“Physical Culture: A Talk with An Expert”

The first items that William Hope Hodgson ever had published were about Physical Culture.  These were either articles about the science or press relation pieces designed to promote his school in Blackburn.  The item we present today was actually the SECOND piece that Hodgson ever published anywhere!

Appearing as an article in the Blackburn Weekly Telegraph (on September 7, 1901), it gives the impression that it was an actual interview which Hodgson gave to a reporter for the paper.  However, many Hodgson scholars (myself included) believe that Hodgson himself wrote this ‘interview’ and sent it to the paper.

In any event, it provides a number of great details not only about Hodgson’s life at sea but about his physical characteristics.  Through it, much of Hodgson’s personality comes through and we can see him as a fairly good humored man who is a little bit of a boaster.

Because we have so few letters from WHH, these articles help created a better picture of the man behind the typewriter.

Physical Culture:

A Talk with An Expert

Mr. W. H. Hodgson’s School of Physical Culture is now one of the most familiar institutions in Blackburn, and although it has been in existence only a matter of eighteen months, neither the school, nor its Principal, needs any introduction to our readers.  Observing that Mr. Hodgson had reopened his classes for the winter season, a representative of the “Weekly Telegraph” looked in at the school in Ainsworth Street this week, and Mr Hodgson readily expressed his willingness to “report progress”.  First of all he invited me to see his rooms, of which he is pardonably proud, for there is certainly not a better equipped establishment of its kind outside the great cities in the country.  The accommodation is almost extravagant—a large roomy theatre for exercises and drills, comfortable and cosy dressing and other ante-rooms, with shower baths, &c, the whole covering an area of 1,200 square feet, and being admirably ventilated and lighted by electricity.  In regard to fittings and apparatus, there is absolutely nothing wanting.

It is too late in the day for it to be necessary to discuss the advantages of physical culture, but it is satisfactory to Mr Hodgson’s pupils to know that they are individually  treated exactly as they ought to be, thanks to the system he has planned from his long experience.  One of the most considerable branches of Mr Hodgson’s profession is the bookkeeping.  Every pupil is medically examined before he enters upon his “lessons”, and each one is specifically dealt with according to his constitution.  Every detail as to measurement is entered in the school “register” both at the beginning and at the end of the course, and the pupil is also photographed at each stage, so that he can satisfy himself as to what physical culture does for him.  The picture we produce of Mr Hodgson betrays his youth, and rather belies his “long experience” in the science, but the story of his life, while being most interesting, is ample evidence of his qualifications.

“You see, I was driven to the development of my muscles at a very early age.  I went to sea when thirteen, and being a little chap with a very ordinary physique, had the misfortune to serve under a second mate of the worst possible type.  He was brutal, and although I can truthfully say I never gave him just cause, he singled me out for ill-treatment.  He made my life so miserable that in the end I summoned sufficient courage to retaliate, and I ‘went for him’.  It was for all the world like a fight between a mastiff and a terrier, for he was powerful, and knew how to punish.  Of course I received an unmerciful thrashing, but I remember how proud I was the next day, when I was arraigned before the captain for insubordination, to see that I had dealt him a lovely black eye.

“Well, from that day I resolved to go in for muscular development, and I worked hard and made a study of physical culture, and at the end of my eight years life on the sea I had the satisfaction of transforming myself into what you see me now.”

“I fancy you would like to meet the second mate again, Mr Hodgson.”

“Wouldn’t I just!” he laughingly replied.  “But I suppose I should feel grateful to him for starting me in my profession.  I changed vessels several times before quitting the rolling sea, and visited several parts of the world—Port Elizabeth, San Francisco, Australia, New South Wales, New Zealand, Boston, several European ports, and other stations.  All the time I preserved with the ‘hobby’, for which I never lost my enthusiasm, becoming an amateur teacher, and having the crews of several vessels as pupils.”

Mr Hodgson told me much more that was interesting of his experiences at sea, of the hardships and the unsatisfactory food.  He never took to the life, but did not abandon it until he had obtained his second mate’s certificate.  One of his achievements, by the way, of which he did not speak, was the saving of the life of a man who fell overboard at Port Chalmers, New Zealand.

