#02 in the list of senior British men to have represented GB (1936-1938)
William (Bill) Charles Ross is probably the biggest British speed skating enigma in the history of our sport. As well as being a double European Champion he is the only British skater to win more than one World Championship. In fact, he was Britain’s very first World Champion, but amazingly he never won an individual British title.
Ross was born on 3rd September 1905 in Hornsey, London just a few years before the Edwardian boom of roller skating and a stone’s throw from the Alexandra Palace. In terms of speed skating, London was the place to be in the early 1900’s. It was the home of the National Skating Association and many of the recognised elite heralded from the capital at that time. There were other speed clubs around the country but these cities were known as “the provinces” and inter club rivalry between the north/south divide was still some way off.
Ross started skating at 16 and it's fair to assume that he frequented the Ally Pally throughout his youth but it wasn’t until he was 20 years old in 1925 that he would join the NSA and begin what would be an illustrious racing career.
He was obviously very talented as within a few months of joining, on 7th January 1926 he would win his first race, a one mile handicap on the Forest Gate rink. Three weeks later he was selected to represent Alexandra Palace in the 3 Mile Inter-Club Relay Championship of Great Britain. Alongside Osbaldston, Sealing and Brake, Ross and his Alexandra Palace team mates would come home victorious winning the coveted Burgoyne Shield. It was Palace’s first victory in this event and broke the stranglehold that the Aldwych club had held on the shield since it’s inception as a championship. Aldwych would take their revenge in 1927 and in fact it would be another four years before Alexandra Palace would find themselves once more on the top step.
The intervening years were no less barren for Ross although on 14th February 1929 he would come home third in the One Mile British Championship behind team mate Jimmy Reed and Aldwych’s Alex McLagan. 1930, however, would be an entirely different story.
On 30th January of that year he was again the bronze medal winner of the Mile Championship and then a month after that he would help bring home the Burgoyne Shield for a second time. This time his team mates were Jimmy Reed, Eddie Stumbke and Leonard Seagrave. Whilst the fourth man would generally chop and change, Ross, Reed and Stumbke would form an almost invincible trio of skaters in relay events throughout the 1930’s. Two weeks after this latest relay win and Ross would come home second in the Five Mile Championship, once more behind team mate Reed.
1931 again saw championship medals. Another silver in the Five Mile and another win in the relay. It also saw Ross come home second in the Jesson Cup handicap held on the Boulevard Rink in Leicester. It was the first time since his first medal in 1926 that Ross had taken a medal on a rink other than Alexandra Palace. The same year Ross married his long time girlfriend, Victoria Elvin as his passion for speed skating continued.
As 1932 came around he took his first medal in the Half Mile Championship, a bronze. He had now won medals in all three championship distances. Between 1932 and 1935 Ross would win another four championship medals and a further three relay titles.
In 1936 the international federation, the Federation Internationale de Patinage a Roulettes (FIPR) were holding European Speed Skating Championships in Stuttgart, Germany. The FIPR had formed in 1924 and was the fore-runner to the modern day FIRS. In 1936, however, Britain’s speed discipline was still to become a member, but despite this the FIPR extended an invite to the NSA to send a speed delegation of three skaters. The trio consisted of Bill Ross, Jimmy Reed and former Brixton All Blacks and now Broadway skater, Harold Wilkinson. To say they arrived with a bang would be an understatement. With Ross nominated as team captain, between them they would win five out of seven events and take silver medals in the remaining two. Ross would win the 500 metres and 10000 metres, the shortest and longest events, Wilkinson the 1500 metres and 2000 metres and Reed the 5000 metres. Whilst Britain had been successful in international team events in the early/mid 1920’s, this performance made the infant skating world sit up and take note.
Ross would again win British Championship medals but ironically 1936 was the year when Alexandra Palace’s hold on the Burgoyne Shield came to an abrupt end. The team came up against eventual winners, Broadway, in the semi-final. The lead changed hands several times between the two clubs before Broadway ran home winners. Viscount Doneraile, then President of the NSA, commented that it was one of the best races he had ever seen. It’s doubtful Ross and his team mates would have agreed.
