A wider perspective on sport and leisure – by Terry Mack

“There is a tide in the affairs of men. Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune…”

The emergence of the Sport and Leisure centres may have been a phenomenon of the second half of the 20th Century but the increase in the general public’s demand for physical activities was present throughout the whole of the 20th century. Chapter One identifies that there was a long history of reference to recreation and cultural activities (which can include Kubla Khan’s Pleasure Dome) but rarely any acknowledgement that these had been available to the masses. The gentry perhaps. Leisure was the prerogative of those that could afford it. The exploration of the world was undertaken by the adventurous, usually sponsored by the rich and powerful. There had always been adventurers, discovering and exploring new lands and in the new century the new challenges were the polar regions. Mountaineering proved irresistible to the restless spirit of the legions of young men seeking adventure. Robert Baden-Powell started the Boy Scout Association in 1910 to harness the spirit of adventure in youngsters.

For the masses, however roller skating was the first new activity of the 20th century that seems to have been affordable to a much larger spectrum of society. Indoor halls were established early in the century as the activity became popular and provision became profitable. More public swimming pools, a Victorian innovation, started to appear. Many were designed to close as pools in the winter to fulfil other roles; one in Nottingham became a roller skating rink in winter months.

The 1st World War put a stop to all this frivolity and politicians faced the startling fact that the young fighting men were unfit to face the rigours of modern warfare. After 1918, when the countries involved were recovering and rebuilding their economies, America was developing energetic dancing and by the mid-twenties the Charleston was enjoying several years of frenetic popularity in the UK.

It was not until 1934, that the formation of the National Playing Fields Association, followed a year later by the King George V Playing Fields Trust, signified that a national effort was being made to ensure the local provision of outdoor playing space and a 5 (soon to be enlarged to 6-acre standard) became a recognised target for provision. Access to the countryside for the general public had become an urgent issue and the mass trespass of Kinder Scout in 1932 eventually resulted in the establishment of National Parks. Meanwhile, Kurt Hahn was establishing Gordonstoun which opened in 1934 to provide a type of education which was, and still is, to say the least, challenging (ask the Prince of Wales!).

So, it soon became apparent that most of the emerging provision was for outdoor sports and activities. There were exceptions. Ice skating rinks were appearing and Palais de Danse were proliferating. The latter were particularly popular, opening every night (except Sundays?) with two of them usually reserved for private bookings and at 3.00pm every afternoon for tea dances.

The Second World War again changed the pace of the development flows. The Armed forces did build many large gymnasia for ‘fitness training’, and many service camps had large areas of playing fields, while it was notable that many civilian sports clubs and associations did great work in maintaining existing facilities.

The post war years were a barren period for any sort of new sports provision, but is a misconception to believe that there were no indoor spaces in which sports activities were taking place. It is true there were very few purpose-built facilities for indoor sports. But, outwith the cities, many villages had multi-purpose halls in which indoor sports were thriving. I saw a few halls in which the back line of a badminton court was just an inch from the back wall. I even saw one where the back line of the court was painted an inch up the back wall! The badminton played lacked the aerial dimension of the full game too, as the ceilings were normally low but the players developed strategies and a type of play that could cope with that. Basketball and netball were also featured in the hall programmes.

By the Fifties there was plenty of activity and great demand. Many of the governing bodies of sport were appointing national coaches and, together with the CCPR were running courses training hundreds of enthusiasts, providing them with basic teaching skills. Education authorities ran substantial programmes of further education and evening classes. Many schools had 60’x 40’ gymnasiums and these were accommodating evening classes for keep fit and dance as well as specific classes for specific sports. I qualified in 1954 and over the next 14 years taught in 4 different schools in three different counties and always had access to a purpose-built gym of at least 60’x40’. I was aware of many such halls in schools and that there was plenty of ‘Dual Use’ sponsored by the relevant Education authorities.

