For sixteen days in August the eyes of the world will be on Rio and the finest athletes. There will be many invocations of the Olympic spirit, of fair play and sportsmanship. I expect to be accused of sour grapes when I recall that the Ancient Greeks saw their athletic events as an important preparation for war.

It’s no surprise then that in Shropshire too we may trace a back story stretching from the bucolic excitements of catching the greasy pig at the Wenlock Olympian Games to the First World War.

The Origins of today’s PE

In Much Wenlock they built a National school in 1847 on a small site north of the churchyard. The lord of the manor made it rent-free whilst it was a school. Designed by S. Pountney Smith in local stone with Norman details, the school had two rooms and 276 places in mixed and infant departments. ‘Southern’s endowment’ reduced poor pupils’ fees, but normal fees were above average for the area; fees were abolished in 1891.

William Penny Brookes Shropshire Archives ref. PH/S/14/7/30

William Penny Brookes
Shropshire Archives ref. PH/S/14/7/30

Our Victorian ancestors were a pragmatic lot. As they took the first steps towards universal and free education, they may have considered what they might expect in exchange. I think it was a win-win situation. Had we dropped in on the quadrangle of the school, where Dr Penny Brookes was the equivalent of today’s ‘governor’, we might have found a local NCO taking the children for DRILL.

Drill had a whole battalion of benefits. It didn’t need any equipment. It was an efficient use of space; the length of a child’s arm between ranks and from the child next to them. Like square-bashing in National Service, it inculcated instant obedience to commands. The children learned how to behave as a disciplined unit or squad. For the world’s greatest empire it made the nation’s youth familiar with marching and weapons; a value-for-money contribution to our small colonial wars.

If the school couldn’t enlist an NCO to take on the job, there was a handy book for teachers.

Give the children a drill lesson:

March the children out in a line, shortest at the front, tallest at the back.
Make them stand in two rows.
Make them shuffle out so that they are at least an arm’s length apart and from the row in front.
Almost any movement can be done in the drill style: “On the count of one, raise your right arm, on the count of two lower it” “One, two, one, two, one, two, one, two”. Repeat with left arm.
Try: Raise arm to the side Raise arm to the front Turn head to side (“one”) and to front (“two”) Raise leg Combine leg and arm raises to march on the spot.
March back into class

The pupils of Much Wenlock National School were most likely to find employment in agriculture and quarrying, in 1871 Brookes added drill and physical exercise to the curriculum. He also carried out simple experiments to demonstrate the benefits of PE for children. Annual treats at the Abbey and Lady Catherine Milnes Gaskell’s ha’penny dinners of soup and bread between 1891 and 1912 encouraged attendance. The school closed in December 1952.

The Battlefield in the Playground



The Prussians have their equivalent of our “playing fields of Eton.” The crucial links between the education system and the military “The battles of Königgrätz (1866) and Sedan (Franco-Prussian War1870) have been decided by the Prussian primary teacher;” which brings me to Baron de Coubertin.

In common with the rest of his nation he viewed the War as a French humiliation. His interest in physical education practised in our public schools was based not only on his idealised vision of ancient Greece, but a belief that men who received physical education would be better prepared to fight, and better able to win.

In 1883, he visited England for the first time, and studied physical education instituted by Arnold at Rugby. Coubertin ascribed the rise of English power during the 19th century to these methods and advocated their adoption by French institutions. The inclusion of physical education in the curriculum of French schools became his pursuit and passion. In 1888, Coubertin founded with Jules Simon the “Comité pour la Propagation des Exercices Physiques dans l’Éducation.” The battle over the future of physical education was fought between the English system, relying more and more on outdoor sports, and the German Turnen (more formal gymnastic exercises.)

The First Modern Olympics

William Penny Brookes was born over a hundred years before the First World War. He died just a few months before the launch of the First Olympic Games in Athens April 1896 but not before he saw the introduction of compulsory PE for children. “Now let us imagine ourselves a century and a half hence…” he wrote, “What might we behold? Still a noble race, strong in body and mind; on the other hand, how mournful might be the spectacle!”

Pierre de Frédy, Baron de Coubertin would live to know of a whole string of cities including Berlin (1936) before his death in September 1937. He would also experience the interruption of the Games between Stockholm (1912) and Antwerp (1920) due to the First World War.

Without Brooks and de Coubertin there may have been no Olympic Games in August 2016. We may forgive them, therefore, if they failed in their other onerous task of employing PE in schools to improve radically the health of their nations. It was a task that reached well beyond their era.

In the First World War almost half the conscripts were considered unsuitable. Many were passed ‘Grade III’, with marked physical disabilities and considered fit only for clerical work. Grade IV was totally and permanently unfit for military service.

In a subsequent piece “Fit to Fight” I hope to look more closely at the ill-health of those would-be volunteers in 1914 and the dodges the authorities began to employ after 1916 to meet their quotas.

In the meantime why not tread in Penny Brookes’ footsteps to the old National School (now Priory Hall), the railway station where de Coubertin arrived, and the oak tree planted in honour of his visit to the Wenlock Olympian Games in 1890?

Meanwhile in Shrewsbury, to coincide with the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, Shrewsbury Museum & Art Gallery is mounting a display of Wenlock Olympian Games memorabilia. The display will be placed in the balcony space of the Museum and will run to August 29th.