On any weekend at the riverside walkway on Somme Parade, you are likely to spot someone rolling by on wheels. You may wonder when roller skates and roller skating started.

Ice skating artefacts date back as far as 3000 BC. And ice skates are the ancestors of roller skates.

Ice skates were used on the numerous frozen canals in the Netherlands in winter to get to destinations as a matter of course. In the early 1700s, an unknown Dutchman attached wooden spools to blocks of wood and the result was the first pair of dry land skates, named skeelers.

Metal-wheeled boots appeared in around 1760 in London. In France, the first patent for a roller skate was issued by 1819. The skate had a wooden sole that was attached to the bottom of a boot, fitted with two or four rollers made of copper, or wood or ivory, and arranged in a straight single line.

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This design continued to develop, and in 1863, a patent was issued in America for a very usable pair of roller skates. These had two parallel sets of wheels, one pair under the ball of the foot and the other pair under the heel, a bit like today's roller blades.

The four wheels were made of boxwood and worked on rubber springs, the first dry land skate that could manoeuvre in a smooth curve, which allowed for turns and the ability to skate backwards.

The addition of steel ball bearings to the wheels in the mid-1880s reduced friction and allowed wheels to turn with greater freedom. This made skating less strenuous, which increased its popularity.

Druids' Hall, Bell St, Whanganui, 1939. The Royal Rink was installed in the Druids' Hall in the early 20th century. Photographer: F H Bethwaite
Druids' Hall, Bell St, Whanganui, 1939. The Royal Rink was installed in the Druids' Hall in the early 20th century. Photographer: F H Bethwaite

Recreational roller skating started in New Zealand in the mid-1860s and by the mid-1890s, following international trends, it was very popular, almost a craze. In the early 20th century, before World War I, the popularity of skating experienced a boom period.

Indoor rinks appeared nationwide, some in converted halls and others that were purpose-built. In March 1910, The Colonist, a Nelson newspaper, published an article that included the information that the number of rinks in New Zealand had increased from 20 to over 400 in just one year.

Whanganui folk certainly did not miss out on this popular and fashionable pastime. The Druids' Hall in Bell St (now the site of Kitchen Contours and Bill Milbank Gallery) was frequently used for activities such as plays, lectures and card games before being turned into a skating rink.

The Royal Rink was open daily and every evening, advertising "first-class skates for hire combined with the best of attention", a "moderate tariff" and offering "private parties by arrangement". Grand skating carnivals were held for spectators to come and watch.

Advertisement for the Royal Rink, around 1910. Source: Wanganui Chronicle
Advertisement for the Royal Rink, around 1910. Source: Wanganui Chronicle

In July 1911, the Whanganui Chronicle reported that "the fascinating pastime of roller skating is taking a new lease of life, and last evening saw the floor of the Druids' Hall well filled with devotees of the mighty little wheels". The Coronation Rink in the ABC Hall in Aramoho also flourished.

Recreational roller skating has moved through several more periods of popularity, and over time, into a competitive team sport. The design of roller skates has continued to develop in response to modern demands.

Rachael Garland is communications co-ordinator at Whanganui Regional Museum.