John Hulley - British Olympic Founder

By Ray Hulley


Acknowledgements and Tributes

Many acknowledgements and tributes to John Hulley’s devotion to physical education and the Olympic cause have been made over the years, including the following:

1863 Liverpool Mercury The importance of physical training and exercise, in order to fit, not only the body but the mind for the race and battle of life, is widely recognised now, and we do not despair of seeing the principle still more extensively accepted and acted upon. The good example set by Mr Hulley has successfully reawakened throughout the country the old English passion for manly exercises, and it is with great pleasurewe hear that Manchester has worthily followed the lead of Liverpool, and established an Athletic Club.
1863 Liverpool Mercury To the Editors of the Liverpool Mercury Gentlemen, I think there could not be a better time than the present, now that such a deal is being made, said and written on the important subject of physical education, to express my opinion with regard to a testimonial being presented to Mr John Hulley, honorary secretary of the Athletic Club. I think no one man in Liverpool has done more for his fellow-townsmen than Mr Hulley. He, in a great measure, may be called the pioneer of the great movement in this town. Although gymnasia have existed here sometime, yet the attention of the whole world has not been drawn to them and physical education, generally, as has been the case since the opening of the Rotunda: and I think it but just he that those who have been brought to see it in a proper light through his exertion should in some way show their esteem, and prove that his endeavours have been properly appreciated, and so encourage him in his great enterprise; and the Athletic Club, whose honorary secretary he is, also deserve the warmest praise for the assistance they have rendered Mr Hulley, in his arduous labourers.
1865 Liverpool Mercury To the Editors of the Liverpool Mercury - Gentleman, Our town now possesses one of the finest gymnasiums in the world, for which we are principally indebted to Mr Hulley. I paid a visit there on Tuesday evening, and was quite surprised at the elegance of the building. It is well lighted and ventilated, and the gymnastics are of such a varied character that I do not wonder that it is so well patronised. A few of the athletes appear in white flannel trousers and shirts, with cricket shoes, which gives the place quite a charming appearance. During the evening the members are instructed by Mr Hulley in the art of practising with dumb-bells, clubs, etc. There is also a gallery for strangers, I recommend my youthful readers to join this gymnasium, for I do not think they can possibly find a more pleasant way of spending an evening. Mr Hulley deserves the warmest praise for his exertions, for it is all owing to him that the establishment has been raised. We can't thank him too much, and I think the best way for the members and their friends to show their gratitude would be to make him a suitable testimonial. I should be happy to join in any undertaking to that effect, and I think a great many other members will not refuse their mite for such a praiseworthy object. Yours etc
1865 Lord Stanley

Report of a speech made on the Opening of the Liverpool Gymnasium incl. "..... I congratulate the managers upon having in Mr. Hulley a director, who is working not merely for the salary he earns, and which they will be the first to admit is a very inadequate recompense for his labour, but who is working out of a real and enthusiastic interest in the business he is employed to do."

"I perceive in Mr. Hulley .... a man who, having devoted himself soul and body to
what he believes to be the promotion of the highest truth, and the inculcation of the soundest habits,
and having had success throughout England far above any previously achieved in his department of effort, did himself establish, and is the be-all and end-all of the Liverpool Gymnasium, which is, in some respects, the finest in Europe.   Its failings are no fault of Mr. Hulley's. The bad taste of some of its details have, if common report is to be trusted, been contrary to his wish, and the only difficulties in its future are likely to arise from Mr. Hulley not being treated with the confidence and deference which are his due."

1866 Porcupine magazine

A Real Move in Physical Education

“Rarely, indeed, do we comment by anticipation on public entertainment, but an announcement has been made by Mr. Hulley which deserves to be taken out of the ordinary category. An Assault-at-arms is to take place at the Gymnasium on Wednesday night, which is no mere exhibition of prowess, but the inauguration of a system by which we may well hope that physical education will be permanently and considerably advanced. To Mr. Hulley belongs the honour of establishing physical culture as a pursuit in the north of England, if not throughout the country, and the success he has achieved has exceeded the upmost anticipations of the few who believed in him, and placed in a most ridiculous light those who ridiculed his endeavours. All that could be done by unfaltering example and contagious enthusiasm has been done by Mr. Hulley, and, beyond this, his direction of the movement has been as wise as it was energetic. He has made himself an authority on his favourite topic; his gymnasium is a model with which athletic students all over the country are eager to compare their institutions; and it only remained for him to develop a system by which it would be possible to constitute the judgements of the gymnasium as recognised acknowledgments of physical prowess and skill."

