Indian Clubs in Victorian Britain

Indian_clubs

Fitness crazes are unsurprisingly not a new phenomenon and in light of that fact, today we will discuss the growth of the Indian Club craze in Victorian England. Indian Clubs are bottle-shaped wooden clubs that are swung in the hand using a range of movements for the purpose of gymnastic exercise. Whilst they have been used for centuries in India and the Middle East both in people’s homes and in private gymnasia to develop strength, speed and flexibility, this form of exercise entered into Western consciousness relatively recently with British soldiers ‘discovering’ the exercises in the early 19th century when based in colonial India. The spread of the Club’s popularity in Victorian Britain was as rapid as it was fascinating.

Introduction into England
As early as 1834, British author Donald Walker, himself a fitness enthusiast, was informing readers both sides of the Atlantic about the benefits accruing from Indian Club training. In his tome entitled British Manly Exercises, Walker provided an incredibly detailed explanation about the leisure patterns of his fellow compatriots. Of interest to us, was Walker’s discussions on the use of Indian Clubs by British army officials and the potential benefits of the clubs for the layman. He followed it up the following year by promoting the use of the Club for Victorian Women in Exercises for Ladies Calculated to Preserve and Improve Beauty.
Rave Reviews
Interest in the Clubs was peaked. By 1837 British troops were writing home about the clubs in glowing terms
“The wonderful Club exercise is one of the most effectual kinds of athletic training known anywhere. . . [It is] in common use throughout India. . .The exercise is in great repute among the native soldiery, police, and others whose caste renders them liable to emergencies where great strength of muscle is desirable.”
Her Majesty’s Troops based in India began to incorporate Indian Clubs into their own training regimens in place of calisthenics routines with some slight modifications. Whereas originally Indian Clubs could weigh upwards of 20 kilos and beyond, British troops tended at first to train with relatively light Indian Clubs and often to music. One contemporary described a typical training day as follows

“In order to awaken a lively and abiding interest in calisthenic and gymnastic exercises, and to secure an enthusiasm and a fascination that shall convert indolence and sluggishness into cheerful and vigorous activity, it will be found absolutely necessary to employ instrumental music. The best music for this purpose is furnished by a brass band.”

Note here the strong moral values attached to the Indian Clubs. The rise of sports in Victorian England has been well documented elsewhere but it is interesting to note that physical training in the Victorian era was not immune from such judgements. To train was to evoke manly interests, to strengthen one’s character or to ward off sluggishness. No wonder people at home became interested in them.

Those promoting the clubs weren’t shy about using hyperbole either. Physical culturist J. Madison Watson would write about the clubs,

“Indian clubs, or scepters, as they are sometimes called, are deservedly held in the highest esteem by all gymnasts, affording, as they do, one of the very best and most extended series of exercises for developing the muscular power of the whole body.  Nothing can be better calculated to invigorate the respiratory system, expand the chest, call into action the muscles of locomotion and the principal structures around the joints, and enlarge and strengthen the muscles of the forearm, the upper arm, and the shoulder, as well as the abdominal and spinal muscles.”

Although Walker’s publications did indeed help to push Indian Clubs into the spotlight, it wasn’t until the 1850s a Victorian strongman by the name of Professor Harrison kick started the Indian Club craze into overdrive.

The Importance of Professor Harrison

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Professor Harrison & the Clubs

Presenting a strong, well proportioned physique, Harrison became the embodiment of what the Clubs could offer. In 1852, the Illustrated London News wrote emphatically that the ‘Professor’ had only begun to train with the clubs three years previously and now sported the following measurements:

  • Round the chest, 37 1/2 inches,
  • Round the upper arm 13 7/8 inches,
  • Round the forearm 13 l/4 inches.

Harrison was an advocate of progressive overloading with the Indian Clubs, beginning with 7 pounds in each hand and moving up to “with perfect ease two clubs, each weighing 37 pounds, and his heaviest weighs 47 pounds.” Harrison is a particularly important figure in the history of the Indian Clubs in the West as not only was he honored by Queen Victoria for his physical prowess with the clubs, he also helped to spread the Indian Club phenomena to the US with the help of Sim D. Kehoe.

