Rare 1920s physical culture program discovered among bombs during Sydney home renovation

Robert Laycock was helping renovate a home in a Sydney harbourside suburb when he found rare memorabilia from a 1920s physical culture performance hidden beneath the floor — and several old mortar shells.

While the explosive discovery brought out the bomb squad and put a temporary stop to the renovation, it was the unearthing of a Bjelke-Petersen School (BJP) of Physical Culture program from 1924 that drew lasting attention.

“It looked like it had just been discarded under the floor in an old area,” Mr Laycock said.

“It was covered up in the sand and it was very dry under there and had been well preserved.”

Physical culture, known as physie, is a popular dance sport, involving a range of dance styles aimed at increasing strength, fitness and flexibility.

It was established in Australia by Hans Christian Bjelke-Petersen, from Denmark, in 1892.

Ashes update among bombs
Further excavation work revealed other striking discoveries, including newspapers from the 1920s and 1930s, including one featuring an update on the 1930 Ashes Test, as well as the mortar shells.

“[The suburb] Bellevue Hill is built on sand … we found quite a number of artefacts,” Mr Laycock said.

“We also found bombs in the backyard, so it was quite an interesting find.”

He said the bomb squad and authorities closed the site down and removed the ammunition.

“They are telling us it was probably from back in World War II,” Mr Laycock said.

“It was just stored there. It looked like an ammunition dump … buried down in the sand.”

‘Invaluable’ physie discovery
Mr Laycock’s son’s mother-in-law, Marion Cadman, from Sydney, is involved in physical culture so he passed the old six-page program onto her.

“Most of the pages are in good condition,” Ms Cadman said.

“You can read it pretty well [and] I thought it was an amazing find.”

Jackie Rawlings, one of BJP’s directors, said it was a “very exciting” discovery as it helped fill gaps in the sport’s documented history.

“To us, this find is invaluable because during the 130-year BJP history there has been two office fires, so twice the archives have been lost — once in the ’20s and once in the 1990s,” she said.

“When it was our 125-year anniversary, we were trying to do all the research to produce a book on our history and it was very hard to find information … we know there’s a lot we don’t know.

“So when something like this turns up, it’s just brilliant … it’s a real snapshot of 1924.”

Women get involved
Ms Rawlings said at the time of the program’s 1924 Sydney Town Hall performance, women were relatively new to physical culture, which was initially for children and men.

“Physie was taught in the business houses around Sydney, places like Nestle and David Jones, Anthony Hordern & Sons … and women started to be allowed, if you like, to start doing classes of physical exercise and dance,” she said.

“Christian’s [the founder’s] philosophy was that every single Australian should be healthy and robust.

“He was against women wearing corsets and having to just sit and do embroidery.

“He wanted them to get into loose-fitting tunics and to start really getting their bodies moving and becoming healthier and fitter.”

Women take over
BJP physical culture continued to evolve and over time the involvement of men stopped.

“With both of the World Wars the men dropped out of it basically. There were so few male teaches and RSL clubs introduced gymnasiums, which were cheaper,” Ms Rawlings said.

She said physical culture by then was being taught in church clubs, which was for women and their daughters.

“It was deportment and marching, folk dancing,” Ms Rawlings said.

“So once physie died out really for boys and men it became taken over by the girls and women in the church clubs … and some of those still exist today.”

Ms Rawlings said the old program found beneath the Bellevue Hill house would be archived to preserve the sport’s rich history.

“People often send old medals in,” she said.

“They’ll unearth a medal in their grandma’s drawer or something like that, but these kinds of documents are much rarer.”