“Are you satisfied by the results of your work in Blackburn?” I asked Mr Hodgson.

“Completely.  I have had one or two disappointments,  but entirely because the pupils I refer to have not carried out my instructions.  Still, I can count them on the fingers of one hand, out of a total number of between 300 and 350 pupils in eighteen months.”

“I suppose your ‘subjects’ are entirely drawn from the rising generation?”

“Not at all. One of my enthusiastic pupils is a gentleman aged 64 years, and he assures me that my treatment keeps him in excellent health.”

“What is the immediate effect physical culture has upon a new beginner?”

“Well, if he is a stout man, say between the ages of forty and fifty, he starts by losing weight, but his strength increases all along.  And then there is a turn in the tide of his ‘avoidrupois’, and he generally comes back to almost his original weight, having lost in girth what he has gained in muscle. Almost without exception the chest measurement improves.  Here is a case in point (referring to the register) of a pupil who when he started on April 5th last was 30 ½ inches round the chest, and by the last day of the same month, as you see, had increased to 33 inches.  That, I see, is the case of a boy of fifteen; but here is another of a gentleman aged 37 years, who also improved exactly an inch and a half in six weeks.”

“And of course better health naturally follows?”

“Quite so.  And I may tell you that, however weak constitutionally my scholars may have been, I have never yet had an applicant who has been refused by the doctor.  In case of heart ailments I have of course to adopt gentler methods., and ten I have special exercises for physical defects of almost every kind.  It is an erroneous impression that weak men should not exercise their muscles.  Unless a man is absolutely hopeless in heart disease, no matter who weak his most vital organ may be, he will be strengthened and will benefit generally from careful and scientific physical culture.”

“What class of people do you draw your pupils from?”

“Oh, from all classes, though I am sorry to say that the mill workers are not as plentiful as they ought to be.  If the weavers and other operatives of Lancashire would go in for a course of physical training they would not suffer nearly so much from the conditions they have to work under.  Business and professional men I do fairly well with, and I have special classes for the members of the Y.M.C.A. and for the borough police who, by the way, though a fine body of men to being with, have benefited greatly from their physical training.”

“And now, Mr Hodgson, something about yourself—in a physical sense, I mean.”

“Well, I don’t wish your readers to regard me in any sense as a professional ‘strong man’ or a ‘gymnast’, although apart from my classes I can do much out of the ordinary at weight-lifting and gymnastic feats.  I am not a showman.  Or is my ambition to make Sandows and Saxons, but to better my pupils in health and physique.  Of course muscular development is a natural result, and I may say that I have turned out some very promising weight-lifters both before and since I opened my school in Blackburn.
“As to myself, I am a little chap, as you see.  My height is 5ft 4 ½ inches, and my weight 10st 9lb.”

“Yes, but your proportions are very much greater than men of similar height and weight.  What are your measurements?”

“Here they are; Chest expanded, 42 ½ inches; biceps, 15 inches; fore-arm 12 ½ inches; waist, 28 ½ inches; right thigh, 22 ½ inches; calf, 14 ½ inches; neck, 16 ½ inches.  That is what physical culture has done for me.”



Filed under Hodgson, William Hope Hodgson

4 responses to ““Physical Culture: A Talk with An Expert”

  1. Pingback: William Hope Hodgson: The Bodybuilding, Shark Fighting Sailor who Invented Cosmic Horror (and annoyed Houdini)

  2. Micky

    Judging by what WHH the Principal said to the journalist, the late victorian physical culture system at the turn of the century was probably much more sophisticated than one would have thought; the examination, the selection according to the personal ability and efficiency, it seems to me the training was not only about purposeless raising of the dumb-bells; but I really would like to know what kind of food mr. Hodgson recommended to his pupils 🙂

    • Sam Gafford

      Food seems to be of great interest to Hodgson! lol He comments on the lack of it very often in his letters to Coulson Kernahan AND complains about it in several of his articles about the sea. It seems that the concept of physical culture really started to take hold around the end of the 19th century as we see with the several exercise articles WHH wrote and published. And, as he says in this interview, his tactics where a little different than others by taking the ‘whole’ student into consideration. I don’t know why his school failed but, if it hadn’t, he may never have taken to writing!

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