In 1937 normal service resumed. Ross again found himself runner up to team mate Jimmy Reed in the Half Mile Championship and Alexandra Palace again found themselves holders of the Burgoyne Shield. By now the Palace team were in the latter stages of their careers. In the final the Palace quartet once more came up against a talented Broadway team. Broadway had their superstar skater Jackie Robbins in the team, but despite being half their age, the guile of both Ross and Reed outsmarted the youngster.
It was the last time Ross, Reed and Stumbke would race together as the nucleus of the Alexandra Palace relay team. That year Reed turned professional leaving Ross and Stumbke to be joined by Frank Best and Les Gillet for the 1938 relay championship. On 10th February Alexandra Palace took the title yet again, the eighth time in nine years and the ninth relay title for Bill Ross. Ross’s record of nine relay titles would stand for an amazing 80 years until Vincent Henry took his tenth relay title in 2018.
A few weeks later, on March 21st, Ross would attain his final domestic medal, a silver, in the Five Mile Championship on his home track. Broadway’s Jackie Robbins was by now the man of the moment. He was young, strong and fast and this time he had the beating of Ross.
Ross was now 33 years old and he was starting to think about retirement from speed skating. There was, however, one last roll of the dice for the diminutive Londoner. Along with Harold Wilkinson and Arthur Cooper he was again selected to represent Great Britain. The first ever World Road Championships had been held in Monza, Italy in 1937 but Britain had elected not to send a team. 1938 saw the first ever World Track Championships, but moreover, the championships were to be held at Wembley, London. The Empire Pool was covered with a sprung floor and made ready for the competition. It was a bittersweet moment for Ross. On the very same day he was selected to represent his country he was told he had lost his job.
Despite this Ross and his team mates took to the track in the first event, the 5000 metres. It was 18th April 1938 and at the end of the event Ross had cemented himself into the history books of British roller speed skating by becoming Britain’s first ever winner of a World Championship and the first ever World Track Champion. Just days later and he would achieve yet another first when he took his second title in the 10000 metres, becoming the only British skater ever to win two World titles.
His feat was made all the more remarkable as Ross could barely afford meals between races. During the championships Ross gave an interview to the Daily Mirror:
“I do not get a penny from these championships, only a certificate and the knowledge that Britain has won. We have to buy and provide everything ourselves.
My brother-in-law, Mr. Alfred Baker, is a trainer-manager, and if he did not give his services free I should have to rub myself down after the racing.
My wife cannot see me race. We can’t pay her fare from Wood Green, where we live. But she does not mind. She thinks roller skating is the best sport on earth.
Looking for work is the next thing when these championships are over”.
Immediately after these championships Ross took his achievements and left the sport. Undoubtedly, his employment situation would have been a factor. He was a bricklayer by trade but this was the late 1930’s and work was a scarcity. He was also now one of the “old guard” and younger skaters from across the country were beginning to make their mark. Ross decided that his day had come.
By 1939 Bill and Victoria had upped sticks and moved across the border and into Wales. Setting up home in Cardiff Ross found the work he sought and managed to put food on the table. We are not sure what he did for the war effort and the couple did not have children. For his part skating became a distant, but albeit enjoyable memory.
In 1979 he was called upon to greet Queen Elizabeth II at a centenary ceremony of the NSA that recognised all it’s former and current World Champions. Bill went along and met his old team mate from 1938, Arthur Cooper. Harold Wilkinson had sadly passed away some years previous. Together they shared memories and swapped stories with the likes of Danny Kelly, Leo Eason and John Folley who were also present in their capacity as World Champions.
In later years Bill and Victoria moved to Weston-Super-Mare. It was here that Bill sadly died in March 1984 aged 78.Few these days will know the name Bill Ross. It is hard to believe he never won an individual British title. Let there be no doubt, though, that on any other day he could have turned any one of his five silver medals and seven bronze medals into gold. As a double European Champion, a double World Champion and the holder of an 80 year old record for most number of relay titles, it’s almost unfathomable. But one thing is for sure, when people refer to legends of this sport, whether it be nationally or internationally, you are well within your rights to quote the name of Bill Ross as one of them.