Story: Gyms

Page 2. Twentieth-century developments

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Physical culture

Bodybuilding was popularised by touring showmen such as Prussian Eugen Sandow, who toured Australasia in 1902–3. Gymnasiums and physical culture classes were soon flourishing all round New Zealand.

Packing a punch

Minister of Internal Affairs William (Bill) Parry was remembered as a large man who enjoyed and was proud of keeping fit. He set up a gym in the basement at Parliament, and colleagues could often hear him thumping the punchbag.

Jack Hanna, the son of Jock Hanna, who had built numerous gyms in Otago schools, ran a ‘School of Physical Culture’ in Dunedin’s Burns Hall in the first half of the 20th century. His Thursday afternoon businessmen’s class ‘was attended by about twenty or more of some top men in Dunedin … His programme consisted of a burst of freestanding, a spasm of apparatus and a game of scrag (i.e. basketball without any rules!)’1

A similar establishment, Baldock Institute in Dunedin, operated from about 1930 until 1986.

Jenkins Gym was founded in Wellington in the 1920s and was still going at a Lower Hutt venue in 2013. As well as providing facilities for weight training, this gym – like others – entered teams in basketball and other sporting competitions. Jenkins and gyms like it were initially no-frills, weights-oriented and male-only. Many emphasised boxing.

The first women’s gym

Vigorous exercise for girls and women was still a novelty in the years following the First World War. That was when the Auckland YWCA advertised ‘The First Gymnasium in Australasia exclusively for Women. Classes for Growing Girls, Employed and Leisured Women, Special Remedial Work. Tired Housekeepers, Teachers, Business Girls and Children.’2

Women and fitness

Fitness classes for Christchurch women were offered from 1900 by instructors Madeline Nunneley, Miss Lowe and Fred Hornibrook. Hornibrook established the New Zealand Physical Culture Association in 1911, catering for both men and women.

In 1918 the new headquarters of the Auckland Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA) incorporated a large gym, and soon female members were able to take classes in ‘ju-jitso (judo), folk drill, games to music, signalling, gymnasium work and Swedish drill.’3

Later the YWCA introduced women to the regimes of the British Women’s League for Health and Beauty, formed in London in 1930. The exercises (‘fizzy jerks’) were done to music and designed to get results in a minimum of time.

Fitness in war and peace

Both world wars sparked concerns for the physical health of the nation. In 1938 the Physical Welfare Branch was set up within the Department of Internal Affairs by its minister William Parry to promote health and fitness. The government hired halls for public service keep-fit classes. Men and women attended the lunchtime and early evening classes in their hundreds, and exercised to music.

Physical welfare officer Roy Sheffield set up an ‘indoor sports centre’ at remote Te Araroa in April 1948, and a year later juvenile delinquency statistics there had dropped.

The YWCA introduced ‘Keep Fit’ classes for women in the 1950s.

As boxing and weightlifting declined in popularity after the Second World War gyms were increasingly taken over by bodybuilders – people who might once have pursued other sport and fitness options.

Footnotes:
  1. Quoted in R. A. Stothart, Rolling forward: a history of New Zealand gymnastics. Christchurch: R. A. Stothart, p.16. Back
  2. Quoted in Sandra Coney, Every girl: a social history of women and the YWCA in Auckland. Auckland: Auckland YWCA, 1986, p. 164. Back
  3. Every girl, p.164. Back
How to cite this page:

David Green, 'Gyms - Twentieth-century developments', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/gyms/page-2 (accessed 9 December 2019)

Story by David Green, published 5 Sep 2013