Indian Clubs in Victorian Britain


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


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


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.

12 thoughts on “Indian Clubs in Victorian Britain

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  1. Conor, great article. I still read your Born Swinging whenever I get the opportunity. It is inspiring.

  2. A few points worthy of comment:

    Those rather puny measurements for “Professor” Harrison were his “before” measurements. After he took up club swinging, he soon boosted his chest circumference to 42.5 inches, his biceps to 15 inches, which was probably quite good by 1850s standards. I just ordered the professor’s book “Indian Club, Dumb-Bell and Sword Exercises.” I got into the clubs about six years ago, my first dumbbells in 1964. A sword was waiting for me when I came into this world–my dead father’s (killed at the outbreak of the War in the Pacific). Harrison’s Indian club exercises seem much more practical and realistic than most 19th century treatises on the art. The latter are filled with horribly complex and confusing diagrams of club swings, or so I found.

    Mr. Kehoe’s first name is properly “Simon,” not “Sim.” Abbreviations for common first names, e.g., “Wm.” or “Jn.” were common in the 19th century, and this has evidently caused some confusion.

    The reaction to “effeminacy” in the Church of England was no doubt directed at the “Oxford” or “Anglo-Catholic” movement within the Church. Roman Catholicism was, for whatever peculiar and bigoted reasons, often characterized as an “effeminate creed” by the Low Church party in the C. of E.

    There were no Olympics in 1902. Indian clubs were a gymnastic event at the in 1904 Olympics and again in the 1932 Olympics in Los Angeles.

    I have never been able to comprehend the argument that “sports and games” triggered the decline of Indian clubs. Sports and games had become very popular during the heyday of the clubs. The most popular American team sports–football, baseball and basketball had all taken their final form in the latter part of the 19th century, and Indian clubs were often touted as excellent ancillary and conditioning tools for all manner of sports. It is true that during the interwar years, in the States anyway, playing games largely took the place of calisthenics and other exercises in the schools. (I doubt whether this was beneficial for the children, but that’s another topic.)

    You have mentioned in the past that the influence of Sandow and the increased popularity of muscle building helped speed the demise of the clubs, yet were the 5-pound dumbbells hawked by Sandow and his mentor Attila functionally much different from the clubs?

    If I seem at all critical, please accept that it is tendered in a friendly spirit, Conor. I really, really enjoy your blog.

    1. Hi Jan,

      Apologies for my late reply. Lot of personal distractions – all happy though!

      With you 100% on Harrison. VERY impressive for the 1850s, especially in Britain but certainly little to write home about in the modern age. How have you found the book? Have you attempted his ‘slice a carcass’ in half trick yet? I am sorry to hear how you came into the sword but I do hope Harrison has inspired you to put it to good measure.

      Yep – that’s right on Simon. Sim D. just makes it easier to distinguish him. I’m currently working on a book on Indian club swinging and have found a lot on old Sim. Fascinating man so keep an eye out for a future post!

      As an Irishman – raised as a RC – I can attest that bizarrely we were regarded as effeminate in British lore.

      Completely right on the Olympics. Typos are a common theme in my writing!

      I think you’re likely right on the sports and games element. Again working on the end of the clubs these days and it is a nuanced end. On the Sandow 5lb. dumbbells. Functionally they were largely the same but in aesthetic very different. They were marketed as something new, and inherently modern. So even if the effect was the same, many gravitated toward the dumbbells over clubs. I’d say it’s more a marketing success than anything else.

      Oh Jan – I always know it’s friendly. Love our interactions!

  3. Hello, Conor,

    Overlooked your reply here until yesterday. Believe me, when your book on Indian Clubs comes out, I’ll be the first in line to get it! Am I correct in assuming that it will be developed from your M. Phil. thesis at Cambridge? I’ll be very interested to learn whatever happened to old “Sim” and the “Professor.” I know they were going strong in 1860s, but despite scouring the Net, I haven’t been able to find out what happened to them after that.

    I fear that my father’s sword is strictly a ceremonial sword–dull and not suitable for hacking at sheep carcasses. Although I have some few edged weapons, if I had a sheep carcass, I would have better uses for it than honing my skill with obsolete weaponry. Off to the butcher it would go–even an old man like me (I’ll be turning 80 in a few days) can still utilize and enjoy some good protein! The sword along with my father’s bicorn hat and his ceremonial epaulets (all of which he was wearing when he married my mother) are about the only mementos I have of him. She was able to hitch a ride on the last U.S. Army Air Corps plane to leave eastern Java a day before the Japanese invaded the island. How they let her take such extraneous gear with her has always baffled me. Anyway, the plane barely made it to Brisbane, with one engine conking out over the Australian desert, the other just before the plane landed, and I was born in Sydney a couple of weeks later.

    As to Harrison’s book, I found that I was already performing most of the moves he recommended, but I was consoled by the fact that he recommended my favorite beverage–brown ale–for the aspiring physical culturist. It makes me feel less guilty about consuming a bottle or two each evening. To the professor’s credit, all his exercises, both with the clubs and other devices, are readily comprehensible. In most 19th and early 20th century treatises, I cannot make head nor tail of those horribly complex club swinging diagrams, and at one time, I was–by numerous external indicators–deemed pretty intelligent…at least before sinking into my dotage. I have to wonder if those diagrams helped kill off club swinging. Your thoughts?

