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Story: Bellwood, James Charles

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Bellwood, James Charles


Labourer, physical education instructor, sports coach

This biography, written by Les Mills, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 2000.

James Charles Robertson was born on 10 July 1912 in Hastings to Dorcas Mary Skerrett, of Ngāi Tahu ancestry, and James Robertson, a salesman. He was fostered by Arthur and Ada Bellwood and grew up in Christchurch. He attended Beckenham and Waltham primary schools and Christchurch Technical College, and was active in the New Zealand Cadet Corps for three years. Bitter childhood experiences shaped his life. Later he would write: ‘To the regularly repeated phrase: “The sins of the father must be borne by the child”, a heavy strap was removed from its nail and I was thrashed on the buttocks and legs until my persecutor was too exhausted to deliver another blow … Self-dependence was accomplished at the age of 14 and became an obsession I still subscribe to’.

Jim Bellwood left his foster home reinforced by an iron will. He completed training as a fitter and turner, but then worked doing odd farm jobs. At times he slept rough, occasionally establishing a bivouac in a hollow and planting a few vegetables. He had a relationship with Beryl Winslowe Russell, and in 1938, at Tauranga, they had a son. By 1940 he and his family were living in Christchurch, where Jim worked as a fitter and turner for Daly Brothers.

In spite of his young family, on 17 May 1940 Bellwood enlisted in the army and was soon sent overseas. He disembarked in Egypt with the 2nd Echelon of the Second New Zealand Expeditionary Force on 30 September. On 18 May 1941 he was wounded and taken prisoner in Greece, and spent the next three years in POW camps. Confronted with death, starvation and human misery on a large scale, Bellwood resolved that if he survived he would devote his life ‘to helping to guide the surplus energy of youth into more healthy outlets’. He managed to escape on his second attempt and spent time in a rehabilitation hospital in Britain.

After the war Jim Bellwood used a New Zealand government rehabilitation bursary to study at Loughborough College Department of Physical Education, Leicester. During the course he attended a gymnastic summer school in Sweden, where he met Emilie Tökke, an Estonian refugee working as a physical education specialist. They were married on 11 March 1947 at Loughborough and were to have two daughters. Jim completed his physical education diploma course that year and they sailed for New Zealand.

Late in 1947 Jim joined the Department of Internal Affairs in Wellington as a physical welfare officer. Soon after, the Bellwoods made themselves known to Philip Smithells, director of the new School of Physical Education at the University of Otago. Emilie was immediately appointed to the staff, and Jim transferred to Dunedin. Later he also worked part time as a track and field athletics lecturer at the university.

Jim was six feet tall with dark hair and brown eyes. Uncompromising in his attitude to training, achievement and good health practices, he expected his students to exercise self-reliance and maintain the highest standards of physical fitness. Any athlete who spent time with him soon became familiar with his sayings, two of which were: ‘It’s not practice that makes perfect, but correct practice’ and ‘The important thing in life is not triumph but the struggle’. Petite, blonde, with large blue eyes, Emilie spoke very little English at first, and instead conveyed her sentiments with strong body language. She introduced rhythmical gymnastics to the school and, although quiet, was both dedicated and uncompromising. If she noticed a ‘spark of genius’ her eyes would shine, but her entire body would register ‘utter disgust’ when she was displeased. Her students admired her physical abilities and thought her movements beautiful to watch.

In 1952 the Bellwoods moved to Auckland, where Jim taught physical education at Avondale College. Two years later he was appointed head of physical education at the new Mount Roskill Grammar School, a position he was to hold until 1971. In the mid 1970s, after a period of travel and factory work, he returned to teaching on a part-time and relieving basis at Kelston Boys’ High School. In 1958 Emilie established the Gymnos Club in Auckland, and in 1968 she joined Jim in teaching at Mount Roskill Grammar School. Later she became head of physical education at Queen Victoria School for Māori Girls in Parnell, and was noted for absorbing Māori elements of dance into her rhythmical gymnastics programme.

Through his voluntary work Jim Bellwood became a legend in New Zealand sport. He established the Otago Amateur Athletics Coaches’ Association panel in 1948, the New Zealand Amateur Athletics Coaches’ Association in 1949, and then similar organisations in Auckland, the New Hebrides, Western Samoa, Tonga and Fiji. He lectured at New Zealand Amateur Athletics Association Coaches Schools for 20 years, and in 1952 established the New Zealand Athletic Coach magazine, which he edited until 1960. He also wrote hundreds of technical articles and lectured in Denmark, South Africa and throughout the South Pacific.

During his most active years of personal coaching (1948–78) Jim’s athletes won one Olympic, six British Empire and Commonwealth and over 200 national gold medals. His most famous protégée was Yvette Williams, world record-breaker and winner of the women’s long jump at the 1952 Helsinki Olympics. He also conducted off-season conditioning for rowers, swimmers, cyclists and athletes. Several oarsmen who attended ‘Jim’s Gym’ later won Olympic gold medals. Jim Bellwood held life memberships in athletics and gymnastics and in 1984 was made an MBE for service to sport. In 1985 the gymnasium at Mount Roskill Grammar School was named for him. Emilie Bellwood was appointed a QSO and became a life member in gymnastics during the 1980s.

Jim Bellwood fought vigorously for youth and his beliefs. He battled against bureaucracy, the infiltration of drugs into sport, professionalism in the Olympics and the political manipulation of sport. In 1988 he withdrew permanently from coaching after discovering that one of his leading athletes had been using performance-enhancing drugs.

Emilie Bellwood died in 1987 and Jim missed her intensely. He enjoyed his garden and a few glasses of beer with friends, but his last years were not happy. His health deteriorated dramatically and, after moving into the Ranfurly War Veterans Home and Hospital in Auckland, he died there on 19 July 1994 survived by his daughters. Both he and Emilie had made an impact on New Zealand society by teaching generations of young people and their coaches life-enhancing physical skills.

How to cite this page:

Les Mills. 'Bellwood, James Charles', Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, first published in 2000. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, https://teara.govt.nz/en/biographies/5b22/bellwood-james-charles (accessed 16 April 2024)