More information about Marie Bjelke-Petersen can be found in the AWAP register.
Years before physical fitness became the multi-million dollar industry it is today, the Bjelke-Petersen School of Physical Culture ran what would now be called strength and conditioning classes designed especially for women and girls. The development of this form of sport in Australia, called Physical Culture, or 'physsie', ran in parallel with the establishment of organised sport for women, and the history of the development of the sport in Australia is inextricably linked with the Bjelke-Petersen family who first set up business in Hobart in 1892. In most accounts, it is brothers Hans Christian, Johannes and Harald who receive top billing. We should not, however, forget their sister Marie, who was, quite possibly, the first women's instructor of specialised classes for women.
Marie Bjelke-Petersen is best known as a writer, but as a young woman she enjoyed playing sport. She migrated from Denmark with her family to Hobart, Tasmania in 1891, where her brother, Hans Christian, established the Bjelke-Petersen Physical Culture school in 1892. Around 1907, they established a gymnasium in Sydney, where they soon established multiple branches. By 1909 the Bjelke-Petersen brothers had established a branch in Melbourne. Marie joined as instructor in charge of the women's section in Hobart. In 1906, she became a qualified massage therapist, in 1907 she registered as a qualified teacher, enabling her to teach the virtues of physical culture in Tasmanian schools. Unfortunately, illness prevented her from continuing with her teaching career much past 1910, so she wasn't able to join her brothers in Sydney as their business grew. Nevertheless, her influence on women's sport in Tasmania was important, and has led some sports historians to ask - was Tasmania the birthplace of netball in Australia?
It's worth making some general comments about the sport in general before considering Marie's involvement in particular. Some historical accounts are somewhat disparaging of the value of physical culture classes for women, arguing that in the first instance, they limited women's sporting options and potential, because they focused on the feminine and the aesthetic; it was a ladylike form of exercise where participants still looked graceful. Superficially, this might seem to have been the case. The exercises promoted in these classes focused on increasing strength through resistance training, and promoting flexibility and posture through stretching and muscle awareness and control. The participants barely raised a sweat, but then again, anyone who does pilates or yoga knows that you don't need to raise a sweat to be working in either of those exercise disciplines! Regardless of what historians might consider the value of the sport to be in feminist terms, in the early years it was very popular amongst Australian women. Annette Kellerman championed the cause in her 1918 book Physical Beauty and How to Keep It. Throughout the 1920s; physical culture classes were very popular with members of organisations such as the City Girls Amateur Sports Association. As long as the classes were seen to be something that the participants could do for themselves, to improve fitness and well being, they were popular.
Physical Culture has also been regarded with some suspicion because in the 1930s, as it became more closely associated with the German tradition of movement as opposed to the Scandinavian tradition promoted by the Bjelke-Petersen's, it became more militaristic and political in its intent, especially for women. In the 1930s, fears about 'racial degeneration' and falling birth rates saw white women's health and fitness become a matter of national importance, so much so that the National Fitness Council was established in 1938 to help combat 'racial degeneration'. The council promoted physical culture classes as part of this campaign. They were run on much more militaristic lines, drills became much more repetitive and mechanical, and the exercises became more utilitarian in their purpose. It wasn't enough to enjoy the game - the game needed to serve the national interest. Sadly, as the fun was taken out of sport, participation levels dropped. Physical culture classes struggled to maintain enrolments in the post-war period, and have only begun to recover in the last decade or so.
Marie Bjelke-Petersen's involvement was informed by the Scandinavian tradition of Physical Culture, which emphasised the therapeutic and curative principles of the exercises. These were not exercises designed for 'display purposes' or 'performance'; they were meant to promote the 'harmonious development of the whole body'. Programs were tailored for individuals and, sometimes, for the team sport they played.
It is in the design of programs for a specific sport that Marie is said to have had an important influence, especially in Tasmania. In the mid 1890s, the Bjelke-Petersens became aware of the new game called basketball that was beginning to take off in the United States. They set up some demonstrations in their Hobart gym, and Marie introduced drills designed specifically for players of the game into the physical culture program she taught in schools. It can be argued, therefore, that Marie Bjelke-Petersen was instrumental in introducing the sport of netball to Tasmania. Given the timing, and what we understand of the historical development of netball in Australia, there are some historians who will argue that this provides evidence for the argument that Tasmania is the actual birthplace of netball in Australia! Whether this is the case or not will no doubt be debated, however, there can be no debate about the innovative approach to women's health that Marie Bjelke-Petersen promoted in her youth.
Women's class at the Bjelke-Petersen School of Physical Culture
Image Courtesy of the Mitchell Library Collection, State Library of New South Wales