A Brief History of Calisthenics (Physical Culture) in South Australia
Physical Culture came to South Australia in the mid nineteenth century, introduced by German immigrants. It was a combination of gymnastics with work on parallel bars, climbing ropes, balance beam and hand apparatus including Indian Clubs, and the staff “rod”. Free exercises and those done with apparatus, were generally known as the “calisthenic” elements.
It is recorded as early as 1883 that Gymnasium’s ladies and girl’s classes were being conducted.“…very pretty and graceful movements on the horizontal ladder, swinging the whole weight from one hand to another in time to music….”
Calisthenic classes began to establish themselves in the early 1900’s, in church halls, and wherever teachers could find suitable venues. Most Calisthenics classes were set up as part of the churches to provide healthy physical and social activities for children.
In 1920 Mr Noel Hubble opened the Central College of Physical Culture and a pupil at the time was Eileen Le Cornu. He began with 26 students and it is claimed there were 2000 by 1924. On his staff was Eileen Hogarth, who taught at many girls’ clubs along with her own at North Adelaide Baptist.
One of the first clubs to be established was Manthorpe Girls’ Physical culture Cub in Unley. In 1926, 12 year old Esme Dobson joined the Parkside Girls Club. She was taught Free Exercises, Rods (short and wooden) Clubs (large and heavy), Marching, Tumbling, and they wore a navy tunic to the knees. One of Esme’s teachers was Eileen Murray (Trebilcock).
In the early 1920’s competitions emerged, and early teams were from Parkside North Unley Methodist, Illawarra, Parkside Baptist, Hindmarsh Church of Christ and the Lady Victoria Buxton Club who competed for the shield donated by Miss Nan Mitchell. In 1932 several teams from Victoria came to Adelaide to compete against Central College, Highgate, Thompson Memorial, Rose Park and Hindmarsh Congregational Church Clubs.
Formation of the State Association 1928
Mr Albert Black, so keen to promote healthy activities for Christian young people called a meeting on 20th February 1928. 12 clubs sent representatives to hear his grand scheme for holding annual competitions “both State and Inter-state” in a wide range of activities. The ‘Association of Congregational Combined Clubs’ was formed on the spot, set an annual fee of 5 shillings and created a committee of one delegate from each club to write a Constitution and Competition Rules.
In April 1928, 15 Clubs accepted the Constitution and prepared for the first competition.
20 Girls teams competed and 14 Boys teams. There were two categories; Juniors, under 14 years and Seniors. Teams consisted of at least eight girls, items were Marching, Exercises and Fancy Steps and Folk Dancing. Boys’ teams had different categories.Miss Le Cornu’s Thompson Memorial Seniors Girls were presented with the Lady Kidman Shield.
In 1929 Mr Black took a team to Melbourne to compete against Congregational Church Clubs there. This team won 16 of the 18 sections on offer. Therefore greatly encouraged Mr Black set his sights on the Royal South Street Eisteddfod.First team to Ballarat.
First South Australian team to Ballarat
In 1930 Eileen Le Cornu’s first South Australian team to compete at South Street Ballarat achieved 2nd in Free Exercises and 3rd in Rods in the Novice section, and 3rd place in the Open Plastic Section and the coveted 1st Place in the Open Figure Marching, beginning our long tradition of South Australia’s success in this Section. In 1935 it was decided to send a Junior Team, taught by Miss Eileen Hogarth.
By 1932 the boy’s teams disappeared from the competition. And in 1933, the Association became The Combined Church Clubs Association which allowed teams from other churches to enter their competitions. In 1955 the Association became an Incorporated Body and the name changed again to the“ Combined Church Clubs Physical Culture Association”. On the 6th of November 1956 the Association was reincorporated as the “Calisthenic Association of South Australia Incorporated,” and a certified copy of the Certificate is displayed in the current CASA office at the Royalty Theatre.
After the war came the “baby boom” and the pressure of numbers in the Junior age group led to the formation of the Sub-Junior section in 1949 for girls under 7 years of age. As these children moved up through the clubs and numbers continued to increase, there became a need to divide Clubs into zones.
In 1953 Northern and Southern zones were created and by 1956, the Western and Eastern Zones were added. The huge increase in the Calisthenic population in the 1950s and 1960’s brought a huge work load to the Committee of the Association. Mr Black, President, Hurtle Slater, Vice-President and Esme Dobson, Secretary increased their control of the Association, working ever harder to cope with the demands of the sport, teachers, clubs and individuals.
In 1958, Black’s Waye, at Mt Barker, was established as a retreat for teams and clubs to come together. Mr Black spoke during competitions, explaining his vision to the audiences and showing slides of the work being done to create the ‘camp-site’. Old tram carriages were converted into sleeping quarters behind the main house. Mr and Mrs Wagenknecht were live-in Wardens and many teams and clubs enjoyed holidays at Black’s Waye. It was closed and sold in 1979.
