News from Played in Britain

Launching the British Olympics with a German twist

October 5 2011


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The German Gymnasium, as illustrated in The Builder of May 19 1866. As those who attended the Played in Britain book launch were able to see above their heads, the roof structure has not changed at all. At the time its laminated timber construction mirrored that of the adjacent King's Cross Station, but today it is one of only two such roofs surviving in London. The other is at St Paul's Church, now The Space, on West Ferry Road, E14.

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Roger Madelin of Argent welcomes guests to the German Gymnasium (Nigel Corrie)

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Played in Britain's Production Manager Jackie Spreckley (left) with British Olympics author Martin Polley (centre) and series editor Simon Inglis (right). Martin and Simon, together with gymnastics historian Frank Galligan, are continuing their researches into the German Gymnasium's history for the next Played in Britain title, Played in London.

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John Hudson and Clare Blick from English Heritage Publications unveil the new Played in Britain title in one of the galleries of the German Gymnasium from where, in 1866, spectators watched the gymnastics competition of the first ever National Olympian Games.

One hundred and fifty years ago the German Gymnastic Society (or Deutsche Turnverein), was formed in London by members of what was then the largest single community of immigrants living in the capital.

Four years later in 1865 the Society opened its magnificent new home, the German Gymnasium (or Turnhalle), a building now familiar to many rail travellers as they emerge from the new entrance to St Pancras International, opposite King's Cross.

In its first year the Gymnasium attacted 900 members, of whom 500 were German, 203 were English, 67 were Scottish and the rest spread across 17 different nationalities, from Latin America to Australia, from Spain to Russia.

German Gymnastics, it would seem, was all the rage for Victorian Londoners.

But what did this have to do with the history of the Olympic Games?

All was revealed at the Gymnasium last Wednesday at the launch of The British Olympics – Britain's Olympic Heritage 1612-2012, by Martin Polley, the latest book in the Played in Britain series.

At an event co-hosted by English Heritage and the property group Argent, which owns the building, Martin was joined by fellow historians Frank Galligan, an expert on gymnastics, and Christiane Swinbank, of the German Historical Institute, to explain how the newly built German Gymnasium was, in 1866, one of three venues in London to host the first ever national Olympian games held during the modern era, several years before Pierre de Coubertin was even born.

Formed by Ernst Ravenstein of the German Gymnasium, John Hulley of the Liverpool Gymnasium, and William Penny Brookes of the Wenlock Olympian Society, the National Olympian Association was the forerunner of the modern day British Olympic Association.

Weaving the tale of how the German gymnasts helped increase awareness of physical education during the Victorian era, Frank Galligan explained how, ultimately, the British would adopt a form of gymnastics which had its roots in Stockholm rather than Berlin. This was partly because German gymnastics were geared more towards military needs, but also because a gymnasium fitted out for German gymnastics cost six times more than a Swedish one. Even the Victorians had to watch the pennies.

Christiane Swinbank described the German community at this time as being split between wealthy middle class merchants and professionals such as Ravenstein, many of whom had left Germany for political or business reasons, and those working class economic migrants who worked largely in the East End's sugar refining industry. The outbreak of the First World War led ultimately to anti-German riots and a decimation in the numbers of Germans living in this country. The German Gymnasium itself ceased to operate in around 1915. Thereafter it was used as offices and for storage by various railway companies, until its restoration by Argent in 2008.

Chairing the presentation, Played in Britain series editor Simon Inglis, pointed out to the assembled guests the various features from the Gymnasium that survive from 1866; best of all, its laminated timber roof, coincidentally also a German invention, still fitted with the original hooks used for suspending the gymnasts' ropes. He also promised many more intriguing stories on the Gymnasium in the forthcoming study, Played in London, scheduled for publication in May 2012.

Speaking on behalf of Argent, Joint Chief Executive Roger Madelin said afterwards that he and his colleagues had learnt a great deal about the Gymnasium from the evening, and that he hoped Played in Britain would be able to return to put on a similar event for the general public.

For English Heritage, Head of Publishing John Hudson spoke of his pride that English Heritage continued to publish the sort of quality, informative books that no other publishers were able to produce, of which the Played in Britain series was a prime example. He added that The British Olympics was a treasure trove of Olympic-related trivia that all members of pub quiz teams would be advised to read!

Attending the launch were representatives from the 2012 Cultural Olympiad, the London Borough of Camden, the British Library, the British Museum, SportsAid, the Wenlock Olympian Society, the London Metropolitan Archives, Westminster Archives, Populous Architects and the Society of Olympic Collectors.

For a signed copy (post-free in the UK) of The British Olympics — Britain's Olympic Heritage 1612-2012, click here.


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