Degeneration, Gymnasts and Bodybuilders Pancras Road (Camden)


Hell is a city much like London, Shelley wrote in 1819. The imagination cannot conceive a viler criminal than he who should build another London like the present one, nor a greater benefactor than he who should destroy it, George Bernard Shaw concluded some eighty odd years later. To a number of nineteenth century social commentators London was the capital of degeneration. The urban poor were described as stunted and rickety. They were scarred by sores and scrofulous lumps, the stigmata of sickness.


The ‘great unwashed’ were said to be indifferent to the filth in which they lived and bred. To some observers they constituted a distinct type, a race apart, a threat to civil society. Whilst other scientists suggested that the environment had a major impact on degeneracy, thereby implying that improvement was possible, hard-line eugenicists on the other hand argued that the sole cause was heredity. They claimed that morality arises from the law of the preservation of the species. Only that what lifts a person to a higher level of mental or physical perfection can be considered as moral. Altruism and humanitarianism are impediments to evolutionary progress. Social Darwinists fanned fears that a horde of degenerates was dragging the nation down into biological decline. The ‘survival of the un-fittest’ was a peril that had to be confronted. Gymnastics provided one solution.


During antiquity sport had been praised for preparing soldiers with the training they would require in battle. In the early modern period the state’s primary justification for declaring any sports to be lawful, even in the face of opposition from religious zealots, was based upon the ancient argument that they provided men with the physical conditioning necessary to their engagement with the enemy. The military of the British Empire had a long tradition of involvement in sport. Along with exercising and drilling, it was one of the few other activities for troops posted in colonial settlements in Australia and India. Sport also became a tool in the battle against urban degeneration. The dual aspects of military capability and social regeneration are part of the early history of the European obsession with sporting activities.

The 2012 London Olympic Games saw British gymnasts make history by producing the best results since the foundation of British Gymnastics (also known as the British Amateur Gymnastics Association) in 1888. The adoption of gymnastics in Britain was facilitated by immigrants. As a specific discipline of physical exercise, it had been developed in Germany by Friedrich Ludwig Jahn with the aim of improving the fighting fitness of the army. Known in Germany as ‘Turnvater Jahn’ (father of gymnastics), he was troubled by the humiliation of his native land by Napoleon. He argued that the practice of gymnastics would restore the physical strength and with it, the pride of his countrymen. He opened the first ‘Turnplatz’ (open-air gymnasium) in Berlin in 1811.

Young gymnasts were taught to regard themselves as members of a kind of guild for the emancipation of their fatherland. The ‘Turnverein’ (gymnastics association) movement spread rapidly. One of the youngsters brought up in this tradition of physical exertion was Ernst Ravenstein who was born in Frankfurt am Main on 30 December 1834 into a family of engravers. Having completed his studies, he moved to London in 1852 where he was employed as a cartographer at the Ministry of War. He retired in 1872, declining the position of chief cartographer at the Royal Geographical Society because he was refused permission to smoke on the premises. In spite of that, he remained an active member of the Society as cartographic editor of the Geographical Magazine. He also sat on the councils of the Royal Statistical Society and the British Association for the Advancement of Science. He briefly taught as Professor of Geology at London’s Bedford College (1884/5). His work on migration influenced geographers, demographers and sociologists. In 1902, Ravenstein was the first scientist to receive the Victoria gold medal of the Royal Geographical Society.


Ravenstein also had a passion for sport. His 1893 ‘Oarsman’s and Angler’s Map of the River Thames’ was reprinted nearly a century later. In 1861 he founded the ‘Deutsche Turnverein’ (German Gymnastic Society) in London and was its President until 1871. In that capacity, he established the ‘Turnhalle’ (German Gymnasium) at no. 26 Pancras Road. The building – now listed – was designed by Edward Gruning and constructed in 1864/5 for use by the Society. It was funded solely by the German community in London. In its first year the Gymnasium attracted 900 members, of whom 500 were German, 203 English, 67 Scottish and the rest spread across different nationalities. On 7 November 1865 the Liverpool Mercury reported the formation of the National Olympian Association (NOA). Its inaugural meeting was held at the Liverpool Gymnasium in Myrtle Street. This meeting was the forerunner of the modern British Olympic Association. In 1866, the newly built German Gymnasium was one of three venues in London to host the first ever national Olympian Games held during the modern era. The NOA lasted until 1883 and its Olympian Games ‘were open to all comers’. The undertaking influenced the thinking and ambitions of young Pierre de Coubertin.


