Barbara, a volunteer with The Royal Parks in the First World War project, has been looking into new experiences in the Parks as a result of the international mix of soldiers and civilians in London during WW1:
The War brought thousands of troops from across the globe to London on their way to or from the fighting in Europe. They brought with them their sports and pastimes to occupy themselves while they were here and to help them recover from injuries.
The Royal Parks provided spaces for leisure activities and sports events, as well as international fraternisation.
The winter season
The severe winter of 1917 brought record low temperatures which froze the ponds and lakes in the Parks. In The Regent’s Park, the ice was 10 inches thick and there was continuous skating for 5 weeks. Some Canadians, used to this kind of weather, were experts in skating, and one wounded man from Montreal gave an exhibition of figure skating: ‘Afterwards he tried to teach a Queenslander. Both were in full hospital kit and their “blues” and scarlet ties made an effective note of colour. At last the Queenslander retired baffled, contented to watch the experts.’
For many Australian soldiers this was their first sight of snow and ice. The Times described ‘one man with one leg and two rubber shod crutches made quite good progress at Richmond, with occasional lapses from the perpendicular’. And it wasn't just skating they were tempted to try: groups of 'Antipodean soldiers' were seen doing 'real old fashioned English snowballing. They remarked to a passer-by that it was the first they had ever seen snow.' 100 years on, the Parks are still providing new experiences for people from sunnier climes!
The summer season
The Americans seem to have commandeered Hyde Park for the purposes of converting Londoners to the joys of US sport. Hyde Park saw its first baseball match in July 1918 between teams of American soldiers (and some British early adopters). The Royal Horse Guards band played the ‘Stars and Stripes’ and the Lord Mayor of London pitched the first ball ‘with good will but rather faulty execution’ (said The Times). And the drive to persuade the British of the delights of baseball seems to have worked, as The Fortnightly Review reported:
"It has been a joy to the baseball missionary to see the number of English spectators who gather [to watch the Americans play their matches on Wednesday afternoons]. He has a keen eye for the children and young people, but what surprises him most, and gratifies him hardly less, is the grey-haired, elderly men and women who come week after week, and show a very lively interest in the American game."
In the same month, a Wild West Show must have surprised passers-by and on 18th September 1918, an audience of thousands watched American soldiers demonstrate 40 different games, including 'Slap-Towel' and 'Hustle Ball'. There was also an exhibition of roughriding which didn’t quite go according to plan and could have ended with serious injuries when a pony got out of control. It dashed at onlookers seated round the enclosure, jumped right over the chairs, scattered the crowd, and knocked down a small boy and a soldier - neither whom were seriously hurt.