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Gymnastics, Victoria, Education and World War I


Rosalie Triolo

Monash University


Have you stopped to think about ‘Gymnastics’ in relation to war, specifically World War I, a century ago?


During World War I, 1914-18, Australian men were viewed especially favourably on enlistment or during their service if military authorities became aware of their skills in Gymnastics--as gymnasts or as instructors. The reasons were grim ones: that men would be athletic and nimble in crossing a battlefield with its many obstacles of shell craters and dangerous battlefield wreckage, in avoiding the worst of gun fire, machine gun fire and shell explosions, but also in being nimble in deadly man-to-man combat with the enemy. Teachers in Victoria’s Education Department were especially prized as gymnasts and as instructors, as well as for their other educational and leadership skills, developed in their teacher-training then work in schools in the years leading up to the war. [1]


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 the Certificate in Gymnastics. [2] Consequently, in October 1900, a short course of several weeks with two hour-long classes per week after school was offered, repeated there also in 1903, 1904 and 1906. [3] later, in 1909, a class was offered in Ballarat to attract local teachers. [4] But 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.


Justice of the Peace, Mr. A.T. Danks, had travelled to America and been impressed there by a ‘simple and effective kind of gymnasium’. He obtained the plans and his employees built it in the school yard, with Danks presenting it in 1913 on the very special day on the school calendar of Empire Day, 24 May. [5] The head teacher was delighted and wrote later to the Education Department, supplying also a photograph of boys in sports uniform, that the gymnasium was ‘an ideal one for the purposes of physical development’. But it was not merely a ‘display’ item: ‘Already more than 100 of the senior boys of the Canterbury school have become members of the gymnastic club, and an instructor has been appointed’. [6]






















Unfortunately not all teachers with gymnastics qualifications were spared death as had been hoped. Much is known about Lieutenant Christian Peder Christensen of Traralgon Victoria who held a Certificate in Gymnastics, probably achieved at one of the courses mentioned above. He was the head teacher at Kaniva State School in 1914 and early 1915, before enlisting in August of that year, probably as one of many Australians, especially teachers, highly motivated by glorious and patriotic accounts of the Gallipoli campaign. [7] He was aged 28 at time of enlistment and was a taller man for his generation, being 5’ 8” tall (173 cms). His war service record also indicates that he was trained by military authorities in England to be an instructor in bomb-throwing, probably on account of his perceived athleticism, and for which he achieved a Distinction. [8]  He was killed in action in Messines, Belgium on 29 July 1917. After his death, his sister wrote to the Education Department:













Another soldier who been a student-teacher with Christensen helped bury Christensen by placing in the grave a farewell gift badge that had been given to all former-students of the Melbourne Training College. [10] He was killed in action near Messines, Belgium, six days after being promoted to Lieutenant, being a position of leadership in the field over other men. [11]
















Messines was a long way from Kaniva and for a man who almost certainly had entered teaching as a peaceful vocation and with interest in the physical well-being of his pupils. Christensen’s values and skills, at a time when education authorities were assuming greater responsibility in health matters, were put to purposes he could not have imagined in his young years as a trainee-teacher, teacher, athlete–and gymnast.


Lest we Forget.





[1] Rosalie Triolo, ‘Our Schools and the War’, Australian Scholarly Publishing, Kew, 2012.


[2] Education Department of Victoria (hereafter, E.D.V.), ‘Instruction in Gymnastics’, Education Gazette and Teachers’ Aid (hereafter Education Gazette), vol. I, Jul. 1900, p. 5, and Oct. 1900, p. 53. The Melbourne Training College stands today as the 1888 Building in Grattan Street at Melbourne University, Carlton.


[3] E.D.V., ‘Instruction in Gymnastics’, Education Gazette, vol. I, Oct. 1900, p. 53; vol. III, Feb. 1903, p. 97; vol. IV, Feb. 1904, p. 80; and, vol. VII, Aug. 1906, p. 18 and Mar. 1907, p. 136.


[4] E.D.V., Education Gazette, vol. IX, May 1909, p. 180.


[5] Empire Day was celebrated throughout the British Empire on 24 May for well over a century, commemorating Queen Victoria’s birthday in 1819.


[6] E.D.V., ‘Gymnasium at Canterbury’, Education Gazette, vol. XIII, Oct 1913, p. 428. The senior boys would have been in Grades VII and VIII (Years 7-8) which were part of elementary (primary) school education at that time.


[7] Triolo, chpt. 4.


[8] National Archives of Australia World War I Service Record: N.A.A.: B2455, Christensen, C.P., at, retrieved 20 April 2016.


[9] E.D.V., The Education Department’s Record of War Service, 1914-1919, Albert J. Mullett, Melbourne, 1921, p. 40.


[10] The Education Department’s Record of War Service, 1914-1919, pp. 40, 169; and, ‘Letters from the Front: By Mrs. Smyth’, Melbourne Teacher’s College, Trainee, vol. XI, Apr. 1917, p. 9.


[11] National Archives of Australia World War I Service Record: N.A.A.: B2455, Christensen, C.P., at, retrieved 20 April 2016.

His life was closely devoted to study. He rose at 5 a.m. daily to accomplish his day’s work. He was a keen sportsman, an excellent platform speaker, and interested himself in all movements for the welfare of the district in which he followed his profession. Horticulture and photography were his hobbies, and the most valuable memento possessed by his mother is an album of beautifully finished snapshots taken by himself between his departure from Australia and his arrival in France … Letters received from all parts of Victoria show that he was most popular with his pupils’. [9]

Lieutenant Christian Peder Christensen
Canterbury School 1913
Messines Battlefield 1917
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