Swedish Gymnastics in Ireland. Reference - NLI Ref.: P_WP_1904 [via flickr commons]
Swedish Gymnastics in Ireland. Reference – NLI Ref.: P_WP_1904 [via flickr commons]
The human body has a remarkable capacity for physical exertion and self-healing, particularly in times of extreme stress. In different ways, war and sport provide us with the clearest examples of the body’s potency. But there are injuries that the body cannot heal by itself, hence the emergence of medicine and its scientific practices aimed at giving a helping hand. If the social history of medicine – medicine as delivered in hospitals and clinics, that is – is now reasonably well advance, our understanding of the social history of sports medicine and its sub-disciplines remains relatively slight. Indeed, it is only in recent years that pioneering work by Neil Carter, Mike Cronin, Vanessa Heggie, and Patricia Vertinsky – in the Anglo-American world – and Jens Ljunggren and Anders Ottosson in Sweden has begun to uncover the social and cultural histories of one of the most lucrative branches of contemporary medical practice.

As a historian, I am particularly interested in the transfer of ideas and cultural and social practices from one part of the world to another, with a particular focus on the British Isles as a ‘melting pot’. This stems, in large part, from having grown up in the South Wales Coalfield and being steeped in that region’s history – a history that is unintelligible without reference to the waves of immigration, from England, Ireland, Italy, Spain, Poland, and even Haiti and New Zealand, that fuelled industry and commerce there. The more I study these islands, the more self-evident it is that we are – and always have been – a fusion of many different peoples, ideas, and practices. And so it is with today’s post, which takes a closer look at Swedish Medical Gymnastics and Massage, a form of medicine introduced into the United Kingdom in the nineteenth century by Swedish emigrants.

Pehr Henrik Ling, founder of Swedish Gymnastics

Swedish gymnastics were invented at the beginning of the nineteenth century by Pehr Henrik Ling (1776-1839), a fencing instructor then working at Lund University in southern Sweden. Ling’s routines and drills aimed at the restoration of public health through regular, light exercise. His invention was in part a reaction to ancient forms of exercise that he had researched and the existing German drill systems, known as the Turn, invented by Johann Muth (1759-1839) and Friendrich Jahn (1778-1852). If Muth’s system, which he organised into a training manual published in 1793 called Gymnastik für Jugend (Gymnastics for Young People) was more pedagogic in nature, that created by Jahn had distinctive militarist overtones, coming as it did in the midst of the Napoleonic Wars. Jahn’s work, Turnkunst zur Einrichtung der Turnplätze (typically translated as A Treatise on Gymnastics), was published in 1816 and is full of gymnastic drills based around apparatus familiar to us today.

Ling’s system was set out in a book he published in 1834, towards the end of his life. Called, in Swedish, Gymastikens Allmänna Grunder (The Essential Principles of Gymnastics), the book is a kind of testimony, a vindication of Ling’s independently-minded gymnastic forms. As he writes in the preface (my translation). ‘For 30 years I have pondered and practiced gymnastics. In this time, gymnasts and doctors in several countries have written on the subject. I have gone my own way, and not set anything down. To do so, I thought, was illogical’.

Ling’s system was not only adapted for use by teachers of gymnastics; it had direct medical applications as well, and by the mid-1850s medical manuals adapting Ling’s theories were being written in English. One such volume was by Mathias Roth (1839-1891), a Hungarian-born surgeon and refugee of the 1848 revolutions in Europe, then resident in Richmond, Surrey (he later settled in Cavendish Square in central London). Roth’s purpose was to introduce physical exercise as a form of rehabilitation, something revealed clearly by the title of his book The Prevention and Cure of many Chronic Diseases by Movements, which was first published in 1851 (it went through several editions in his lifetime). Roth saw in Ling’s system a means of physical rehabilitation for those who had, for instance, suffered loss of sight or were affected by mental illness and for whom the use of gymnastic apparatus might be difficult or even impossible.

Stockholm at the end of the nineteenth century. [Photograph from Stockholm Transport Museum, via flickr commons]
Stockholm at the end of the nineteenth century. [Photograph from Stockholm Transport Museum, via flickr commons]
Underlying the adaptation of Ling’s ideas for an Anglo-American audience, was the steady stream of emigration from Scandinavia to the British Isles and to the United States in the nineteenth century. By the end of the nineteenth century, some half a million Swedes had settled in the United States; across Britain and Ireland the numbers ranged from 120 resident in Ireland and 680 resident in Scotland in 1901, to 5,515 resident in England and Wales (here an increase of around 1,000, primarily men, since 1891). Although many of those registered by the decennial census in Britain and Ireland were Swedish seamen, rather than domiciles, the picture given by the detailed census reports suggests a varied community of emigrants – albeit with common patterns across the major centres of settlement. In London, for example, the Swedish community stood at 1,675 people (1,180 men; 465 women). Of these, the vast majority were unmarried and under the age of 25. Amongst those engaged in professional work, the most common form of employment was in medical practice, particularly in ‘subordinate medical service’ as the census enumerators put it.

