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The woman who made girls jump

magazine article | Published in TES Newspaper on 26 April, 2002 | By: Wendy Wallace

She invented netball, and one of her pupils designed the first gymslip. But the legacy of PEpioneer Martina Bergman-Osterberg is under threat from property developers, writes Wendy Wallace

In Dartford, Kent, a piece of education history is in peril. Oakfield Lane is part of the University of Greenwich campus, housing the school of architecture and construction. The site is unremarkable, a hotchpotch of Sixties and Seventies lecture halls and accommodation blocks dotted around some handsome older buildings. Two tennis courts are given over to student parking, a smooth, green cricket ground leads to the back of the old building, its entrance guarded by an ancient cedar all but split in half.

In the company of archivist Sheila Cutler, the site appears altogether different. The cedar is transformed into "Madame's tree", under which Swedish physical education teacher Martina Bergman-Osterberg awarded certificates to her students 100 years ago, on ground strewn with rose petals. The smooth grass becomes "college pitch", where generations of students sweated their way to sporting excellence - having rolled the pitch before breakfast. The casual buzz in the wood-panelled canteen gives way to the formalised murmur of conversation at the high table, where Madame took the opportunity of meal times to further improve her students.

The car park courts take on poignancy when you learn that it was here that netball - "football with the hands" - was first played; inspired by American basketball, Madame and her students improvised with wastepaper baskets tied to high-jump stands.

In use as a college site since 1895, the land is likely to be put on the market as Greenwich rationalises its resources. But the keepers of Mrs Bergman-Osterberg's memory are concerned that even if the land is sold, Madame's name and, if possible, some public sports facilities should live on here. They want to commemorate her role in founding women's physical education in Britain, "so that it's never forgotten, that we were here", says Sheila Cutler.

Ms Cutler talks about Madame with such affectionate fluency that you might think she knew her. She didn't; Madame died of cancer in July 1915, the day after her college broke up for the summer. Ms Cutler was a post-war student here, from 1949-52, in the days when the gymslips were made without pleats on a clothing coupon allowance, and the meals were "mainly stodge".

Her knowledge of Madame comes from her immersion in - and creation of - the Bergman-Osterberg archive. Given three small rooms above the library, lunch and petrol money by the university, she has spent, for the past 16 years, a few days each month sorting through the mass of photographs, records, trophies and paraphernalia that remain of the first training institution for female teachers of physical education. The 5,000-plus photographs record the early history of the college begun by Mrs Bergman-Osterberg: the hammocks in the bluebell woods; the fire drills; vaulting teacher Mr Mauritzi; the visit of King George V and Queen Mary in 1918. (Queen Mary was horrified by the students' short skirts and displays of handstands.) Another piece of female social history - the gymslip - originated in the college. Designed by student Mary Tait in 1897, it was subsequently copied all over the world. Here it was worn by staff and students, as a photograph of a group of Madame's staff attests. Here are a pair of worn leather shinpads (property of C Martineau), an old-fashioned lacrosse stick ("lovely game, very elegant but quite vicious", says Ms Cutler) and, wrapped in archival tissue, one of the original gymslips, complete with girdle, darning and black-turned-green velvet-edged neck.

Here are Madame's carefully collected press cuttings likening the college to Newnham or Girton "in that its doors are open to women, and women only".

"And what are your rules about diet?" a journalist asked. "Plenty of wholesome food," said Madame. "Plenty of fruit and vegetables, meat three times a day and a properly regulated scale of diet which includes all the necessary flesh and bone-forming ingredients. I am opposed to the drinking of much tea, and especially of strong tea."

Meticulously kept books record the students' details ("Molly Brown 1921-24, from Leamington high school. First post, Girls' high school, Dorking"); the Book of Remembrance eulogises successive principals (all present on the walls of the archive, in photographic portraits or oils) plus staff and students.