Harrison’s greatest impact in the British Isles was to help further the profile of the Indian Clubs amongst the general populace. Newspaper reviews of Harrison’s feats and his acknowledgement from Queen Victoria helped to popularize the Clubs throughout England. Soon after the London News piece, Indian Clubs had become a regular part of the exercise for children and adults of both sexes.

What can we learn about the Indian Club Craze?

1) It fitted in nicely with Muscular Christianity

Muscular_Christianity_Gruger

In the nineteenth and early twentieth century there emerged a counter movement in the Church spearheaded by Protestant ministers in both England and the US. Their message? Men were not truly Christians unless they were muscular Christians. Muscular Christianity was born and its birthplace was in Great Britain.

The phrase Muscular Christianity originated in a review of Charles Kingsley’s 1857 novel Two Years Ago (1857).  One year later in 1858, the phrase was used to describe Tom Brown’s School Days, an 1856 novel about life at Rugby by Kingsley’s friend, Thomas Hughes.  Soon the media in England latched onto the word and it grew in popularity. A new genre of writing would emerge featuring adventure novels packed to the gills with high principles and manly Christian heroes. Hughes and Kingsley were at the forefront of this movement.

For men like Hughes and Kingsley Christianity had become too effeminate. Asceticism and ‘feminine traits’ had weakened the Anglican Church. The British Empire was still controlling large tracts of the world and it needed a church suitable for British ruling. Thus in Great Britain the Muscular Christianity movement was greatly influenced by the expansion of the British Empire and a reaction to a perceived growing effeminacy of British society.

The ‘discovery’ of the Indian Clubs at roughly the same time of Muscular Christianity helped give a greater morale backing for the us of the Clubs.

2) Gender Norms were fluid

When looking back at the Victorian Era, it is often difficult to imagine girls and women being given a great deal of independence. While this was true in some circles, in the world of fitness, women were given increasingly wide freedoms. Indian club exercise classes were established for women throughout Great Britain benefiting from older gymnastic and calisthenic traditions within English cities (although gymnastic and calisthenic classes for women in England seem to have only come about from the 1820s/30s).

As noted by Physical Culture historian Jan Todd, female strong women in Victorian England would often hold exhibitions  displaying their strength and prowess with the Clubs. What impact did this have on wider Victorian culture?

At the BSSH 2014 Conference, Laura Rotunno gave a fascinating talk about the emergence of strong and athletic women in late Victorian literature. There would seem to be some connections therefore between the proliferation of athletic opportunities for women and a growing emergence that women too could be physically strong.

A final tidbit. Around1913/14 the Bodyguard unit for British suffragettes used Indian Clubs as weapons to defend themselves against the police. There’s a spurious link to be made between Victorian Women using Indian Clubs and their acceptance by the suffragette movement but I’ve yet to find it!

3) Colonial Confusion

Of interest also is the adaptation of the Clubs into the very heart of Victorian exercise regimes for both soldier and layman.

The attractiveness of the Clubs arose in part from the possibility of strength that they offered. This was based on the observation of British army officials that their colonial Indian subjects often displayed a power unseen amongst British troops. Was it unusual for British officials to note the strength of their subjects? Perhaps not, but it is interesting that they attempted to mimic their colonial subject’s exercise patterns in a bid to improve their own strength.

 

gadajoriWere the British trying to emulate their colonial subjects?

The Decline of the Clubs

The popularity of the Clubs in Victorian England and soon after cannot be underestimated. Such was their prevalence that the Clubs were part of the 1902 Olympics and continued to be used well into the 1920s and 30s. It was only with the rise of organized sports in the ’20s and ’30s that the popularity of the Clubs began to wane. Exercise routines requiring Clubs or weights soon fell into the realm of the military, professional athletes and people who could afford to buy their own equipment. For the vast majority of the population, access to Indian Clubs had become almost non-existent by the 1940s.

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