German gymnasts helped increase awareness of physical education during the Victorian era, but 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 towards military needs. The battle for ideas on physical exercise in Britain was won by another immigrant.

Homoeopath and therapist Mathias Roth was born in 1818 in Kaschau (Košice), in the Habsburg Empire, into a Jewish family. Having supported the unsuccessful Hungarian revolt against the Habsburgs he had to flee the country. He arrived in London in October 1849 where, in 1850, he was one of the founding members of the short-lived Hahnemann Hospital at no. 39 Bloomsbury Square which aimed at relieving the poor who suffer from acute diseases by receiving them as in patients (between 1850 and 1852 over 9,000 patients were treated). In 1851 he published

The Prevention and Cure of many Chronic Diseases by Movements, a long treatise on the philosophical, physiological, and medical foundations of Swedish gymnastics which had been pioneered by Pehr Henrik Ling earlier in the century. Roth developed the concept of scientific physical education, advocating the teaching of physiology, hygiene, and educational gymnastics. The Swedish model offered an alternative to those who were put off by the military connotation of the German version of strengthening the muscles.


The latter part of the nineteenth century suffered from nerves. As a curative for neurasthenia doctors prescribed fresh air and physical exercise. Organised sports, swimming, weight-lifting, or horse riding, were considered a means of overcoming the perceived crisis of masculinity. In a world where only the fit survive, there was no place for weak men. Muscular activities were supposed to sharpen aggression and increase competitiveness. There was a spiritual dimension to the argument too. Many observers believed that the Church contributed to man’s meekness. They called for a more robust religiosity. The phrase ‘muscular Christianity’ appeared in the late 1850s in connection with Charles Kingsley’s fiction.

The underlying idea was that the image of Christ communicated by the (Anglican) Church was too effeminate, passive and unheroic. The age of nervousness needed a new Messiah, a figure of power and strength, a leader who would turn feeble followers into supermen of masculinity. There were cultural prototypes. Burckhardt had presented his age with a nostalgic image of the Renaissance Uomo Universale, Nietzsche introduced his Übermensch, and Marxists created their own myths of the Working Man’s might and muscle.


Friedrich Wilhelm Müller was born a delicate child in Königsberg, East Prussia, on 2 April 1867. Having adopted the name Eugen Sandow, he would become the revered ‘blond god’ of nineteenth century manhood, the ‘father of modern bodybuilding’, and the creator in 1897 of the London Institute of Physical Culture, a gymnasium for bodybuilders. He held the first bodybuilding contest at the Royal Albert Hall in September 1901 (where his friend Arthur Conan Doyle acted as one of the judges). Sandow was a living image of classical sculpture. He himself helped to develop the ‘Grecian ideal’ as a formula for the perfect male physique.

That same year, Ray Lankester, Director of the Natural History Department of the British Museum, mounted an exhibit displaying examples of all the races of the world. Eugen Sandow represented the Caucasian race. A complete cast of his body was made by the London based Italian firm of Brucciani & Co. and put on a pedestal. The cast represented the ideal type of European manhood: Sandow was superman. A time that was obsessed with the notion of degeneration projected his powerful body as an antidote for neurasthenia. In 1911, Sandow received Royal approval and was appointed Professor of Scientific and Physical Culture to George V.

The physical reconstruction and regeneration of the people, subtitle of his ‘classic’ book Life is Movement (1919), was the ultimate mission of all his undertakings. In early history a desperate search was made for the one medicine that would cure a range of epidemic diseases. Herbs from the East and even tobacco were hailed as ‘miracle’ cures. The late nineteenth century sought for a similar panacea to overcome its social evils. Eugenics promised both diagnosis of and cure for a paradox that was observed by numerous critics of society: on the one hand a firm belief in progress and the confident prediction of ever increasing prosperity; and, on the other hand, the contrast of the depravity of a large part of the population of city-dwellers (Jack London’s ‘people of the abyss’).


During the late decades of the nineteenth century the ideals of the French Revolution: liberty, equality, and fraternity, had become outdated dogmas that were no longer considered relevant from a scientific point of view. The theory of evolutionary progress had replaced them by the new triad of determinism, inequality, and selection. Social Darwinism is an ideology that uses the concept of the struggle for existence as the basis for social theory. The concept proved fruitful for those liberals who advocated the principle of laissez faire in socio-economic life, as well as for later commentators who set out to justify imperial and racial policies. Eugenics became part and parcel of that theory. Once the politics of brutality had taken over, Europe would pay a heavy price for its ‘scientific’ interest in these fields of research.