Gymnasiums began as venues for gymnastics – systems of physical exercise developed in Europe in the early 19th century that encompassed a wider range of activities than later gymnastics did. Gymnastic exercises were inspired by ancient Greek models, and emphasised moral as well as physical virtues. The self-denial and suffering involved in intensive exercise were seen as a price that must be paid for personal vanity or patriotic duty.
A public gymnasium opened in Paris in 1842, and over the next two decades many gymnasiums were set up in the cities of Europe and North America.
A force for good
Some thought gymnasiums would help combat the evils of urbanisation. In 1894 the New Zealand surgeon and politician (and later eugenicist) William Chapple remarked that ‘one well-equipped gymnasium exerts a greater influence against social vice than one sensational sermon.’1
Early New Zealand gyms
New Zealand’s first gymnasium (gym) may have been the school opened by J. H. Rule in Sydney Street, Thorndon, Wellington, in December 1842. ‘Combining physical exercise, intellectual improvement, and religious training,’ its facilities included a ‘swinging poll for gymnastic exercise and amusement.’2
In 1866 an Auckland Gymnastic Club was formed with Major Gustavus von Tempsky as president. Also in the 1860s Harold Palmer opened a public gymnasium in Christchurch. Oscar David ran a gymnasium for Dunedin businessmen in the 1880s.
The Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) promoted gymnastics and physical culture for young men. In the 1860s the Auckland YMCA imported gymnastic equipment from the United States, and in 1884 the Christchurch YMCA erected a gymnasium at a cost of £191 (equivalent to $33,000 in 2013). ‘Professor’ Carrollo’s Gym at the Auckland YMCA and classes at Whanganui’s Young Men’s Institute were in operation before the turn of the century.
Gyms in schools
Christ’s College in Christchurch had a gymnasium from 1876, initially with a floor made from wattle bark. In the 1880s instructor Jock Hanna was behind the building of around 20 halls as gymnasiums in Otago schools. This set a precedent for the gradual acquisition of gyms by other public and private schools around the country.