In 1959-60, before the surge into building purpose designed indoor sports centres, my wife was also teaching evening keep fit classes in Much Wenlock in rural Shropshire and she always included a short game of Netball to end the classes on what she remembers as a full-size court. So, there were quite a number of small indoor halls. In Notts there was by 1969 a thriving and long establishes Basketball Association with leagues which played in such halls. There were also some military stations that had substantial and sophisticated facilities. RAF Spitalgate in Grantham, Lincs, had converted a hangar into superb facility with two side by side sprung floor full-sized basketball courts. The CO at that time (1968) encouraged local use; the Notts BBA also used it for tournaments. The RAF was so attached to this floor that, when it gave up the site to an Army regiment, it dismantled the floor and, I was told, had it re-laid at RAF Credenhill in Hereford. Thus there were many such indoor spaces/halls that could be used for sport, restricted as they were. Sports such as table tennis and fencing were also thriving in much smaller spaces, some in church halls and youth clubs. If it was long enough to lay down a portable piste, it was good enough for fencing.

The teacher training colleges were turning out hundreds of teachers of physical education. Physical education was a compulsory part of the curriculum, In retrospect, it appears that some colleges were turning out PE teachers that were extremely competent teachers of the specialist techniques and activities and who were so besotted by the subject that they forgot that the object of the exercise was to teach children. Thus, we became aware that some children were far from being enthused by physical activity; rather they were being subjected to what Mike Collins, in memorably describing his own school physical education programme, referred to as “..a course in aversion therapy.” Modern educational gymnastics, taught from the mid-1960s, was one response to this issue. But there was still enormous public appetite for enjoyable physical activity outside of the education programmes. Evening, weekends, holidays there was always something on offer.

National enthusiasm was reinforced by internationally recognised events. Roger Bannister ran his mile in 1954, the year after Sir John Hunt led the Everest Expedition. By 1960 Francis Chichester was winning transatlantic races. P.G. Lawrence started to offer canoeing holidays in 1957. I think it was also around this time or perhaps before, that John Disley and Ralph Logan were taking groups of people to Val d’Isere being among the first to recognise the opportunities to promote skiing.

It was clear then that although Dual Use was commonplace the wider use of such existing facilities was compromised.

  1. They were not specifically designed or managed for casual/ ‘pay as you play’ use. They had a different primary purpose.
  2. The predominant users were usually against any regular use that might impinge on their own interests.

The protagonists driving the case for the provision for purpose designed and built indoor facilities were the seers and prophets of the time, able to sense the way the tide was building, eloquent and innovative in their efforts to divine the best way forward. Some of those individuals are named in early introductory chapters. The early chapters record the progress of the movement. It is interesting to note that The Wolfenden Report suggested that “barns” were a possible way forward. This was not as helpful as it might have been though some Education authorities included barns in their provision for PE. Leicestershire is mentioned but David Barnes, the chief PE Adviser for Nottinghamshire was also persuaded of the merits of the ides and promoted the erection of several agricultural type barns on some sites in the county, to the extent that they soon were known collectively as “Barnes barns.” They initially provided minimum cover from the elements and soon were predominantly used for outdoor games, although netball and basketball were included in the timetable programmes if the weather was suitable. Time saw the barns improved by walls on three sides and sometimes a rebound wall on the other; eventually they became totally enclosed and the range of activities increased but badminton and table tennis rarely, if ever, featured. I think it was the type of tarmacadam floor that was a factor that particularly deterred tennis; it was not of the type used for outdoor courts! They could have worked but they needed a more sophisticated design and specification to make them attractive. However they were just unheated barns! I think there are still some of these about (fully enclosed) but I am not sure of the type of use they experience. David Barnes was also a supporter of the Joint Provision concept. He rightly saw it as a means of improving the opportunities for expanding the PE syllabi.

So, we come to the Sixties. Ah, the Sixties. “If you remember the Sixties you weren’t really there.” The phrase conjures up the counter culture movements, Mods and Rockers, The Beatles hysteria, the burgeoning drug sub-culture. and later the Flower power movement which blossomed in America in opposition to the Vietnam war before it spread to Britain. It was also the decade for sexual liberation and in this climate the real tidal surge towards the indoor sports provision began to reach its most powerful period. Shakespeare’s analogy was powerful, but wrong. The ‘flood’ is the top of the tide. At that period, it is ‘slack water’; the strongest flow is about three hours before that!

