WHEN the Olympic Torch was carried through Liverpool, past Mount Vernon Green, on June 12 this year, it was 1,655 miles from where it first sparked into life. To many, though, the Torch was simply returning to its spiritual home. For Mount Vernon Green was the stage for the first Grand Olympic Festival, staged some 30 years before Baron de Coubertin’s enduring creation opened in Athens.
Curiously the Torch arrived in Liverpool just two days short of the 150th anniversary of the original Mersey Olympics of June 14, 1862.
John Hulley. Liverpools Olympic Founder, was born in Liverpool on the 19th of February 1832, son of John Nevitt Hulley and Elizabeth (nee Speed). He was baptised on 19th July 1832 at St David's church, Brownlow Hill, Liverpool by the Revd. Robert Davies. From an early age John Hulley had a keen interest in physical activities, education and fitness. He was taught by Louis Huguenin, a famous Swiss gymnast who had settled in Liverpool in 1844 as a teacher of Gymnastics. John attended Huguenin’s school in Victoria Buildings, Moorfields, between 1845 and 1850 and matriculated from the Collegiate Institute, Shaw Street Liverpool in 1850.
He followed up his interest in physical well-being by becoming the honorary secretary of the Liverpool Athletic Club – and publicly displayed his enthusiasm for the benefits of physical activity by organising an ‘Assault-at-Arms’ at the Theatre Royal, Williamson Square, on April 25, 1861.
Appetite whetted, he embarked upon organising The 1st Grand Olympic Festival in Liverpool, held on 14th June 1862 at the Mount Vernon Parade Ground.
Mount Vernon Green
It proved so successful that a 2nd Grand Olympic Festival was staged the following year, on Saturday 15 June 1863, again at the Mount Vernon Parade Ground.
The Zoological Gardens on West Derby Road was the stage for the Third Festival on July 9, 1864, with Hulley now the Vice-President of the Athletic Society.
The Rotunda Gymnasium, Bold Street Liverpool
This opened on Monday 6th October 1862 with John Hulley as its Director. The Gymnasium was a quasi-partnership between Samuel Wylde Ackerley and John Hulley, the former supplying the funds in terms of purchase and fitting-out costs to launch the gymnasium; the latter giving practical experience in the gymnasium.
In spite of Hulley’s success with the Liverpool Olympic Festivals, all was not right at the Rotunda Gymnasium. Imagine John Hulley’s surprise and dismay when the following notices appeared in the Liverpool Mercury of 26th December 1863 and 1st January 1864:
Rotunda, gymnasium, Bold-Street, No annual subscriptions can be received for the
year 1864, Mr Hulley will cease to have any share in the Direction of the
Establishment, and from the 31st instant, pursuant to notice from the undersigned.
26 December, 1863 S. W. Ackerley, Proprietor.
The second ran thus –
The Rotunda Gymnasium, Bold-Street. Notice is hereby given
that the Partnership, if any, hitherto or lately subsisting between the undersigned,
Samuel Wylde Ackerley and John Hulley, was and is Dissolved on and from This Day
(Friday), first of January, 1864 by Mr Samuel Wylde Ackerley. S. W. Ackerley,
Proprietor. N. B. The Gymnasium will be Open to Subscribers as hitherto.
Subscriptions for the quarter ending the 31st of March will be received by the
undersigned. S. W. Ackerley, Proprietor
Clearly John Hulley was stung by this underhand treatment and replied to it through the columns of the Mercury. However, thanks to the support of Mr. C.P. Melly, a Liverpool philanthropist, he was soon back in the physical education arena. Mr. Melly and 10 other eminent Liverpudlians with the Mayor as President formed a company to purchase premises in the town centre suitable as a gymnasium.
Liverpool Mercury of 19 March 1864 reported as follows:
The prime object of the company is to erect in a suitable place a gymnasium, such as shall fairly express the devotion to physical education, which has happily become so common in Liverpool, chiefly through the exertions of its most eminent and spirited apostle, Mr John Hulley, and such as to spread widely around the conviction of the necessity and the appreciation of its enjoyments. We believe the directors have selected a site which will admirably meet the requirements of the case; and they have done still better in securing the services of Mr Hulley, without whom any athletic undertaking would lack a great prerequisite and assurance of success. The commercial illegibility of the enterprise is self-evident. By originating this institution and gathering around it the influence and support of his friends Mr Melly has added largely to the already deep obligations under which he has placed his town and his country; and by placing the management of the institution in the hands of Mr Hulley, who is second to no man in Europe as a practical and thoroughly skilled gymnastic preceptor, the board have proved that they are working in Mr Melly's spirit, and likely to enjoy the tangible success which has hitherto been the reward of Mr Melly’s philanthropic labours.
John Hulley’s prowess in the field of physical education was formally recognised by the Wenlock Olympian Society on 20th October 1864 when they elected him to honorary membership and awarded him a silver medal in appreciation of his valuable services in the cause of physical education. The medal was re-discovered in 2008 in an attic in Wallasey by a descendant of Georgiana nee Bolton, the wife of John Hulley.
Up to 10,000 people watched the first Liverpool Olympic Festival
The Revd Graham Murphy (second from left) holds up the Olympic flag with Played in Liverpool author Ray Physick after the unveiling of John Hulley’s refurbished gravestone in Toxteth Park cemetery, Liverpool. Also in attendance was Ray Hulley, founder of the memorial fund (right) and Olympic historian Don Athony (left), whose 2001 article inspired Ray Hulley’s effort.
For more information about John Hully visit http://www.johnhulley-olympics.co.uk/