Physical Welfare and Recreation Act 1937
Direct government support for adult sport began under the first Labour government. Its concern for the physical fitness of all, rather than a few champions, largely grew out of its social welfare programme.
The Physical Welfare and Recreation Act 1937 encouraged ‘physical training, exercise, sport, and recreation’ for adults. There were precedents for this approach in Europe, especially Germany, as well as elsewhere in the British Empire.
Living by his principles
The father of the Physical Welfare and Recreation Act 1937 was Bill Parry. Australian by birth and a socialist, he was a big man and a vegetarian, with a lifelong interest in physical activity. He was keen on cycling, fishing and shooting. Parry set up Parliament’s gymnasium and was frequently seen pummelling its punchball.
Physical welfare branch
The Department of Internal Affairs set up a physical welfare branch to coordinate adult fitness programmes around the country. The focus was less on organised sport than on physical recreation. In February 1939, for example, the branch organised a national fitness week that featured daily radio exercise broadcasts and free classes in many sports.
With the outbreak of the Second World War physical fitness was seen as a national duty. The branch became preoccupied with exercising air force cadets, police, Home Guard personnel and members of the Emergency Precautions Service.
From 1945 physical welfare officers turned their attention to civilians. They had considerable local discretion to encourage activities such as basketball and keep-fit classes. Recreation for industrial workers and business-house sports teams were also supported. By 1948 the branch had 60 staff. However, although many were skilled trainers, they did not necessarily have the community development expertise that their roles also required.
The first National government, which came into power in 1949, saw little place for the state in sport, and discontinued grants to clubs for equipment and facilities. By 1960 the branch had only two staff.
After the Second World War the Labour government encouraged utilitarian memorials such as community centres, swimming pools and sports grounds. About 250 such facilities were eventually subsidised.
Long-standing learn-to-swim classes continued to thrive under the first National government, thanks to the creation of a National Council of Water Safety in 1952. From 1956 the council received grants through the Department of Internal Affairs, as well as lotteries funding – a harbinger of the future.