On a St Mary’s school timetable from 1902 we see that alongside arithmetic, copying, physiology, dictation, New Testament and French, there were weekly drill lessons: physical exercises which had their origin at the beginning of the 19th century. Swedish drill, a type of gymnastics, was a system created by Pehr Henrik Ling. He began the movement after Sweden lost territory to Russia during the Napoleonic Wars, deciding that his nation needed to improve its health to meet future challenges.
Ling’s programme was one of simple movements systematically executed by groups. The system had four elements: educational (PE), aesthetic (dance), military (mostly fencing), and medical. The last of these was the genesis of physiotherapy. Swedish drill became increasingly popular across the world, including in army training and as formal exercises in British schools. With the participants acting under the commands of a ‘drill sergeant’, groups of pupils performed routines that involved precision, suppleness, vigour, rhythm, lightness, accuracy, balance and carriage.
Many of the routines were free-standing, either on the spot in unison; marching and running in formation; ‘fancy marching’; or jumping. By 1926 St Mary’s had, like others, added apparatus to the programmes, including vaulting horses, bars and ropes.
St Mary’s girls continued to have drill lessons through the early years of the 20th century. Annual competitions were held within school and between other schools, particularly Godolphin in Salisbury with which St Mary’s had a close association. Each form had a drill sergeant who choreographed and directed routines. For competitions some routines were prepared and others were ‘unseen’. Prizes of cups and badges were awarded to groups and to the outstanding sergeant. These were public occasions with an audience of parents and friends, assessed by outside judges who were often direct in their comments. In 1922, marching and running were ‘not good, the rhythm of both being uneven, jumping too heavy and landing poor’. In 1927, it was said of one sergeant that she ‘commanded well and obviously had control of her class, while some of the others were rather slow and unconvincing in their manner’.
The aesthetic side of the Swedish system was drawn on for some of the school’s dance demonstrations. One year the pupils entertained the Founders’ Day audience with a tableau based on Greek athletics. Girls used stylised movements and positions to reflect sporting images.
Swedish gymnastics came to wide recognition after it was introduced as a new event at the Stockholm Olympics in 1912. As previously, and throughout the following years, this form of exercise was part of the
St Mary’s week. The last report on drill in the school news sheets was in 1937. However, similar exercising continued through the Second World War. A report shows that mornings began with ‘twenty minutes violent PT’ before lessons.
Mrs Elizabeth Christie, School Archivist