation of Darwin’s scientific thought, but they also enable us to snatch domestic glimpses into something as simple as a child’s favourite winter pastime.

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