Story: Jenkins, Alfred

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Jenkins, Alfred

1901–1976

Physical culturist, sports administrator and promoter

This biography, written by Allan Laidler, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1998.

Alfred Jenkins was born in Long Gully, Bendigo, Australia, on 15 March 1901, the son of Emma Argall and her husband, Alfred Jenkins, a miner. An asthmatic from his early years, he was more than once sent away from the mines for strengthening before his mother brought him and his two sisters to Wellington, New Zealand, in 1912.

In his teens Alf, as he was known, learned a range of occupational skills from seedsmen, carpenters and railwaymen. On 28 March 1923 at Wellington he married Gladys Mary Urwin. They were to have seven children. At this time Alf was a railway fireman, an occupation which, according to a co-worker, exacerbated his asthma.

This chronic condition caused good health and physical fitness to become a powerful goal, central to his existence. A versatile sportsman, he represented Wellington in softball, and practised acrobatics, body-building, boxing and jujitsu. Although only a little over five feet in height, he occasionally challenged all comers to wrestling bouts at fairs and shows. He played at club level for Institute Old Boys and Seatoun Association Football clubs in Wellington and later captained the New Zealand army team. He also played rugby for the Johnsonville Rugby Football Club.

A successful coach, Alf Jenkins developed training methods in the gymnasium which he applied widely to teams and troupes, New Zealand soldiers and United States marines, customers, and even racehorses. He formed and led a ‘Jenkins Gym’ softball team which won the national inter-club competition for the John Lennon Trophy in 1940, 1946 and 1955. He also coached a women’s softball team which included three of his daughters; this won the Wellington senior competition in eight consecutive years and the national title in 1947. All of his children were in a well-known balancing and tumbling troupe which he prepared for performances at shows, charity exhibitions and sports events. Later, he taught golf while holding positions as club professional at Paraparaumu Beach, Otaki and Levin. In 1957 he won the Trainer’s Prize at the centenary meet of the Rangitikei Racing Club; five of his horses won.

As a sports administrator and promoter, Jenkins was most influential in the development of softball. He was the first president of the New Zealand Softball Association from 1938 to 1950 and thereafter patron and life member. Under his guidance the game moved towards national integration around a central administration and flourished. By 1976 New Zealand was able to host the world championship and tie for first place.

Through sport Jenkins was able to develop his athletic talents, attract pupils, audiences and readers to his doctrine of physical culture, and identify a market for his business endeavours. The Jenkins doctrine of health and fitness centred on wholesome diet, good posture, and diligent and disciplined training to strengthen and develop the body using weights and progressive resistance exercises. His method became well known throughout the country through the success of his Physical Culture Studios and correspondence courses. The first of four Wellington studios opened in Courtenay Place in 1932 and the last bearing the Jenkins name in Lower Hutt in the 1990s. In devising his courses he drew extensively from Macfadden’s encyclopedia of physical culture, using Dale Carnegie and Charles Atlas as models, but with his own adaptations. Designed when physical education and sports science were still embryonic in New Zealand, the Jenkins programmes were scientifically primitive but succeeded in attracting a wide clientele. They were systematic, individualised and enhanced by Jenkins’s ebullient personality. They motivated schoolchildren to take up gymnastics, injured sports players to rehabilitate, and out-of-shape businessmen to recondition. Sir Bernard Freyberg, the governor general, regularly used his services as masseur.

Early experiences in radio broadcasting, first as an advocate for healthy living and then as a wrestling commentator, led to his refereeing professional bouts from the 1930s. He shone in the role for over 20 years and was almost always at the centre of the main contests in the Wellington Town Hall. Radio and sports journalists spread his reputation among wrestling enthusiasts in New Zealand and North America as the ‘Atomic Bombshell’, the tiny but explosive force who, by muscle, voice and presence, controlled the clashes of colossal adversaries like Earl McCready and Lofty Blomfield.

Vivacious and tenacious, Alf Jenkins readily took on new ventures, from dairy farming to construction. He did everything with striking style, completely lining his milking-sheds with white tiles, building a golf professional's shop with an enormous trundler room, and driving flamboyant motorcars, including an immaculate DeSoto. He sometimes pronounced his maxims on staying young and fit through a haze of his own cigar smoke; the doyen of healthy living also smoked a pipe. He always strove to excel, and his extrovert behaviour helped draw attention to his business activities. He used his gym teams and troupes and his association with wrestling to promote his commercial ventures as a physical culturist.

Alfred Jenkins spent his last seven years in Levin, intermittently as a patient. Reluctant to accept that he had a heart problem, he planned an escape from Horowhenua Hospital, but died there on 28 June 1976. He was survived by his wife, Gladys, four daughters and three sons.

How to cite this page:

Allan Laidler. 'Jenkins, Alfred', Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, first published in 1998. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, https://teara.govt.nz/en/biographies/4j5/jenkins-alfred (accessed 11 December 2019)