By Conor Heffernan
Although sporting historians have long noted the importance of English women in the development of sport in general, few studies have devoted themselves to the study of gymnastic exercise systems such as callisthenics. This has done a great injustice to Marian Mason, England’s first female physical fitness instructor who, beginning in the 1820s, ran one of the most sought after training studios in all of England.
Born sometime in the late eighteenth-century, Mason is a remarkably difficult character to track down as within secondary literature, only Jan Todd has noted her existence. This dearth unfortunately means that little is known about her early years. Nevertheless, from contemporary newspaper reports, journals and Mason’s own callisthenics work it is possible to sketch out her historical importance.
According to Trewman’s Exeter Flying Post, Mason came from a highly athletic family. Her father, Joseph Mason, was employed by the Royal Family for many years as a Dancing Master and her brother forged a living in Exeter as a dance teacher. While Mason’s motivations to avoid a career in dance are unknown, her decision to undertake training as a fitness instructor came at a very opportune time.
From the early 1820s the well-off in England were becoming increasingly interested in programmes of purposeful exercise. Such exercise systems represented activity for activities sake and were distinguishable from team sports both in their intent and execution. For many, P.H. Clias was the man responsible for exciting an interest in exercise amongst England’s upper classes. Arriving in England in 1822, the Swiss fitness instructor quickly emerged as a prominent figure in England’s blossoming fitness industry. By 1824, Clias had opened his own fitness studio in London with the rather lofty title of “Professor of Gymnastic Exercises in the Royal Military Institutions of Chelsea, Sandhurst, Greenwich, &c, &c.” In August of that year, Clias was appointed Superintendent of Gymnastic Exercises for the British army, with the rank and pay of an army captain. Undoubtedly England’s highest earning and most respected fitness instructor of the time, Clias continued to expand his interests, which soon included a teaching course, of which Marion Mason was a student.
In 1826 Clias hired the Argyll Rooms in London and invited a large number of “the upper-class of society” to showcase the benefits of his exercise routines. Opening the event with an introductory address and performance of what he termed ‘manly exercises’, Clias then handed attention over to Miss Marian Mason, who had trained under Clias to be an instructress. Performing what Clias described as “calisthenics to music…appropriate for the softer sex”, Miss Mason undoubtedly stole the show. The morning after the event, London’s Morning Post wrote gushingly of Mason’s performance noting that Clias’s only female instructor had an “unrivalled skill in Gymnastic Exercises.” Remarkably given Clias’ reputation and involvement in the demonstration, the Post devoted almost the entirety of the article to Mason complete with well wishes to Mason in every future endeavour. Perhaps unsurprisingly, such writings peaked the interest of the Post’s readership, who days after the article revealed that
Numerous enquiries having been made for the address of the young Lady whse display of the newly-invented Calisthenic Exercises at the Argyll Rooms on Saturday last, has excited so much interest…we find, upon reference to our invitation card that Miss Marion Mason resides at no. 91 Piccadilly.
Within a year of her public debut, Mason became the first female author to pen a fitness tract in England. The work, humbly dedicated to upper-class Englishwomen, once more stressed that Mason was Clias’ only female student capable of teaching his branch of callisthenics. Following the conventions of the era, the work began with a discussion on the physical and mental benefits accuring from exercise. Quoting Locke, Cheyne, Darwin and numerous other scholars, Mason demonstrated considerable learning. She also showed an acute awareness of the relationship between class and physical activity. Noting that “ladies of higher classes often fall into sedentary habits”, Mason contrasted such women with those of the working class who, “forced to engage in laborious exercise”, lived extremely active lives. Lamenting the weak constitutions and deformities prevalent among the inactive upper-class English, Mason declared that ill health could be prevented through a programme of systemic exercise consisting of callisthenics.
Her work was well received, and with her weekly classes booming Mason continued to teach until the early 1840s, at which point she fades from the historical record. Her legacy continued, however. In the early 1830s a number of female callisthenics instructors emerged across England advertising their training by Marion Mason. One such instructor, Miss L. Giroux held a practice for over two decades and in turn instructed other women to become instructors.
Although greater work needs to be done into Mason’s life and legacy within nineteenth-century English history, it is clear that her life challenges some of the assumptions present in English sporting historiography, which has often presented the pre-1870 period as devoid of any meaningful female exercise. While this interpretation has largely been driven by the plethora of sources available from the closing decades of the nineteenth-century, Mason’s life gives pause for thought about early nineteenth-century histories. While Jan Todd previously examined exercise’s confused and multifaceted role for reinforcing and reinterpreting ideas about American women, Mason’s life reminds us that an English history is yet to be fully written.
Fletcher, Sheila, Women first: the female tradition in English physical education, 1880-1980 (Athlone, 1984).
Holt, Richard, Sport and the British: A Modern History (Oxford, 1990).
Mason, Marion, On the utility of exercise : or a few observations on the advantages to be derived from its salutary effects, by means of calisthenic exercises, as approved by some of the most eminent gentlemen of the faculty in London (London, 1827)
McCrone, Kathleen E., Playing the Game: Sport and the Physical Emancipation of English Women, 1870-1914 (Kentucky, 1988).
Todd, Jan, Physical Culture and the Body Beautiful: Purposive Exercise in the Lives of American Women, 1800-1870 (Macon, 1998).
Trewman’s Exeter Flying Post: or Plymouth and Cornish Advertiser.
Bath Chronicle and Weekly Gazette.
The Morning Post.
Image: Mason, Marion, On the utility of exercise, p. ii.