Ten pin bowling was expanding in the sixties at the time of the move towards indoor purpose-built centres. I remember that there were plenty of more primitive 9-pin skittle alleys around the country, usually attached to pubs and often developing different sets of rules in each county. I remember playing in a couple in Northamptonshire in the very early 60’s. Darts of course had long featured in the same pubs. Football and Cricket were blossoming and nearly every village had its teams playing in leagues. When did Sunday football surge start – the sixties?

Some form of running and some specialised ball games had also long been popular – some rather unusual and linked to traditions. Fell running races and cheese bowling races spring to mind and “The Baa'” in Kirkwall, Orkney still take place on Christmas day and New Year’s Day each year. A similar traditional event takes place annually in Ashbourne, Derbys. Morris dancing, maypole events, were common in the Midlands and the North. There was a massive appetite for organised activity. The sixties really were the years that the pressure was building for active leisure.

My strong memories lie with the development of the “Joint Provision” movement for which Nottinghamshire was initially the greatest advocate. I remember most the interesting subsequent movements that followed. The surge in popularity of squash and the development of many courts, both by LA’s and by commercial operators. ‘Chick’ Zamick the former Nottingham Panthers ice hockey goalkeeper, built and ran a very successful Squash club in Arnold, just outside Nottingham. He was just one of several other operators building many courts around the East Midlands, the impetus provided by the popularity of the game in the joint provision centres which, after some good marketing were reaching over 90% occupancy rates.
Another interesting development was caused by the inclusion of licensed bars in the joint provision centres. Bars on school premises had caused some controversy but were soon popular. One effect though was that the centre managers, tended to favour Hall bookings involving large groups. They would rather have 4 teams of five a side football for two hours than 4 individuals playing tennis. Such programmes produced a larger profit in the bars! So, the outdoor game was moving inside with a vengeance and the games that the hall might have been designed for were perhaps less favoured. Griff Jones was also using the sports hall at the Grove Centre in Balderton for spectator events, promoting professional wrestling and featuring popular TV personalities. Mick McManus was a regular! This also boosted bar profits!

The latter became important because there was still some residual resistance to the centres being provided and funded by the LA’s. A prominent Councillor was heard to remark in the same meeting that it “cost” ‘X amount money’ to run the libraries but that the sports Centres were “losing” money. A gentle play on words.

Incidentally, the budget arrangement for the first Notts joint provision centre was that the funding would be 50% by each partner. The County Council soon realised that they were getting the very thin end of the stick and the subsequent agreements were that the County Council would bear just 40% of the costs, the rest to be borne by the other partner.

We found that the very councils that pioneered the provision of swimming pools and playing fields were the last to accept that the ‘dry’ and ‘wet’ elements of provision could and should be provided together thus saving on land and management costs. The existence and strength of the Baths and separate Parks departments and their committees in one case meant that each Department in one large City in the East Midlands built new facilities separately on the same site and shared a car park. The excellent large, ‘dry’ sports Centre opened, with a large ceremony two weeks before, then the equally large new pool opened with a similarly large and expensive opening. The irony was that the sports centre did not open to the public for several weeks because there were not enough funds left to staff it! That Council was furious that it did not receive a grant from the Sports Council. They could not understand why! I suspect that many cities lagged behind in amalgamating their departments.

I recall that Jack Longland (see Chapter reference), when he was in Derbyshire, not only started the Whitehall OA centre, but also in 1960 purchased a small estate and started the development of the Lea Green Residential Training Centre which soon had an excellent new build sports hall. as well as football pitches and tennis courts. The Centre was actually used by the FA in preparation for the 1966 World Cup!

If I remember rightly, white water canoeing started to attract the adventurous. The late fifties and the sixties were also the time that Rock climbing became very popular. Always attractive to the intrepid, this was the time when Joe Brown and Don Whillans were using their gecko like skills, setting and naming new routes on previously ‘impossible routes on a multitude of sheer rock faces. Llanberis Pass and the Idwal Slabs, Stanage Edge and The Roaches, the Cuillins every challenging site in the UK (and some abroad) was explored. The South of the country had Harrisons Rocks! Rock climbing even became a television sport when the ascent of the Old Man of Hoy was broadcast over a weekend. Later climbing walls were installed in sports halls, though rarely successfully at that time.

What an amazing period it was as the public sports centre revolution was taking off!

Terry Mack 2019
Former Regional Director, The Sports Council, Eastern Region

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