A Short History of Gymnastics in Victoria

Compiled by GV CEO Jamie Parsons - last updated June 2018

Gymnastics in Victoria has a very rich history. For thousands of years the communities that inhabit the areas of Victoria have participated in gymnastics activities. Currently over 700,000 people participate in gymnastics activities every year. Gymnastics has a very significant impact on the lives of many Victorians over many years.


The Casterton Christ Church gymnasium and gymnastics class, comprising members of the
Girls' Friendly Society and associates and members of the Senior Boys' Club - 1912

Pre 1850s
Prior to European arriving on Victorian shores aboriginal communities engaged in many recreational activities - including running, jumping, climbing, and feats of strength. These same activities continue in Gymnastics clubs, in Victoria, each and every day.

1840s and 1850s
From the start of European settlement gymnastics was part of the community. Prior to the gold rush period in the 1850s, the 1840s were a formative time for gymnastics. A number of newspaper articles refer to gymnastics when reporting various physical activities.  On Monday 3 January, 1842 the Port Phillip Patriot and Melbourne Advertiser  (operating from 1839-1845) reported with gusto that at the William's Town (now Williamstown) Grand Gala in commemoration of the new year the 'Jumping in Sacks' races. The crowd had a roaring time including the first heat of the day - the 60 yard sack race - local young fanciers including Samuel Bloom, James Freeman, Henry Moffitt, and Issac Hussey all competed for the grand total of £1 prize. The report of the day noted:

**At the signal to start Broom took the lead, Hussey at the first jump, ingloriously fell, ploughing Mother Earth with his nose, and then exhibiting a series of gymnastics, to the surprise and delight of the gaping multitude, the finding it was "no go" his backers released him from the predicament in which he had incautiously placed himself. .... Broom kept on going towards the winning post.**

On Monday 25 August 1845 Monsieur E. C. Greene attempted to whip up a groundswell of enthusiasm for a gymnastics facility and wrote an article for The Melbourne Courier (1845-1846). He included a call to action to establish a gymnastics facility in the city. His article finished with the following words:

**To accomplish these various ends, Monsieur Greene, after several years experience in every variety of Gymnastics Exercises , intends, in the course of present to establish a Gymnasium, with all the necessary apparatus for Gymnastics and Equestrian exercises, where classes will be formed and effort to excite emulation of the pupils. To erect every particular part of the establishment, will cost a considerable sum of money he is therefore desirous of obtaining a sufficient number of subscribers at one guinea each, for the season.**

More gymnastics activities were reported throughout the gold rush period of the 1850s.  In 1855 'Equestrian and Gymnastics Performances' were promoted in the local papers at 'Astley's Amphitheatre' on Spring Street (current site of the Princess Theatre in Melbourne).

 
Astley's Amphitheatre Melbourne  picture taken between
1854-1857 (bottom - State Library of Victoria) with
accompanying Gymnastics Advertisement (top).

In May 1856 a number of advertisements appeared in the newspapers of the day promoting the Victoria Gymnastics Institute. This includes the note below that appeared in the Argus and the following quotes in the Courier - the ads say 'many an awkward form has acquired an elegant and easy bearing'. The ads go on to say 'after only a few lessons the breast expands, the eyes become brighter, the step more classic and the voice clearer'.  

The Victorian Gymnastic Institute opened in Lonsdale Street in Melbourne in June 1856. A number of articles appeared in the newspapers of the day and in the same month the 'Melbourne Punch', an illustrated magazine published a number of articles, including those below. The first illustration shows a wonky-looking gentleman going into the gymnastics facility and coming out looking healthy and refreshed. The second that appeared was relating to 'Gymnastics for Ladies' showing a variety of activities including fencing, boxing, and lifting weights.

      


 

 

1860s – 1900

The 1860s were heavily influenced by a system of physical gymnastics training to come out of Europe, particularly from Sweden and Germany. Gustav Technow, a Prussian Army Officer, brought progressive views and extensive gymnastics practices to Victoria.

Gustav was heavily influenced by Swedish Gymnastics and he had trained at Ling’s Gymnastic Institute in Sweden in 1845. He established the National Gymnasium at Jolimont in Melbourne and was Director from 1864 until 1921 when the facility was subsumed into the Jolimont railyards. In 1868 he was employed by the Board of Education as a lecturer of Gymnastics and military drill for Trainee Teachers. Gustav wrote several manuals, including the Manual of gymnastic exercises for the use of schools and at home (1866) and Gymnastics for State Schools (1877).  By 1878 German immigrants had established the first Turnverein (gymnastics clubs) in Melbourne.

In the following year Englishwomen Harriet Elphinstone Dick and Alice Moon began providing classes in gymnastics to Melbourne's independent girls' schools. Harriet had an intense interest in physical fitness and in 1879 opened Melbourne's first women's only gymnasium, in the Queen Victoria Building (site of the current City Square) including gymnastics activities.  Physical fitness for women was a popular idea of the 1880s and the gym attracted many of Melbourne's independent career women, particularly teachers from the city's growing number of girls' schools. Harriet taught the Swedish Ling Method and ran her gym until 1901. 


