Syers [née Cave], Florence Madeline [Madge] (1881–1917), ice-skater
by Judith Wilson

Syers [née Cave], Florence Madeline [Madge] (1881–1917), ice-skater, was born at 60 Oxford Gardens, Kensington, London, on 16 September 1881 (her name being registered as Mabel Madeline), the fourth daughter in the family of fifteen children of Edward Jarvis Cave, builder, and his wife, Elizabeth Ann, née Chapman. Her father, who also traded as a hosier and owned a farm, speculated in property development but over-extended himself and was adjudged bankrupt in May 1900. Extravagant living was said to have exacerbated his financial difficulties. Nothing more is known of Madge's childhood. As a young woman, her ability as a skater was revealed at the fashionable Prince's Club ice rink in Knightsbridge, where she quickly displayed more than a social interest in the sport, excelling at the relatively restrictive, formal style that was favoured by English skaters. In 1899, at eighteen, she won the challenge shield in a team event and shortly afterwards met her future husband, Edgar Morris Wood Syers (1863–1946), described as a gentleman of independent means, the son of Morris Robert Syers, merchant.

Edgar Syers was a skater eighteen years Madge's senior who, as an advocate of the more artistic and athletic international skating technique, considerably influenced the development of his wife's performance on the ice. He encouraged her to abandon English skating convention, placing emphasis instead upon aestheticism and ambitious, physically demanding movements. As pioneers in England of this international style, the couple won the first British pairs skating competition in Brighton in 1899, and in January 1900 distinguished themselves further in one of the first international pairs events in Berlin, where they came second to an Austrian couple. In the same year on 23 June, Madge and Edgar were married.

Two years later Madge Syers submitted her entry to compete in the figure-skating world championships held by the International Skating Union (ISU) in London against the Swedish defending champion, Ulrich Salchow, Martin Gordan of Berlin, and Horatio Torrome of Argentina. The event had been exclusively male and the ISU condemned Madge Syers's entry, but found that there was no provision in the rules of the contest for her exclusion. Cutting a striking figure in the contest, her slight frame clothed in an ankle-length wool skirt, satin blouse, doeskin gloves, and pearls, Syers quashed the ISU's outrage by winning second place, beaten only by Salchow; in addition, she won first place with Edgar in the pairs event. As a direct result of her successful participation in the competition, the ISU at its congress in Budapest in 1903 imposed a ban on women, preventing them from entering future championships. Madge Syers's reaction to the ban demonstrated her characteristic mettle; owing to a technicality the ruling could not be implemented immediately, and in 1903 she entered and won the first British singles championship, beating Torrome. In January 1904 she went on to win fourth place in the compulsory figures event in the European championships in Davos, Switzerland, and two months later she defended her title in the Swedish cup, defeating her husband to win it a second time. Her comprehensive series of victories over male skaters forced the ISU to admit that women skaters were as skilled and able as men, and in 1905 the ban on women was lifted. In 1906 a separate ladies' event was introduced at the world championships as a consequence of Syers's achievement. Madge won the first ladies' championship in Davos in 1906 and again in Vienna in 1907, and the contest became an important international platform for women skaters, revealing existing and emerging talent.

By the time of the 1908 summer Olympics, held in London, Madge Syers was the world champion and home favourite. The figure-skating competition, held under the auspices of the International Olympic Committee and the National Skating Association of Great Britain, took place at the end of October, some weeks after the other events, at the Prince's Club, Knightsbridge, the rink where her career began. She was placed first by all five judges in the compulsory figures and free skating and became the first woman Olympic gold medallist in ice-skating. In the compulsory event it was reported that ‘she has never given a better performance; its essential power was concealed by the ease of execution’ (The Times, 29 Oct 1908, 10), while in the free skating her programme was described as being more difficult than that attempted by any of the other competitors, and was performed ‘with her own particular dash and finish’ (The Times, 30 Oct 1908, 5). In addition, she won a bronze medal with Edgar in the pairs event. These Olympic successes were to be her final appearances. Her health, which had caused her to withdraw from the British championships in February 1908, began to fade and she retired from skating. Shortly afterwards she fell ill with acute endocarditis, and on 9 September 1917 she died of heart failure at her home, Shaws, St George's Hill, Weybridge, Surrey, at the age of thirty-five.

Edgar Syers had been an active promoter of winter sports in Britain, and had helped to found a national figure skating club in 1901 and the Ski Club of Great Britain in 1903, but after Madge's death he became embittered with the National Skating Association, of which he was secretary. In 1921 he married Eva Victoria Critchel, aged twenty-four, and died in Maidenhead in 1946.

JUDITH WILSON

Sources  

I. Buchanan, British Olympians: a hundred years of gold medallists (1991) · D. L. Bird, Our skating heritage: a centenary history of the National Skating Association of Great Britain, 1879–1979 (1979) · M. F. Heller, The illustrated encyclopedia of ice skating (1979) · S. Milton, Skate: 100 years of figure skating (1996) · L. Stephenson, A history and annotated bibliography of skating costume (1970) · b. cert. · m. cert. · d. cert. · The Times (23 May 1900), 13 · The Times (9 Nov 1900), 13 · The Times (2 Dec 1981), 21 · census returns, 1891 · census returns, 1901

Likenesses  

photograph, 1910, repro. in Bird, Our skating heritage

Wealth at death  

£975 7s. 9d.: probate, 1 March 1918, CGPLA Eng. & Wales


© Oxford University Press 2004–14 All rights reserved  

Florence Madeline Syers (1881–1917): doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/65063