Victorian self-improvement

Posted by Tory Historian Monday, September 21, 2009 ,

This was Open House week-end in London, a very worthwhile enterprise that appears to be losing some momentum, getting bogged down in badly written prose and trendy jargon like sustainability (meaningless in the context) as well as self-congratulation.

The programme this year was thinner than ever before with many much loved buildings missing and whole boroughs opting out.

Nevertheless, Tory Historian found two fascinating buildings, neither seen before and both, as it happens, related to Victorian self-improvement.

One was the German Gymnasium, opposite the glorious new St Pancras International station, which was staffed by Open House volunteers who had not bothered to find out anything about the building. In fact, the Q&A leaflet that was lying on the table had several questions that were not provided with answers, merely with blather.

However, the history of the Gymnasium, probably the first of its kind in Britain is fascinating, as is the building with its vaulted roof of laminated timber trusses that was copied for the original King’s Cross station. Though there have been additions, such as a platform built as a first floor in 1908, essentially the building is there as it was first built in 1864-5.

The money was raised by the German community in London (something that the Open House team seems to find “impressive”, which would indicate that their knowledge of Victorian mores is not very good).

In the first place the facility was for the German Gymnastics Society, which had very advanced ideas on the need for physical exercise for both men and women; there are illustrations of those various exercises on the wall. Needless to say there was also a well stocked library (what happened to it, one wonders) and literary evenings were held.

Soon after its opening membership was extended to all nationalities and, apparently, the records are still available – they provide interesting information about all those various nationalities to be found in London at the time.

And there was more to come:

Due to the work of one of its early presidents, Ernst Ravenstein, the building also claims a pivotal role in the birth of the modern Olympics, and in 1866 the German Gymnasium hosted the indoor events of the first National Olympic Games.
Amazing: all done on private money and as a result of private initiative. These indoor events continued until the 1908 London Olympics.

What is proving to be very difficult to find out is the date when the building ceased to be a gymnasium and what other uses it has been put to since. At the moment it is an “event space” and houses a moderately interesting exhibition about the development of the King’s Cross area. Somehow, an “event space” sounds anaemic and lacking in real activity, compared to the heroic history of this building.

The other building visited by Tory Historian was the Highgate Literary and Scientific Institution, established in 1839 as a Mechanics’ Institute. These were founded, as every school child ought to know, by industrialists partly out of benevolence but more importantly and usefully, because of an assumption that a better educated work force was a more efficient one.

Today the Institute building is made up of a couple of old cottages and an old stable yard, knocked together with an addition or two. It has a library, made up of the original 400 volumes and later additions, many of which, in Tory Historian’s opinion, are not what is required. All lending libraries have stacks of the latest popular paperbacks. Why does an institution whose space and, presumably, budget limited acquire them as well? We can be sure those Victorian founders did not think that housing popular novels was the purpose of the library of the Institute.

There is, however, a large and comprehensive collection of books on London, old and new, and they also hold some of Coleridge’s and John Betjeman’s archives as well as the old Highgate archives. All the papers can be viewed on application.

The Institute still holds classes, lectures, discussions on scientific subjects and film shows. Tory Historian was sorry to see that almost all courses are held during the day on week days, making it impossible for anyone with a job to attend them. Not, surely, what the Institute had been founded for. But the lectures, discussions and films shows are in the evenings.


  1. Anonymous Says:
  2. Hi, I'm researching the German Gymnasium at the moment, could you please tell me the source of your info on the Gymnasium? My email's
    Thank you!!

  3. My source is given in the links and the posting explains how I found the building, which is opposite St Pancras Station. There are not abstruse sources.

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