Mr Black saw a solution for the difficulties in securing attractive costume materials at reasonable prices and suggested the Association set up its own shop. In 1962 premises were found on Henley Beach Road, Torrensville and within 12 months the shop next door was also rented to house the growing business and a decision was made to import sequins. The club shop went through some tough periods but was a great asset to clubs for many years.
The cost of sending teams Interstate grew and several fund raising ventures were introduced. In 1953 a “Queen Competition” was organised, followed by Junior and Senior Debutant Balls. The last Ball was held in 1963. Bingo nights were tried and a Walkathon raised over $1000 in 1972.
Mr Black passed away in 1964, having given most of his adult life to Calisthenics. Mr Slater was President until his death in 1974 and Esme Dobson held the role of Secretary for 58 years retiring in 1995. Other long-term Presidents were Mr Telfer, and Mr Graham Richards.
Calisthenics reached its peak in 1970’s and 1980’s with around 100 clubs and 10,000 participants in the 1979 State Competitions. With the huge number of Clubs it was decided to create Open and Novice Sections for competitions. The first clubs in the Open Section were Clearview, Glenelg, Marion, Plympton Park, Regency, Seaton, West Mitcham and Woodville.
During the early 70’s a new grading system was devised with teams placed into A Grade, B Grade, through to H grade, depending on the previous year’s competition result.
Categories were changed again in 1999, when Divisions 1, 2, 3 etc were allocated and in 2007 another change occurred creating Championship Section, then Division 1, 2, 3 etc.
In 1975 a group of Teachers formed the Calisthenic Teachers Association but were met with disapproval from the Executive Committee who advised the Clubs by letter “that we do not expect any teacher of a registered Club to join the Teachers Association”. However, CTASA continued, and set about providing much desired information and training sessions for Teachers and creating a new Competition for Clubs to enter at the completion of the State Competitions. At this competition the concept of panel judging was trialled and was the initial training provided in SA for those aspiring to Adjudicate. CTASA closed around 1986 but was reformed as CAL.S.A.C in early 1990.
The Association changed its name again in 1969 to Calisthenics Association of SA (CASA). To come in line with funding requirements of Government Departments, our Teachers were required to become Coaches and Calisthenics became known as a Sport.
1980 was another landmark year for CASA, a lease was taken on the old Royalty Theatre and it became the home of Calisthenics in SA. In 1987 the building was purchased for an amount of $870,000 and a grant of $100,000 was received from the government.
In 1987 the Australian Calisthenic Association (now ACF) was formed with South Australian, Bill Scott as its President. After many years of discontent by Victorian Clubs, 1989 was the last year South Australian State teams were permitted to competition in the South Street Competitions in the Championship Section. Only A grade teams were permitted and in 2007 Royal South Street decided not to accept any State Team entries. In 1988 the first ACF Championships were held in Adelaide at the Royalty Theatre. Sub-Juniors were taught by Helen Broad, Juniors by Beverly Barr, Intermediates by Heather Keys. There was no Senior Team Competition.
Over the years Calisthenic girls have participated in many Community events, including half-time entertainment at the 1983 SANFL Grand final, and South Australia’s Jubilee Opening Ceremony in 1985. This led to the formation of the Promotion and Display Group, which performed in Shopping Centres, the Royal Show and 162 girls performed in the 1986 Australia Day Parade.
*CASA credits Mrs Christine Nightingale as the author of the historical aspects as part of the 90th Anniversary celebrations in 2018.*
2000s & Beyond
Although numbers in the sport have declined since the 70’s and 80’s, the level of expertise certainly has not, with amazing performances being demonstrated throughout the competition season.
To align with ACF Competition Rules age groups have changed yet again with sections now for Tinies, Sub-Juniors, Juniors, Intermediates, Seniors and more recently the introduction of a Masters Section for those aged over 26 years. This Section is one that continues to grow. Many of those competing are the daughters of the “baby boomer” physical culture girls.
Over the years CASA have sent Ballarat Teams to compete in The Royal South Street Society Eisteddfods, and in more recent years multiple South Australian Clubs have sent teams over in all age groups from Tinies through to Seniors in a variety of divisions.
Solo and Duo competitions along with the Graceful Girl Sections also continue to grow in popularity each year again with new age groupings required to cope with the number of entries.
The Calisthenic Association of South Australia is proud to have sent multiple SA National Teams to the ACF Championships over the past decades and have been extremely successful in Team, Solo, Duo & Graceful Girl competitions with multiple aggregate in all age groups and competitions been won over the years.
South Australia also endeavours to send a Sub-Junior, Junior, Intermediate and Senior National Team to the 2023 ACF National Championships held in Queensland in July.
Images courtesy of Steph Devlin Photography