Harriet Elphinstone Dick - started Victoria's first only women's gym in 1879

1900-1920

As early as July 1900, the Melbourne (Teacher) Training College offered to run courses for Melbourne teachers who would like to qualify as instructors with a Certificate in Gymnastics.  In October 1900 a short course of several weeks with two hour-long classes per week after school was offered and repeated throughout the 1900s.  In 1909, a class was offered in Ballarat to attract local teachers. A pre-war high-point was reached in 1913 when the Education Department announced with pride that ‘gymnastic equipment’ has been gifted by a good citizen to Canterbury State School. After the Great War (1914-1918) many community organisations such as church groups, the YMCA, and youth groups began to run gymnastics, including ‘gymnastics circuses’. 




Ebenezer Gymnastic Club (Collingwood), 1920s (outside the church hall)

Gymnastics was included as a key part of physical education and the sport curriculum at many male private schools including Geelong Grammar, Wesley College, and Carey Grammar. Gymnastics for women in the 1920s was largely related to calisthenics and physical culture.


Ebenezer Gymnastic Club (Collingwood) -1920s

1930s-1940s

In the 1930s many gymnastics clubs operated throughout Victoria including the Fire Brigade, German Turn Verein and Try Society.  Stan Davies, Australia’s first Olympic Gymnastics coach, recalls “Most churches, if you looked in their store rooms in the 1930s, you would find a set of parallel bars and vaulting box horse”.

In 1936 the first Victorian YMCA State competition was held with teams competing from the Melbourne YMCA, Geelong Grammar, and Wesley College.

A gymnastic association was founded in Victoria in 1937 - the Victorian Amateur Gymnastics Association (now called Gymnastics Victoria).

This was an association of men’s gymnastics clubs, with a view to bringing more formal organisation to the sport.  Alf Lorbach (Melbourne YMCA) and Bonnie Frank (Wesley Collegians) drove the development of gymnastics in Victoria over this time.

The Australian Gymnastics Federation (AGF) was formed officially in September 1949 under the name Australian Gymnastic Union. Prior to this official formation, gymnastics was organised on a club basis in the states of New South Wales, Victoria and Queensland.

The establishment of the Federation was initiated by Mr. Jack Carey (VIC) with Mr. Harry Morris (VIC) and Mr. Bill Wilson (NSW). Mr. Morris was elected as the Federation’s first President.

1950s
 
After the formation of the Australian Gymnastic Union, the first Australian Championships were held in 1950 in Melbourne and the Melbourne Olympic Games were held in 1956 with Australia fielding Women's and Men's teams.


Form L to R - Inge Frazer (Queensland), Alf Lorbach - Coach (Victoria),
Barbara Cunningham (Victoria) and Wendy Grant (Victoria)

Australia’s first Olympic women’s team competed at the 1956 Olympic Games. The team trained in a number of different locations including Alf’s backyard – and for floor training they used the golf fairway at the back of Alf’s home. The video below shows Inge being closely watched by Barbara at the Olympics. Barbara and Wendy went on to be instrumental in the development of gymnastics in Victoria and Australia for many years and are still active in the sport to this very day. Tragically Inge died just a year later in 1957 from lukemia. 

Val Roberts was selected as the non competing Captain. Val was just 18 at the time and went on to represent Australia at the 1960 and 1964 Olympic Games.

To read more about the 1956 Olympians please click here

To read more about Stan Davies please click here

       Click image above to watch video of Inge


1956 Olympic Squad L-R: David Gourlay (Victoria), Bill Hoffman (Victoria), Noel Punton (Victoria),
Jim Barry (Victoria), Brian Blackburn (NSW),  John Lees (Victoria)

Victorians also dominated the 1956 Men's Olympic Gymnastics Squad. David Gourlay, Noel Punton and John Lees all went on to represent Australia in the Olympic Team.

Immediately after the Olympic Games the YWCA was the first to set up a Women's Gymnastics Club and with an Italian coach - Mario Baggioli - the Victorian Women's Gymnastics Society was born. In 1957 the first Victorian Championships for women were held at St Stephens in Richmond driven by Jim (Jimmy) Jack and in 1959 the first women’s Australian Championships were held. 


1960s to Today

Gymnastics continued to grow in Victoria with many school programs through the influx of European PE teachers and other teacher training programs by Val Roberts and Alf Barabach.


In 1979 the first national coaching manual was produced by Ken Williamson and Gerges McKail and the first women’s coaching manual was produced by Val Roberts.

During the 1980s the AIS was established in Canberra and Gene Schembri was appointed as the first National Coaching Director for Gymnastics

General gymnastics proliferated through the 1980s and 1990s and the Gymnastics Victoria High Performance Centre was established in Prahran in 2001. In 1997 Gymnastics Victoria had over 20,000 members and in 2013 had reached over 30,000 members.

In 2016 Victoria finished first on the combined National Championships for all gymsports - the first time in many many years this has occurred.

In December 2017 Gymnastics Victoria released its new High Performance Model designed to ensure sustained success on the international stage. 

In 2018 Victoria, for the first time in its history in the same year, won the Men's Senior Team National Championship, Women's Senior International Team National Championship, the Women's Team Level 10 National Championship, the Rhythmic Senior Team National Championship and the Senior Aerobics National Championship.


 

In 2018 Gymnastics is the fastest growing major participation sport in Victoria with close to 70,000 members, 700,000 other participants, over 2,000 judges & coaches at 130 clubs. 

 

The future of gymnastics in victoria has never looked brighter!

     Click here for a list of Victorian Gymnastic Olympians

     Click here for a list of Gymnastics Victoria Life Members (after opening link scroll down page)

     Click here for further history of gymnastics in Australia

     Click here for international gymnastics history