Curling originated in Scotland some time in the 16th century. On January 17th 1795, Duddingston Curling Society became the first curling club in the world to be formally organised. It had a membership fee of three guineas and attracted Scotland's top curlers. By the beginning of the 19th century the game had become extremely popular in Scotland. The rules of the sport were codified in 1803.
Large boulders from the river were originally used, then iron handles were attached. In Canada the curling 'stones' were made of metal and called 'irons'. A game like curling was popular in the Low Countries. The famous painting 'Hunters in the Snow' by Peter Brueghel shows little figures on the ice playing just such a game.
Blackburn always had a large Scottish population and Ray Smith describes how the game evolved in Blackburn. The sport of sliding heavy granite stones over ice probably leaves most folk cold south of the border, as it is generally seen as a Scottish sport. There was, however, a flurry of interest in 2002 when Great Britain's ladies team (all Scottish) won a gold medal.
But, that wasn't always so in East Lancashire, for the area once boasted several curling clubs whose heritage and history wing back to 1866 and, in Blackburn, is preserved by the sole surviving member of the principal one.
He is 65-year-old businessman and local history enthusiast, Ray Smith, of Whalley Road, Langho who joined the Blackbum Caledonian Curling Club back in 1965, and, though he has never played, he can boast of being arguably the only remaining 'adherent' of the sport in the region.
Ray's 37 year-old association with curling, going back to when the Caledonian was down to just six members and reduced to a social organisation, stems from his membership of the town's ancient Subscription Bowling Green Club, which became the curlers' foster home through both games having similar principles.
As secretary of the bowling club, whose existence can be traced back to at least 1734, he is also custodian of the Caledonian's trophies and medals which are kept at the bowlers' base in Shear Bank Road.
Among them is the 1888 golden jubilee medal of the sport's "parent body," the Royal Caledonian Curling Club of Scotland, to which the Blackburn bowlers affiliated in 1867, a year after their club was formed. A novelty item among the trophies is the silver "toddy" kettle in the shape of a curling stone that was won at Moss Hall by the Blackburn Caledonians in a match against Bolton in 1887. Some newspapers suggest that it was during the 1930s that the club's members gave up active sport but Ray believes that playing members may have lingered on into the 1950s.
"I think they used to go on an annual 'do' and played indoors at an ice rink in Manchester," he says. Indeed, a report in 1952 of an appeal for new members by its secretary Arthur McVittie, whose grandfather was a founder member, stated that the club, then 45-strong, ran trips to the Manchester rink on Thursdays, but added: "This means a whole day off work and few people are able to afford this luxury very often."
When membership was strong, during the latter half of the 19th century and in the early 20th century, and, because they played outdoors, the Caledonians had to depend on 'Jack Frost' to provide them with sport.
"If they had a mild winter, they could not play,” Ray adds.
The club's rink was at Carlisle Street, Lower Audley, and they had also previously played at a pond at Little Harwood as well as at Intack. Coverage of their sport by the old 'Blackburn Weekly Telegraph' in January, 1910, told of members playing a series of friendly games at Little Harwood, though the newspaper added that snow followed by a partial thaw and a return of frost that week had spoiled the previously ideal surface and made it unfavourable for good play.
It was at Little Harwood on a pond near 'Blow Up Cottages', whose name recalled the boiler explosion which killed four men at the nearby colliery in 1819, that other clubs in the area competed, including one based at the Rose and Thistle Hotel in Harwood Street.
It was at that club's annual dinner in 1886 that tribute was paid to the "father" of curling in Blackburn, John Jardine, who was said to have brought the ancient Scottish sport to the town some 20 years previously.
Among records Ray has compiled for a history of sport in Blackburn there is mention of Joseph Jardine, a well-known local poet who was born of Scottish parents in Blackburn and became secretary of the town's Caledonian Curling Club - and of his ode "Curling At Midsummer" which appeared in the 1902 book 'Poets and Poetry of Blackburn' by George Hull, recalling the club's victory in a match against Preston at the Southport Glaciarium.
Though Ray says that several pubs in the area ran curling clubs, the Blackburn Caledonian was the longest-lived and perhaps the one with the most prestige.
Its early membership lists feature several once-prominent names, including brewing magnate Sir John Rutherford, M.P. and the Scottish footballer Johnny Forbes, who made his debut for Rovers in 1888 before becoming a director of the club and founding the "Athletic House" men's outfitters and sports equipment business in Blackburn that bore his name and continued until 1973.
N.B. The above article was compiled in the early days of Cotton Town. Mr Ray Smith, died, aged 80 years, in May 2018.