P.H. Clias: An Early Pioneer

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This website has, at time of writing, been operating for a little over six years. When I began Physical Culture Study my intent was to shed some light on the weird and wonderful of the fitness industry. Little did I know at the time of all the things I could write on!

Somewhat shamefully it’s dawned on me that I have tended to neglect the early pioneers in the fitness industry, the men and women from the seventeenth, eighteenth and early nineteenth century who helped to create, normalise and promote, the practice of moving the body and building muscles.

The object of today’s post, Phokion Heinrich Clias, is one such individual. Born in the United States, Clias moved to Switzerland before travelling around England and France preaching the gospel of gymnastics in the first half of the nineteenth century. Here we are going to discuss his life and, more importantly, his legacy.

Early Life and Times

Surprisingly given his importance in European physical culture, Clias was born in Boston, Massachusetts in 1782. The son of a merchant and officer engaged in the American Revolutionary War, Clias was sent to an educational institute in Groningen in the Netherlands after his mother died.

It was here where Clias interest in physical education and gymnastics grew. Disillusioned with his life there, Clias nevertheless found some joy in exercise. His restless nature did, however, overpower any enjoyment he may have found.

Clias left Groningen after a many of months, traveling around various parts of Europe before eventually settling in Aarberg near Bern. It was during this time that Clias began giving his own gymnastic lessons to schoolchildren and, in time, adults. From 1810 Clias worked at a grammar school and orphanage in Bern.

It was near Bern, where Clias spent several years, that his international reputation began to grow. In 1816, Clias the first of several books. Entitled Beginnings Reasons for Gymnastics, the book sought to convince Bern’s wealthy elite to fund physical education for the masses.

Under his leadership a new gymnastics community arose, which included printed books and organizations. Was Clias unique in this regard? Yes and no. On the one hand the early 1800s was a time when a series of influential gymnastic teachers emerged in Europe. Clias was in contact with many of these men, and certainly his exercises largely mimicked theirs.

In this regard Clias was like many others suddenly captivated with the possibilities offered by gymnastics. What did make Clias unique, however was his international career.

Clias Comes to England

One strange quirk, something which I haven’t been able to fully uncover, is why Clias left Bern for new pastures. In 1818 Clias was appointed Director of Gymnastic Exercises at the Bern Academy. He ran successful and well attended classes, published regularly and was well thought of. Heck in 1821, he oversaw, and established a swimming and bathing establishment in Bern.

Despite all this, Clias was called to England that same year, 1821. Unlike Bern, where Clias was entrusted with training the citizenry, he was given a military role in England. Throughout the 1820s Clias was employed at the Royal military and Maritime School and tasked with reforming military training.

Prior to this time, dedicated gymnastic training was almost entirely absent from the military aside from time set aside to engage in drill or long marching. Alongside Clias, the 1820s also saw the inclusion of the Indian club in British military training, a point which suggests that Britain’s military was beginning to take physical training seriously.

Now before we get too enthusiastic, we have to remember that it wasn’t until 1860, with the establishment of the Royal Army Physical Training Corps, that the military formally created a training school and system for troops. So yes Clias was important, but he didn’t enact lasting change.

But what then, did Clias do? Well we know that he trained soldiers and members of the public in equal measure, that he trained a series of physical trainers – including Marian Mason – and that he even published a highly regarded book on physical training.

Great right? Well yes, and no. Clias did advance the popularity of gymnastics in England but he also suffered from some quite rotten luck. Jan Todd found that Clias suffered a freak injury in the late 1820s when a female client accidentally stabbed him in the stomach with an iron toed shoe.

The injury ruptured his abdominal wall and resulted in a lengthy stay in hospital and then recuperating. To improve his health and his finances. Clias returned to continental Europe, never to return to England.

Later Life

Clias’ first home after his accident was Switzerland, which makes sense given his association with Bern. He appears to have spent several years in Bern before moving to France to one again open up a school of gymnastics and physical culture.

In France Clias also resumed his publishing career, producing another book on gymnastics and turning into a vocal advocate of physical culture in schools. Rather wonderfully, it is reported that when Clias died in 1854, he donated his body to a museum in Bern as evidence of the benefits of gymnastics for later generations.

Despite my best efforts, I still have no way of verifying whether or not this is true but for the sheer quirkiness of the story alone I’m hoping that it is.

Reflecting on Clias’ contribution, he did not enact a lasting change in English or French society but he did help popularise, albeit temporarily, the practice of gymnastics and callisthenics. I often think it useful to think of these early trainers as the first major wave of gymnastics in modern Europe. They did not completely overturn and reform society but the set the stage for the later growth of these cultures in the late nineteenth century.

As always, Happy Lifting!

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