"We doubt not that in a very short time the diplomas of the Liverpool Gymnasium will be sought far and near; for the distinction will be a truly valuable one, and the inflexible impartiality and exactness of Mr. Hulleys' management will always maintain its value. One example of Mr. Hulley's wise and steady policy is to be found in his resolute adherence to the policy which he has advocated since the beginning of his public life, that of requiring from every competitor a general proficiency."

"When we look abroad, or even around our own homes, and see the signs of physical degeneracy which abound, and which are to a certain extent the natural results of sedentary lives, we cannot but feel alarmed at the future of our race, which cannot but be destined to still greater deterioration unless the course of things is changed by some strenuous effort. That effort will best be made under Mr. Hulley's generalship, and that it is very gratifying to find that he has laid his plans so wisely that, whilst ensuring the utmost popularity for his institution, he as surely lays the foundations of its real and vital supremacy as a University of Physical Education."

1866 Porcupine magazine

Commemoration Day at the Gymnasium

"Mr. Hulley has often been the subject of PORCUPINE'S light jests - called by the vulgar "cheap" but perhaps he may again adorn a sportive paragraph in these columns. Let that be as it may. On the present occasion, however, our object is to do justice to the great public services of Mr. Hulley - we wish he would not call himself the "Gymnasiarch." At a time when all the friends of athletic development were in doleful dumps as to their prospects in this town Mr. Hulley alone was hopeful - even cheerful. He saw that there was a great public work to be done, and he put his shoulder to the wheel and did it. Not, however, with discouragements, without disappointments, nor, sooth to say, without some degree of snubbing. But he has pulled through at last, and, as the fruits of his labours, presents us with the establishment in Myrtle -street, its perfect organization, and complete adaptation to the purposes of the physical education of the young men of this town. We have never been slow in remarking that the intellectual education of the Liverpool hopefuls had been fearfully neglected. However we are in expectation that when Mr. Hulley, with his physical education, has provided them with the corpus sanum, they will be more open to culture and the development of the mens sana."

"A year ago, as Mr. Melly said, the Gymnasium was looked upon simply in the light of an experiment. Few people, with the exception of Mr. Hulley himself, regarded the project as likely to be successful. It has, however, realized the hopes of its parent - if we may use such a term - in an abundant degree. It has paid a good dividend. It had nearly two thousand active members, and fine members they are, if we may judge from what we saw on Tuesday."

"In the speeches that were made after the so-called "assault-at-arms" we were heartily glad to hear the complete justice that was done to Mr. Hulley's efforts and abilities. Everyone candidly acknowledged that the undoubted and eminent success of the institution was solely due to the untiring exertions of Mr. Hulley. We see that the gentleman is now agitating the public mind on the question of swimming. The importance of the subject must at once be acknowledged in such a place as Liverpool, and we hope to hear that some measures have been devised for making a knowledge of swimming more extensive than it is. PORCUPINE, in taking leave of Mr. Hulley for the present, presents him with the thanks of the whole community, at least the sensible portion, for his great services to the town."

1875 Liverpool Mercury

The Late Gymnasiarch

Our obituary of yesterday contained an announcement of the decease of Mr. John Hulley, of this town, at the comparatively early age of 42 years. Mr. Hulley was well known in Liverpool as a most enthusiastic teacher of gymnastic exercises, and by his advocacy of the importance and value of physical training, he was mainly instrumental in the forming of the Gymnasium Company of Liverpool, and in the subsequent erection of the fine building now standing in Myrtle-street for gymnastic purposes. Some years ago, Mr. Hulley opened the Rotunda in Bold-street as a gymnasium, and fitted the room with the modern appliances; but his stay there was of short duration. In 1864, the present gymnasium was erected, and Mr. Hulley assumed its management, which he carried on with success until September 1870, when he retired in favour of Mr. Shrapnell the present conductor.

1875 Porcupine magazine

John Hulley - an appreciation

LATTERLY, John Hulley, the "Gymnasiarch," as he loved to be called, had not been seen moving about as of old. Disease, in the shape of a remorseless and wearing chest complaint, had fastened upon his once athletic frame, and, omitting this year to winter in Algiers, he succumbed to the severity of the recent frost, and died at the comparatively early age of forty-two. Mr. Hulley had his whimsicalities, which sometimes offended and worried other people, but, looking at him now, as we have only the right to do, as a public man, it must be acknowledged that his enthusiasm and indomitable energy gave a stimulus to physical education in Liverpool which no other man was both willing and competent to impart.

