Wednesday 30 January 2008

Archibald MacLaren and Physical Education

Archibald MacLaren is a vivid minor character in the major biographies of William Morris as the owner of a gymnasium in Oriel Lane where Morris and his undergraduate friends honed their physical skills at singlestick, boxing and fencing. Some twelve years older than Morris and Burne-Jones, MacLaren took to the two of them, inviting them regularly to his home in Summertown and even commissioning the young Burne-Jones to illustrate a collection of fairy ballads he was putting together.

But MacLaren was to become a figure of national, as well as of local Morrisian, importance, since his system of physical training was adopted wholesale by the British Army and the public schools in the later nineteenth century. Some sense of the whole range of his life's work can be gleaned from a notice of his death in the Oxford Magazine for February 27th 1884 (p.114), which I attach below. It opens up a whole new vista on MacLaren which Morrisians, I think, have little suspected. Would it be possible, one wonders, using MacLaren's later physical education writings, to envisage a study of the patterns of physical movement, gesture, pose in Morris's early poetry and stories which related them illuminatingly back to the training he received in his Oxford days at the Oriel Lane gymnasium?


By the death of Mr. Archibald MacLaren, which took place at Summerfield, near Oxford, on Tuesday the 19th inst., one of our principal modern authorities on the science of physical education has been lost to the world. He had long been unable from illness to take the active part which he formerly played in the University, though till a few months back he continued to superintend the work in his gymnasium. He was employed by the Government for several years to put his system into practice in most of the large army depots in the country, and while holding this position he directed the erection of gymnasia at Curragh, Dublin, Chatham, Woolwich, Sandhurst, and elsewhere. As to the results of his system, we quote from a short biography in the Oxford Chronicle of last week:

“How far Mr. MacLaren succeeded, anyone who considers the gymnastic training which now prevails throughout the army depots and public schools of the country will not be slow in comprehending. The enthusiasm which he awakened at the time of the publication of his book on Physical Education will be best shown by cuttings which we take from the Lancet and Macmillan’s Magazine.

“’Few men have done more for physical education than the writer of this book. By his Gymnasium at Oxford he has promoted in an extraordinary degree the health and vigour of the young men of the better classes, while by his excellent athletic code for the army, and by his influence with successive War Ministers, he has aided largely in introducing that admirable athletic training which is transforming the stiff, slow-moving grenadier of old times into the vigorous, rapid, and enduring soldier of modern days. But these services, great as they are, are the least of his merits; he has written on his subject largely, and has written so well and so sensibly, without exaggeration and without clap-trap, that he has succeeded in gradually bringing the whole nation to consider the important subject of physical training. Himself a physiologist, and conversant with the scientific part of the subject, he has been more able to set forth principles and to convince by reason than his predecessors, and his influence has been so much the wider, and will be so much the more enduring.’ – Lancet.

“’It will be no news to the readers of this Magazine to tell them that to Mr. MacLaren of Oxford, more than to any other man living, is the cause of physical education indebted for the rapid strides it has of late effected in this country. His magnificent Gymnasium at the University, and the marvellous results there produced, constitute only a small portion of the work he has been for many years accomplishing. The British Army is now trained on his principles, and in Gymnasia invented by him. His last effort is worthy to be placed on a level with any of his former achievements. It is a little book, but it contains the refined wisdom and experience of a quarter of a century; it throws open to all the world the knowledge obtained in endless studies, experiments, and meditation.’ – Macmillan’s Magazine.

“Another work of Mr. MacLaren’s, Training in Theory and Practice, deals with the whole question of training, which has of late become such a popular one; it is supplemented by diagrams and tables, and an appendix by the Rev. T.H. Hopkins, Fellow of Magdalen, on the use of the sliding seat.”

We may add to the above, that Mr. MacLaren wrote a book of fairy ballads, called The Fairy Family, which has made many friends among literary men.

Probably few of the Undergraduates amongst us were familiar with him: those who were, knew how to value his friendship; but of the members residing in Oxford, and of the Undergraduates of days gone by, we think there are few indeed who did not know him, and few who knowing him will fail to miss him.