Submitted by Brian Roulston
As Wiarton Willie and his cousins across the land make their best prognostics for an early spring, old man winter continues to deliver us his best shivering sting. Rejoice, another popular winterish activity is being enjoyed across the country and in Hamilton too. It’s a sport called Curling, and it is related to the games of bowls, boule, and shuffleboard. Because of the audible roar made by the rocks as they glide over the ice sheet, curling is frequently referred to as the “roaring game.”
It is widely accepted that curling is a Scottish sport, however, Austria and Belgium have also laid claim to the sport as being their own. Scottish farmers first curled over the frozen marshes, ponds and lochs of old Scotia using “channel stones” naturally polished by the actions of the water. Handles were later added to these stones in the 17th century to improve delivery onto the ice, and brooms to remove snow became a permanent part of curling then as well. The earliest indication of the sport came when two curling stones bearing the year 1511 were unearthed when a pond in Dunblane, Scotland was drained. According to records found dating back to February 1541 in Paisley Abbey, the first recorded curling match came when a Scottish Monk challenged a Lay governor to a match in 1540. This was not perceived as a friendly match by any means as the two challengers despised each other.
The first recognized curling club in Scotland, the Kinross-Club was formed in 1818, the game became popular and it was exported to Switzerland, Sweden, Norway, and New Zealand. The Grand National Curling Club, subsequently renamed the Caledonian Curling Club, was founded in 1838. Four years later, during a visit by Queen Victoria, the Earl of Mansfield demonstrated curling on the ballroom floor of Scone Palace near Perth. The Queen was so taken with the game that she granted permission for the Club’s name to be changed to the Royal Caledonian Curling Club in 1843, and it became the sport’s ruling body until 1966, when the World Curling Federation was established. Curling is usually played in the coldest regions of the world, and according to the United States Curling Association, Canada has the most curlers on the planet, with almost 1.2 million of the estimated 1.5 million curlers worldwide. It was the British Troops that originally brought the game to Canada at the Plains of Abraham near Quebec City during the French and Indian War between 1754-1763. Unfortunately for the British, they were so humiliated by the Scots in a game on the Plains of Abraham that they temporarily gave up playing the sport. Curling was later introduced to the Americans in Pontiac, Michigan in 1832.
Curling was a great way for Scottish troops to pass the long Canadian winters. They melted down a few cannonballs and created the first curling stones in Canada. It was the Scots that popularized the game in this country.
Curling in Canada has traditionally been associated with the military, and it still is, with numerous Canadian Forces personal competing among various bases across the nation. When the early regiments in Canada were disbanded, many of them became the country’s first police forces, and its members were awarded parcels of land. The regimental officers often became the new community’s elite, and typically they created the first curling clubs. As the railroad stretched across the country and towns popped up, so did curling clubs. It didn’t take long for towns to start playing friendly games against one another, this later sparked provincial and interprovincial competitions which eventually led to the Winter Olympic games in Chamonix, France in 1924. Curling clubs were established in Ontario as early as 1820, in Kingston, and in Elora in 1825. The oldest continuously operating curling club in the province today was founded in Fergus, the location of the Highland Games, when the sport was first played on the streets and then eventually the Grand River in 1834.
Curling has been a part of the Hamilton sporting scene since 1853 when several young men first played the game on Robinson Street. People found it challenging to curl at the time due to the rain and the snow. Five hours of playing time would sometimes be the best you could hope for because the ice would often melt before the end of their matches. The curlers relocated the following year to a creek just east of Markland and Bay Streets in the Durand neighbourhood. Another year went by and they moved to a covered shed on James Street South. There were originally 22 members, and they named their new curling club the Ontario Curling Club of Hamilton and; it was a men’s only club for many years. It was the 16th curling club in Canada and the 11th in Ontario. The first purpose-built stones used at the club were crafted of curly maple made in Fergus, and they were deemed as the very best in Canada at the time.
The name of the Ontario Curling Club of Hamilton changed numerous times when it merged with or purchased other curling and ice facilities in the region until 1871, when it became the Hamilton Thistle Curling Club until 1889. Its name was slightly modified to The Thistle Club. The club’s legal suffixes would change several times until 1978. A large red brick building with four curling sheets, affectionately called “The Thistle,” was built on the corner of Park and Robinson streets after paying $2000 for the land in 1878. It opened its doors in 1889. They quickly bought the neighbouring property and built an outdoor ice rink for hockey and skating. Additionally, pool tables were added. Because lawn bowling was rapidly expanding in popularity as a summertime activity in the area, four lawn bowling greens were also added. Other games, such as squash, tennis, and badminton, along with organized hockey games were added when hydro was brought to Hamilton from Decewsville in the 1890s and electric lighting replaced gas lighting.
On Saturday, January 28th, 1905 the Hamilton Evening Times reported that significant crowds attended The Thistle’s popular Friday afternoon skating sessions. The old indoor skating rink was converted into the second most modern indoor tennis court in the country behind Montreal sometime around the First World War, and it opened to large crowds featuring some of the best tennis players of the day, including World Champion William Tilden and Spanish Champion Manuel Alonso. For a short period of time, Hamilton was the top level of Canadian tennis.
By this time, the Thistle Club was well renowned throughout Canada as one of the best curling facilities in the country. The Thistle Club was officially incorporated on October 11, 1927, and artificial ice-making equipment was also installed that year. In 1934 women were allowed into the club. After that, the club was renovated several times. There were eleven racquetball courts in 1960, as well as air conditioning. The March 25th, 1960 edition of the Hamilton Spectator reports that, due to a surge in curling and with upgrades made at The Thistle it was then possible to curl and skate at the same time. Saunas and whirlpools were installed in both the men and women’s sections of the club.
In 1973 squash became extremely popular at the club, even among the ladies. The Thistle Club’s six curling sheets were shut down in 1987 when curling ceased to be played there due to the growth of racquet sports and the decline of curling. In 2002, a year before its 150th anniversary, the club folded for good owing to diminishing membership and financial responsibilities. The building was dismantled in 2004. Part of the Thistle Club’s original frontage has been incorporated into the City Square Parkside Condominium which now stands in its place.