The UK is facing a fitness drive following lock down and Covid. In the year of the Olympics in Japan and the Euros (Football tournament) 2021, we take a step back in time and look at a previous ‘Fitness Campaign’ that the UK Government ran in the 1930’s.
In July 1938, an article appeared in ‘The White Ribbon’ periodical of the British Women’s Temperance Association (BWTA), entitled ‘The Physical Fitness Campaign’. It was a proposed resolution by the Westminster branch of the BWTA stating that ‘while the council welcomed a National Physical Fitness, they desired to bring to the notice of the Government the fact that the alcoholic drink is one of the causes of much ill-health and physical fitness and submission from the Government scheme of any teaching of the effects of alcohol on the body. ‘
What was this campaign?
Britain’s ‘Physical Fitness Campaign’ was established to implement the recent introduction of the ‘Physical Training and Recreation Act’ 1937. It was a Government-led initiative that aimed to…
- Inspire pathways to build a stronger, healthier nation.
- To make physical fitness a way of life and part of a positive attitude in the mind.
- Using physical fitness is a vital part of providing a healthy mind and human happiness.
- To provide equal provision of outdoor and indoor leisure facilities including playing fields, swimming baths, gymnasiums, holiday camp, hostels, and campsites across Britain.
- Work with community groups to achieve this.
A National Fitness Council consisting of medical professionals, council members and sporting professionals, was set up to co-ordinate the campaign. This included Wimbledon singles champion of 1934 & 1937, Dorothy Round from Dudley, West Midlands.
Photo – Statue of Dorothy Round in Priory Park, Dudley
Why was this ‘Physical Fitness Campaign’ needed?
In the late 1930s, life in Britain was hard and several factors led to the Government’s decision to implement the ‘National Fitness Campaign’ –
- Increased disabled population: Britain was still recovering from WW1 which ended in 1918, with many lives lost and many returning with war injuries.
- Deaths in 1918: Lack of food and Spanish flu increased the death rate.
- Unemployment: People unable to work due to injuries and the Great Depression in the 1920s-30s brought unemployment rates to over 1 million.
- Berlin Olympics in 1936: The British Olympic team ranked 10th in the medals table (4 Golds, 7 Silver and 3 Bronze). The Government felt that the Olympic team gave a poor performance and improvements were needed.
- Concerns of another war: It was clear WW2 was imminent during the Berlin 1936 games. Hitler’s views on certain athletes competing caused unease. The Government felt there was a necessity of producing a physical fit nation capable of fighting wars in defence of the country and prevent weaknesses WW1 had shown.
- Increased leisure in Britain: The Country’s leisure and tourism began to expand with seaside, hiking and camping holidays becoming popular. Another popular leisure activity was Keep Fit. Other popular past times during the 1930s were jazz music and cocktail bars.
Next we look at some of the facts surrounding key points made in the resolution proposal speech regarding the ‘Physical Fitness Campaign,’ made by Miss Sanguinetti of the British Women’s Temperance Association.
Miss Grace Sanguinetti argued that the definition of fitness should not be just about physical strength and having a good physique, as it encompassed other things including nutrition and preventing alcohol-related harm. She made some key points to back up the need for this resolution by the BWTA –
‘The wonderful athletic team sent by the U.S.A. to the Olympic Games in Berlin were required to abstain from alcohol. A prospective competitor broke the rules and was sent home and not allowed to compete.’ However, this statement may not be entirely correct.
- The U.S.A team came 2nd in the medals table, behind the host team Germany.
- Athletes were not allowed to drink in the Olympic village.
- The U.S.A. The Olympic committee did expel a promising athlete, not allowing her to compete. However, she was not sent home and attended the event as a spectator.
The U.S.A. Olympic officials had not placed a complete alcohol ban on its competitors. The team had travelled to the games via a Transatlantic ship, SS Manhattan, where athletes could drink but had to abide by curfews in place. The athlete in question was a successful swimmer, Eleanor Holm Jarrett, who enjoyed socialising and having a drink with sportswriters on board. Unfortunately, news of her drunkenness and failure to comply with curfew rules on several occasions reached the U.S.A. Olympic officials. Before the ship reached Germany she had been expelled from the team and prevented from competing.
Hitler had placed a ban on the Olympic village with some allowances; Italians and French competitors were allowed wine with their meals. This caused the Dutch and Belgium competitors to protest, stating they should be allowed their beer as Italians and French were allowed wine. Hitler relented but kept the ban in place for other nations including Britain.
‘The benefit of control of consumption of intoxicating drinks were clearly recognised during the Great War. Should it not equally appeal in peacetime?’ During WW1 (1915-1918) the Government thought drunkenness was affecting the war effort, so the ‘Carlisle Experiment’ under the Defence of the Realm Act was implemented. Restrictions to alcohol consumption including alcohol strength, off licence sales, control of public houses, changes to how public houses operated and alcohol-free days were encouraged to help the war effort. The improvement in health (reduction in cirrhosis of the liver deaths), reduced crime rates for drunkenness and consumption of beer and spirits had gone down by 1920. Sadly for the temperance movement, such restrictions did not last, post-war during peace times.
There is no truth in the advertisements so freely distributed by ‘the Trade’ extolling the supposed benefits to the physical fitness of the consumption of alcohol. During the 1930s there were no advertising rules for alcohol. Many industry ads focused on how alcohol could benefit home life and a person’s physical or mental fitness. The women of the BWTA felt this needed to be tackled, as alcohol should not be advertised as a benefit to health when it caused so much harm.
All taking part in a ‘Keep Fit’ Class should see that our point of view is expressed and emphasised. Here Grace was calling for members to use their social networks to influence their cause. Led by the Women’s League of Health and Beauty, the Keep Fit movement in Britain was strong during this time. Its head, Prunella Stack was also an advisor on the National Fitness Council.
It is clear reading this article that the women of the BWTA were greatly concerned that a National Campaign to improve the nation’s fitness and health was not considering the damage caused by alcohol, even declaring the campaign to be ‘Anti-Social’. They also highlight even 84 years ago, that the alcohol industry was using advertising to influence consumption including among young people. This is an issue still facing us today especially within Sports advertising and sponsorship.