Ms Cutler, as she is well aware, is part of the archive as well as its keeper. Her semi-circular, green woollen cloak hangs in one of the rooms; her distaste for the modern buildings - "hideous" - reflects the sense of despoilment Madame might have felt at seeing the outdoor gymnasium built over. Her straight back and manner reflect the values Madame lastingly instilled in the institution, that women should have "an inner, responsible, freedom".

Martina Bergman came to London in 1881 from Sweden, where she had studied Per Henrik Ling's "scientific system" of gymnastics at the Royal Central Gymnastic Institute in Stockholm. Appointed by the London Education Board to oversee the physical education of girls, she found the raw material in the inner city disappointing. "Their muscles have been starved from babyhood, they breathe bad air, eat that which fails to nourish, dress in what impedes and hampers. To attempt to physically educate such a child is but to try to fit a cube into a round hole," she told a magazine interviewer of the time.

In 1885, she set up the first gym (but not the last) in Hampstead, north London. The Hampstead Physical Training College in Broadhurst Gardens began with four students; they shocked their contemporaries by wearing short dresses, playing games and turning upside down on wall bars. "She was creating a profession for women that was quite unheard of," says Ms Cutler, "and teaching them to be their own women." The gym offered twice-weekly lessons for two guineas per term, and remedial gymnastics (speciality, curvature of the spine). Martina Bergman, an early self-publicist, put on gymnastics displays for education officials, royalty and other patrons.

Numbers grew and the Hampstead premises became inadequate. "Madame" - as she became on her marriage to Stockholm headmaster Dr Edwin Osterberg in 1886 - bought the Dartford site, a grand house in 14 acres. The ballroom became a gymnasium, the lookout tower was turned into servants' accommodation and the college opened in its new premises in September 1895.

The regime for the privileged young women who paid to attend was spartan, with baths only twice a week, no going into town, visiting other students' rooms or eating between meals. Nicknamed Napoleon by her students, Mrs Bergman-Osterberg was a disciplinarian, but with a passion for her subject. She fostered strong links with local people, many of whom went as children to remedial gym classes at the college. All students undertook teaching practice in local schools; naturally they cycled there and back. By the time she died, leaving the college as a bequest to the nation, she had trained 500 PE teachers. "She had a broad concept of the whole person," says Ms Cutler. "She wasn't just trying to create physically perfect students."

The college carried on in much the same style after her death, when it was renamed the Madame Bergman-Osterberg Physical Training College in her honour. The two-year course was extended to three years in 1919, and a new wing built. The name was changed in the Second World War to Dartford College - Bergman-Osterberg being considered too Germanic - and the premises used for billeting troops. From 1950 onwards, the college received state funding, and by the late 1960s offered other teacher training courses in addition to PE. The college amalgamated with Thames Polytechnic - later the University of Greenwich - in the mid-Seventies, and PE teachers were trained on the site until 1986, when the course transferred to Greenwich's Avery Hill campus in Eltham.

A world map threaded with pins and red cotton in the archive shows that students went on to teach all over the world - including Japan, South Africa, Egypt.

Ms Cutler remembers her student days here as "very intense, difficult mentally and physically. We had to make our own entertainment, run teams that represented the college - winning was important. We were bonded together in this endeavour, to be worthy of the college and to qualify at the end." Ms Cutler went on to teach (she taught hockey on the beach to pupils at a Weston-super-Mare school), then to train teachers herself at Roehampton, now part of the university there.

The memories live on in individuals and in the archive. An "old students'" association meets annually and an increasing volume of academic and feminist interest in Madame has put the archive material in demand. University of Greenwich managers have assured Ms Cutler that the archive will be looked after, whatever the outcome of the land deal; the university is scheduled to leave the site in July 2003. Meanwhile, she and her contemporaries hope sporting facilities will remain here and be available to the people of Dartford. "This was an incredible place to be," says Ms Cutler. "We thought we had come to the best college in the world."


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