    Anyway, please keep up the good work.

    1. Hi Jan,

      Not a worry at all. I did similar! First off thank you for the mind words. It’ll be a development of the M. Phil, and is hopefully written slightly more entertainingly than that! Fascinating you should ask and, without revealing too much, Sim ends up in a mental asylum in New York. He is one of America’s first fitness success stories and, sadly, becomes quickly forgotten after his incarceration. Harrison, on the other hand, maintained a strong public profile and opened his own gymnasium at his pub for several years before passing away. Interestingly his gym became a pilgrimage site for many American strength enthusiasts despite being in England.

      Haha well I suspect that is probably for the best. No need to make a mess of fine mutton! I hope I haven’t missed your birthday Jan. If so please accept my sincere congratulations. It’s always such a pleasure to speak with you and get your insights. As someone who has struggled to take bottled water onto a plane I am very impressed with your mother’s ingenuity!

      Funnily I found a similar situation in my own club swinging. The good professor was very accessible but many of his later contemporaries seemed to relish complexity. Despite having a daily practice of club swinging I cannot decipher late nineteenth and early twentieth century diagrams a lot of the time. I suspect they did a great deal in making club swinging inaccessible to the public. Especially when compared to the simplicity of Sandow and others books which had photographs of the exercises. I remember Tom Burrows had images in his books on club swinging but that was a rarity. Sadly simplicity is king!

      Thanks Jan. I do hope you had a great birthday and here’s to many more

  4. Hello again, Conor,

    That a published author on the clubs and a professor of physical education, no less, also finds those complex swinging diagrams baffling is very reassuring. It makes me less inclined to feel I am sinking into my dotage!

    If I could ask one favor, it is this: My heaviest Indian clubs weigh 6.5 pounds. They were a nominal 5 pounds, but on my scale they show up at 6.5. I have four pairs of clubs in one-, two-, 3.5- and the aforementioned 6.5-pound weights. I purchased these from Richard “Army” Maguire–a former circus elephant trainer and a fascinating character who lives not far from me. Unfortunately, he is no longer in the club business. Can you recommend a good source for a pair of clubs (mugdars, joris, meels or whatever) in the vicinity of 9 or 10 pounds? At least some reviewers have said the quality on Indian-made clubs can be hit or miss. I suppose the obvious answer would be a pair of 10-pound clubbells. I have used clubbells in that weight, but they just seemed to have a “dead” or (if I am not being too fanciful) “soul-less” quality that I find absent from wooden clubs. Do you have any views on wooden clubs vs. steel clubbells?

    In concluding, I’d just like to say that I find myself wishing I had a son or (more likely these days) a grandson like you!

    1. Well that was lovely for the ego. Thanks Jan! I really do love our training conversations. Even of my newborn son means I’m replying a lot later than I’d like!

      😂 No dotage at all. I’ve spent a LOT of time trying to decipher them at times. Hmm that’s a great question on the clubs. Yep two sources come to mind. If you’re ordering from Europe heroic sport do some wonderful and adjustable indian clubs. Both light and heavy. Their wooden heavy ones have been on my list for some time! In the USA I’ve heard fantastic things about revolution They’re wooden and have a huge amount of artistry in them.

      I love wooden clubs. I have steel and plastic but there is something live in swinging the wooden clubs so I am a traditionalist in that sense. I always feel that they swing and feel better!

  5. So you’re a new father! Congratulations! With your know-how and enthusiasm, I predict the little lad will grow up to be a mighty man–a man among men!

    As to heavier clubs/meels, it looks as if Heroic Sport’s Pahlavandle TG’s may be the way to go if I do decide to go heavier. Of course, in addition to the cost and shipping, I’d also have to spring for a kitchen scale and a bag of steel shot,which could run total expenses to more than $300. Revolution’s meels look appealing but only go up to eight pounds–not enough of an increase over what I have to warrant the not-inconsiderable expense.

    We really do seem to be kindred spirits. I suppose plastic clubs have much to commend themselves for reasons of economy and durability, but using them for swinging just seems like drinking a fine wine out of a cheap plastic cup or eating a gourmet meal off paper picnic plates! I’d be more receptive to steel clubbells, but most of the exercises seem to be melange of Indian club, kettlebell and macebell exercises, and I am well supplied with all three of the latter.

    I am very grateful to you for maintaining our correspondence on this blog. Should you ever get out to Southern California, be assured of royal reception at my hands.

    1. Haha thank you Jan!

      We’ll see if he becomes a physical culturist!

      I see Heroic is celebrating their five year anniversary so there may be some discounts atm. Can attest for their quality. I’ve found sand can work well. And much cheaper too.

      Haha I love that analogy and think it’s very apt! There’s also just something great about having a mixture of steel and wood in ones gym.

      I’ll hopefully take you up on that one day. Especially as the Irish weather is still windy and cold atm! Absolutely it’s a complete pleasure

  6. Do you by any chance know the origins of the Sword exercises Professor Harrison includes in his gymnastics book? I’m assuming it originates from India like the Indian clubs but I have not found much info the origins.

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