1888 The Liverpool Citizen

John Hulley, Gymnasiarch

YES, it is perfectly true that Liverpool, once upon a time, possessed a real live gymnasiarch, and it is equally true that John Hulley was the man. It is a terrible sounding title, with a barbaric smack and just a soupćon of classical Greek; but it certainly existed in the very remarkable person I have named. So far as I am aware, John Hulley must have invested himself with the very formidable title; but I think that it might be asserted, with fear of contradiction, that he was the only gymnasiarch who ever lived and reigned in this country.

I have usually regarded professional gymnasts, off the stage, or out of the sawdust ring, as crosses between acrobats and pantomimists, but there was nothing mountebankeish about John Hulley. He and I were intimate and firm friends during many years, and I always fund him most gentlemanly, affectionate, and warm-hearted. I forget his business motto of mens sana &c. (mens insana the local wags used to pronounce it) but I believe John always used it in his prayers, and always boasted that he acted up to it. He had a firm and abiding faith in dumb-bells, clubs, horizontal bars, and the other "properties" of his business, and he regarded the practice of "Jim's-nasty-tricks" as the very noblest work that a man could devote himself to.

But it was not until the year 1865 that the dream of Hulley's life was fulfilled. Hitherto he had enjoyed a practical monopoly of the local gymnastic business, and, although he was not entirely unopposed, the old Huguenin connection stuck to him, and kept him fully employed. But in 1865 the Myrtle-street Gymnasium was opened, and Hulley was appointed to the proud position of the first and only Gymnasiarch. How well and faithfully he fulfilled the duties of his high office known to scores of his old pupils, and to many of his still surviving friends and acquaintances.

When still in the prime of life, and with his faculties and energies unimpaired, the worthy Gymnasiarch of Liverpool was called to that bourne from which no gymnast returns, the local gymnast broke into loud lamentation over the loss of their beloved leader. The local papers sang paeans of praise over him, and one or two of them, which had ridiculed his harmless eccentricities, wept over the dead gymnasts' bier. John Hulley, professor of gymnastics and Gymnasiarch, is still a pleasant memory in this native city, and his surviving pupils retain an affectionate remembrance of their old teacher. Hulley was born with a mission, which he fulfilled; and, take him for all and all, we may never see his like again.

2001 Journal of Olympic History

Organic Olympism Or Olympic Orgy: The Roots of Modern Olympism and the Mystery of John Hulley - Written by Don Anthony

The National Olympian Association sorely missed the energy and drive of Hulley. He had become very close to Brookes after his visit to Wenlock in the early 1860’s. Perhaps Brookes saw him as a “Crown Prince” of the Olympian Movement? The facts speak for themselves: the National Olympian Games had a good start in London in 1866; their second festival, in Birmingham, a year later was also outstanding and, among other things, poetry competition were instituted.

Thereafter they tended to fizzle out and finally expired in 1883, despite a renewed attempt at revival in 1874. It seems that Hulley was the missing dynamo. 1867 seems to be the defining date when he completed his joint book with Ravenstein and then began his overseas travel and battle against ill-health.

Hulley had delivered a lecture in 1863 setting out what was, in his view, an Olympic Education:

The need for athletic institutes for public gymnastic exercises for both sexes ….in all our towns and cities for ‘the free use of the people. ………..… an agreeable resort for the aged and a pastime for the young.’

Such a development would do more to safeguard the country than miles of fortifications. A correct system of political and religious education ‘should embrace a proper exercise of the body and the intellect’. ‘Partial comprehension’ had resulted in ‘people of warm hearts and good sense’ to believe ‘that sound morals and high intellect could be evolved without the full growth, strength, and perfect harmonious development of the human body.’

In 1867 Hulley expressed his thoughts nicely about the link between physical education and the Olympic idea. He said: ‘What I desire to impress upon you is that Olympic Festivals are not the end of physical education. Physical Education, or rather its dissemination, is the end. Olympian festivals are a means of securing that end.’

Such thoughts were not only pertinent 140 years ago; they are highly relevant today when ‘public exercise’ is more and more abandoned to the forces of globalisation and commerce.

Hulley was certainly a tour de force. He began to define Olympism long before the formation of the International Olympic Committee. Like Brookes and Ravenstein he influenced the thinking of the young Coubertin.

Return to Home Page


Copyright © 2000-2021 Ray Hulley. All rights reserved.