Chapter 2: Humble Beginnings in Australia

It is highly likely that the first forms of gymnastics were brought to Australia in the middle to late 19th and early 20th century by European immigrants. Written evidence suggests that German settlers were instrumental in bringing gymnastics to Australia and ensuring that it was included as part of their annual festivals.

An article that appeared in the “The Melbourne Illustrated Post” in 1865 described events at a typical German Festival. The event included the second festival of the Victorian Turn Verein (Gymnastic Club) and Musical Association with the article reporting that “members from kindred societies from all parts of the colony were present, either to engage in the sports or witness the performances of their brethren”.

As Australia was settled as a British colony, it inherited most of its sporting activities from England . These included predominantly team and ball games such as tennis, cricket and rugby. Gymnastics was by no means a popular activity and by social convention, only men were allowed to participate, with women relegated to the role of spectators.

Following World War 1, Australia , like most countries found itself in the grip of the Depression. Unemployment was high, morale was low and many people were left homeless and destitute.

During this time, many people turned to organisations such as the Y.M.C.A. their local church groups, youth groups and other friendly societies where resources could be pooled, support was on offer and a sense of community spirit developed. It was in this environment that gymnastics in Australia , once again began to flourish.

Around the same time, gymnastics was also included as a key part of the physical education and sporting curriculum at many private schools such as Geelong Grammar, Wesley College and later Carey Grammar. Like today, the sport took a foot-hold at schools where teachers valued the importance and benefits of participation in gymnastics activities.

Apparatus was primitive by today's standards with landing mats unheard of. Movements were tried by those who had the courage to give them a go, with team mates and coaches standing around to catch, in case of failure.

As the sport slowly developed competitions began to occur. From the 1930's interstate gymnastics competitions were regularly organised by the Y.M.C.A. The first Victorian Y.M.C.A. State competition was held in 1936 with teams from the Melbourne Y.M.C.A, Wesley College and Geelong Grammar competing.

Stan Davies, who later became the coach of the first Australian Men's Olympic Gymnastics Team in 1956, started gymnastics under the tutelage of Dave Robertson, at the Melbourne Y.M.C.A. Stan recalls many gymnastics clubs in Melbourne in the 1930's, including the Fire Brigade, German Turn Verein and Try Society. “Most churches, if you looked in their store rooms in the 1930's, you would find a set of parallel bars and vaulting box horse”, recalls Stan.

Whilst still only an acceptable activity for men in the 1930's, Stan remembers that “a typical gym session started with a run, followed by physical exercises performed in line and finished up with apparatus work according to age”.

By the mid 1930's the sport was beginning to gather momentum. Hard-working individuals and groups made huge personal efforts to establish clubs that were run on a part time basis by male coaches who had been gymnasts themselves either in Australia or overseas.

Venues included church and school halls, with administration being both simple and informal. In 1937, the Victorian Amateur Gymnastic Association was formed with a view to bringing more formal organisation to the sport.

Whilst Y.M.C.A. based clubs in both Sydney and Brisbane played important roles in the early development of the sport, two Victorian coaches, August Ashley (Bonnie) Frank and Alf Lorbach, both from strong European based gymnastic families were instrumental in driving the growth of the sport in Australia .

The dedication and foresight of both men saw the sport develop in great leaps and bounds, with the latter instrumental in taking up the challenge to have women take part in gymnastics activities alongside their male counterparts and later successfully lobby to have Australia represented at the 1956 Olympic Games by its first Australian Women's Gymnastics representatives.