HISTORY OF BRITISH GYMNASTICS
From 1888 onwards, British Gymnastics has grown from humble beginnings helping to forge the shape of what we now see as gymnastics worldwide.
Doctors De Betou and Ehrenhoof advocate gymnastics as physical medicine and set themselves up as ‘gymnastics practitioners’ in London.
Archibald Maclaren, a pupil of European gymnastics, starts to teach gymnastics at the newly completed indoor gymnasium at Oxford. Twelve British soldiers are sent to Oxford University to learn the art of gymnastics, including the horizontal bar and parallel bars, under the direction of MacLaren. The twelve ‘apostles’ as they are known, were there to teach gymnastics to the army. Later, many army instructors found their way to the public schools where gymnastics became part of the curriculum. It was about this time that the Army Gymnastics Staff was established.
The German Gymnastics Society is established in London
The Northampton & County Amateur Athletics Club is formed. This is the oldest gymnastics club in Great Britain and is still operating at the time of writing in 2022.
The German Gymnasium, the home of the German Gymnastics Society opened in January 1865 at a cost of £6000.
Above -The German Gymnasium when it opened in 1865
Above – The German gymnasium opening display in 1865
The German Gymnasium is still standing and is a cafe bar and restaurant situated between London King’s Cross and St. Pancras stations
The first ever National Olympian Games are held at the German Gymnasium at St Pancras.
The Birmingham Athletic Club, with a gymnastic group, is formed.
There is evidence of women taking part in gymnastics in the UK as shown by the engraving of a class at the German Gymnasium in 1870.
The Orion Gym Club established in 1868 holds its first annual display.
The Birmingham Athletic Institute (B.A.I.) sent a team of men to the German Turnfest in Frankfurt on Main. They claim to have taught the German athletes the use of Indian clubs and the art of boxing.
Amateur Gymnastic and Fencing Association is formed (this is an English Gymnastic Association). The inaugural meeting is held at the German Gymnasium. Four London clubs set up the meeting, the German Gymnastic Society, the Orion Gymnastic Society, St James Athletic Club and Stepney Gymnasium. We know that Northampton Athletic Club (still in existence) was invited to the meeting but know of no others.
Above – Letter to Northampton from the German Gymnastic Society from 1888.
Scottish Amateur Gymnastic Association formed.
Austin Fleming Jenkin writes Gymnastics, a book that provides gymnastic terminology for the nation. This would prove to be a must-have for coaches until the 1930s. Jenkin must have had considerable influence in these times; he became President of the AGA from 1892 to 1903 and it is reported that thanks to Jenkin the AGA Championships for men were inaugurated a few years later.
The National Physical Recreation Society holds the first National Team Challenge Shield. This national gymnastic trophy is a first within the British Isles. The NPRS sends a message of supremacy to the AGA, thus creating a 10-year war between the two associations. The AGA had threatened to ban any gymnast participating in NPRS events so there is no mention of NPRS on this notice.
The Birmingham Athletic Institute gymnasium on John Bright Street is opened.
Frederick J Harvey’s London gymnastics team competes in the National Physical Recreation Society’s Challenge Shield. The London team comes 2nd to Aberdeen. A year later, Harvey represented England internationally. He is the director of the Exeter Hall Gymnasium in London and the author of numerous books on gymnastics. His great-grandson has a variety of his medals, one of which is a medal from the 1900 Expose Universal Paris, the Olympic Games. Were there other individual gymnastic events going on at the Paris Olympics?
The Irish Amateur Gymnastics Association is formed in Dublin. National competitions take place. The city of Dublin GC wins the Irish Challenge Shield. The Ulster AGA holds its team championships with Montpottinger YMCA GC taking the title.
The first English Championships for Men’s Gymnastics, Artistic, is held. The Championships is open to all amateurs; the prize, the Challenge Cup costing £18.15.00 is still the trophy for today’s British championships. Mr TM Gardiner of Hoddesdon was commissioned to manufacture the apparatus for these championships. Henry Cain from the Orion Gym Club Bethnal Green is the winner.
First Olympic Games is held in Athens. Launceston Elliott from Great Britain takes part in the rope climb, one of the 11 gymnastics events.
Frederick J Harvey competes in the 9th Deutsch Turnfest held in Hamburg. He comes back with a medal which is still part of his family’s archive.
The first British international is held in Dublin, with England, Scotland and Ireland competing under the auspices of the Amateur Gymnastic Federation. This event continued till at least 1911. Scotland goes on to win 6 times & England 6 times. Councillor Adams from Birmingham is at the event and donates a shield ready for the next year’s international.
The content on this site is curated by Meg Warren, with assistance from Warren Slingsby and a small but dedicated team of contributors. We are building a comprehensive history of gymnastics in Britain and are always interested in learning more and gathering more historical content, so if you can contribute to this page or any others, please get in touch with the links below. Read about the contributors.