Kirkcaldy Ice Rink 1938: from the cusp of war to dawn of a new era for sport

It is remarkable to think that Fife Flyers made their debut on the cusp of the world going to war. Even as the rink was being built in Kirkcaldy, the fear of global conflict was very real.
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But 1938 was also a year of vitality and progress even while the dark clouds rolled overhead. It saw the opening of the Lang Toun’s fire station and library in East Fergus Place, while M&S also moved into town. East Fife won the Scottish Cup, and, in doing so became, the first ever Division Two side to lift the silverware, while the docks in Methil shipped some three million tons of coal - the seventh highest figure in their history.

While a host of local businesses worked on the construction of the new rink, and manager, J.C. Rolland set about recruiting the first ever players, events around the globe continued to draw the town towards dark times.

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The Christmas broadcast of King George VI spoke of “shadows of enmity and fear” over parts of the world, and there was an acceptance that war could start at any minute. As the countdown got underway to the rink’s official opening, so too did it tick on what could have been the last days of peace. October 1 - the day the doors first opened and Flyers hit the newly laid ice pad for the first time - came directly after “a week of anxiety and international passed.’’

Fife Free Press, 1938 advert for volunteers to become air raid wardensFife Free Press, 1938 advert for volunteers to become air raid wardens
Fife Free Press, 1938 advert for volunteers to become air raid wardens

The columns of the Fife Free Press capture the drama vividly. Captain Burns had been appointed organiser of the Air Raid Precautions Committee which was busy digging trenches in parks and open spaces - they started in Beveridge Park and quickly extended their work to Ravenscraig, Gallatown and Loanwells Green in Carlyle Road.

As they dug, the Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain, flew to meet Adolf Hitler on what the Press called “a courageous mission of peace … which will unite the nation and make us ready for whatever they have have in store.’’

On the table was the issue of Czechoslovakia. The Four Power talks in Munich determined whether peace would prevail. It was, the Press noted, the sole topic of conversation. In Kirkcaldy, more men signed up from the Labour Exchange and were put to work, digging trenches seven feet deep.

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An army of volunteers was also recruited to assemble 18,000 gas masks, and coastal defences called up. There were stockpiles of paint and whitewash for use on pavements, lamp posts, crossings and windows in the event of the lighting system being extinguished. A total of 150,000 sand bags were ordered.

The headlines from Fife Free Press, 1938, on the crisis as talks go on to avert outbreak of warThe headlines from Fife Free Press, 1938, on the crisis as talks go on to avert outbreak of war
The headlines from Fife Free Press, 1938, on the crisis as talks go on to avert outbreak of war

It’s incredible to think that plans to open a new rink and launch a brand new sport of ice hockey were continuing apace. As the Press noted: “There was no fear or panic” - while hating the idea of war, there was general consensus we would rise to the occasion.”

There were moments of real drama too. At a meeting of Pathhead Guilds, business was interrupted by a messenger boy to announce to various members that their sons had been called up.

“Consternation prevailed, and the mothers, distraught, hastened to their homes,” reported the Press. “All day on Tuesday in Hunter Street there was a coming and going of khaki-clad young men, many of them little more than boys, and, for hours, groups waited patiently in the rain outside the Territorial premises.”

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By the Tuesday evening, the only place to be was huddled round a radio to hear the broadcast by Prime Minister Chamberlain.

Reported the Press: “Out on the streets afterwards, there seemed to be an even grimmer atmosphere. We tried to tell each other that Hitler was bluffing, that some ray would break through the gloom.”

Perhaps not surprisingly, people flocked to church that night, to pray and to reflect. Chamberlain stressed the situation was comparable to that of 1914, but concluded with the announcement of the Four Power talks at Munich. A wave of relief. The world has stepped back from the brink of war.

Life seemed to be suddenly dragged back from the edge of darkness, but there was still much to be done. By the Thursday, lorries left the Lang Toun for Galashiels to collect the burgh’s quota of gas masks. They were were immediately conveyed throughout the wards to the Philp Hall, Adam Smith Halls, Pathhead and Dysart. Soon after, 400 volunteers, men and women, commenced work of assembly and great progress was made

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That evening saw more enrolment of ARP wardens, but the relaxation of international tension had the effect of preventing a general rush to sign on. Half hourly intervals saw the repeated announcement from the Dictators and Premiers that they were still in conference, and only when the Czech government accepted the outcome did the town stop distributing gas masks and suspend trench digging.

That also allowed the opening ceremony of the rink to go ahead as planned. Sir Robert Lockhart, chairman of the Royal Caledonian Curling Club, reflected: “We are particularly thankful that the immediate danger of war has been removed and that we can enjoy our afternoon in the hope that a permanent peace can be secured.’’

One year later, World War Two broke out. The Government tried to requisition to rink for the war effort - and failed. The fortitude which saw it opened in the darkest of times returned and made a compelling case to keep the doors open.

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