Such statistics are replicated, albeit with smaller figures reflective of the relative size of the population. In Yorkshire, for instance, the Swedish community stood at 510 people – 410 men, 100 women – with Hull the major centre of settlement and Middlesbrough a distant second. Again, the vast majority were unmarried and under the age of 25. Given the maritime focus of Hull and Middlesbrough, it is not surprising that most Swedes worked in the merchant marine or as clerks in commercial operations, and yet medical practice was still an important avenue for those involved in the professions – in this case ‘sick nurses and others’ provides the murky clue as to what they were doing – the county-level statistics being more abridged than those provided for London.

‘Subordinate Medical Service’, which gave nearly 50 Swedish migrants a job in England and Wales in 1901, covered a range of medical practices that stood outside the traditionally understood roles of general practice, surgery, hospital doctor, medical student, nurse, and so on. For the most part, we may interpret this category as regards the Swedish community as referring to Swedish Medical Gymnastics, a sub-medical practice that was in the process of migrating into the medical profession in the Edwardian period. Let’s meet a couple of them.

Linnaeus Street, Hull, as it appeared in 1905
Linnaeus Street, Hull, as it appeared in 1905

First up is Richard Timberg, born in Stockholm in 1871 and living, by 1901, at 151 London Road, Reading, with his wife Jane. At this time, Timberg was working as a physical therapist at St Thomas’ hospital in London, where he’d been since the early-1890s, and was making a name for himself as a theorist as well as a practitioner of Ling’s gymnastics – his first book, The Principles of the Swedish Medical Manual Treatment was published in 1894. He also published a pamphlet encouraging the adoption of Ling’s gymnastics as a home-based treatment for curvature of the spine in 1901 and was appointed as head of St Thomas’ physical exercise unit in 1905. In the years leading up to 1914, Timberg’s unit used the Swedish system to treat a wide variety of cases from fractures to physical trauma and post-operative care, through to pleurisy, heart disease and arthritis. The war swelled the number of patients passing through the doors of St Thomas’ and treatments adapted accordingly. As Timberg wrote in 1914, ‘within a month of the commencement of the war, such [military] cases were, as we know, received at St Thomas’ Hospital, and it did not take long before they found their way to the Physical Exercise and Massage Department. […] Altogether 100 military cases were thus treated during the last four months of 1914’.

Edward Mattsson's adverts - as they appeared in the Hull Daily Mail
Edward Mattsson’s adverts – as they appeared in the Hull Daily Mail

The second individual is Edward Mattsson, also from Stockholm, one of a small number of trained medical gymnasts living in Hull at this time. Mattsson ran his own practice – this was more typical than Timberg’s employment at a major hospital, certainly in this period – which was situated at 7 Linnaeus Street, Hull. Now, Mattsson might have escaped my attention were it not for a particular job he was employed to do for a certain sports team in the city, namely the official masseur for Hull FC. As far as can be established – and this is something I need to do more work on – Mattsson was hired by Hull FC from around 1908 to provide massage and other medical services at a time when the team was beginning to revolutionise its training practices and adopt a more paternalistic attitude towards its players. In fact, Mattsson’s role with Hull FC was almost certainly the pioneering one amongst Rugby League clubs – although it remains to be seen when other clubs began employing medical practitioners in this way.

Mattsson’s employment at Hull FC – as well as Timberg’s appointment at St Thomas’ Hospital – came at a time of increasing interest in the application of Swedish gymnastics to a range of contexts, notably in education. What made Swedish gymnastics fairly popular in British and American educational circles was its affordability and potential to engage a large number of people in gymnastic routines simultaneously, to which the variety of educational manuals published in English in the nineteenth century testifies. The Board of Education in England and Wales afforded official approval to the Swedish system in 1895 and, when gymnastics was made compulsory during teacher training a decade or so later, it was Ling’s ideas that provided the basis of the Board’s Syllabus of Physical Training first issued in 1909.

Five years later, the outbreak of the Great War provided a stern test of Britain’s physical capacities. As many historians have shown, the Edwardian period was a time of considerable anxiety about the fitness of the British population and the liability of the nation should war occur. The introduction of Swedish gymnastics into schools, then, provided one potential remedy but the system was never fully able to embed itself before war broke out. In Huddersfield, the town’s Technical College responded to the outbreak of the Great War with remarkable efficiency. Members of staff and students past and present joined the colours with a degree of regularity and those who remained behind, either to continue their studies or to teach, formed a range of new organisations to keep themselves ready to join the colours when called for. A branch of the Officers’ Training Corps was established in the autumn of 1914, for instance, and special classes in Swedish gymnastics were provided via the local civilian training corps (they were very popular with the students), and all classes otherwise offered in physical exercise were supplanted by military drill and command practice. The gymnastics classes were led by H. Graham, the College’s physical training instructor.

The place of Swedish gymnastics – and of Swedes – in British medical and pedagogical life, then, was remarkably varied. Uncovering the history of this form of medical practice allows for a better understanding of Britain’s relationship with Sweden in the late-nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and of the less-well-explored places such as Hull where Swedes made such a pioneering impact. This is a work in progress and much remains to be done before I can turn it into something more tangible. Yet, very clearly, there is a rich story to be told of how one man’s vision of physical activity became a way of life for emigrants, a means of improving a club’s performance on the rugby pitch, and a means of rehabilitation for injured soldiers during the Great War.


This post has benefitted enormously from discussions with Victoria Dawson, Tony Collins, Barry Doyle, Tobias Stark, and Jack McLean. I am grateful to them all for information, insights, and enthusiasm.