Most of us recognize Angelo and Bertrand as as the preeminent fencing masters of London in the Victorian and Edwardian periods, but Archibald Maclaren also ran a successful school during the mid-nineteenth century.
Archibald Maclaren (1819-1884) was a teacher of physical education, gymnastics and fencing. He contributed to the science of physical training, and it was Maclaren’s belief that fitness was the key to a successful army. His system of physical training was adopted by the British Army and the public schools in the later nineteenth century.
Born in Edinburgh, he went to Paris around the age of 16 to study fencing, gymnastics and medicine, where he became interested in physical training. At the age of 21 he was listed as a fencing master in Oxford. His first wife was Charlotte Wheeler Talboys, who died after only 3 months of marriage in 1844. He subsequently married her sister, Gertrude in 1851 (discreetly, since marrying your deceased wife’s sister was illegal at the time). They had 3 daughters and a son. Gertrude was a classical scholar and teacher, aiding him in his gymnasium. In 1857 Maclaran's first book, The Fairy Family, A Series of Ballads & Metrical Tales was published.
Maclaren's first published book
After successfully equipping fencing and gymnastic rooms in Oxford, in 1858 he built his own gymnasium. In 1864 Archibald Maclaren and his second wife Gertrude opened a school in Oxford, Summerfield House School (today known as Summer Fields). He was placed in charge of the Army Gymnastics Staff (which later became the Army Physical Training Corps) and his methods shared a common motto with the A.P.T.C.: “Mens sana in corpore sano”. This Latin quotation is often translated as ‘A healthy mind in a healthy body’.
In 1869 the Clarendon Press published Maclaren's book A System of Physical Education, Theoretical and Practical. Maclaren died after a lingering illness at the age of 65 on 19 February 1884 and was buried at Summertown on 22 February.
A book review of “Physical Education” from Macmillan’s Magazine in 1869 displayed the regard for Maclaren in his field.
“It will be no news to the readers of this Magazine to tell them that to Mr. MacLaren of Oxford, more than to any other man living, is the cause of physical education indebted for the rapid strides it has of late effected in this country. His magnificent Gymnasium at the University, and the marvellous results there produced, constitute only a small portion of the work he has been for many years accomplishing. The British Army is now trained on his principles, and in Gymnasia invented by him. His last effort is worthy to be placed on a level with any of his former achievements. It is a little book, but it contains the refined wisdom and experience of a quarter of a century; it throws open to all the world the knowledge obtained in endless studies, experiments, and meditation.”
THE ADVENTURES OF VERDANT GREEN
Maclaren’s fencing room and gymnasium is featured in the 1850’s novel “The Adventures of Mr. Verdant Green”, written by Cuthbert M. Bede, a pseudonym of author Edward Bradley. In the chapter “Mr. Verdant Green takes his Degree”, the gym is described.
“At this period of his career, too, he strengthened his bodily powers by practising himself in those varieties of the "manly exercises" that found most favour in Oxford.
The adoption of some portion of these was partly attributable to his having been made a Mason; for, whenever he attended the meetings of his Lodge, he had to pass the two rooms where Mr. MacLaren conducted his fencing-school and gymnasium. The fencing-room — which was the larger of the two, and was of the same dimensions as the Lodge-room above it — was usually tenanted by the proprietor and his assistant, (who, as Mr. Bouncer phrased it, "put the pupils through their paces,") and re-echoed to the sounds of stampings, and the cries of "On guard! quick! parry! lunge!" with the various other terms of Defence and Attack, uttered in French and English. At the upper end of the room, over the fire-place, was a stand of curious arms, flanked on either side by files of single-sticks. The centre of the room was left clear for the fencing; while the lower end was occupied by the parallel bars, a regiment of Indian clubs, and a mattress apparatus for the delectation of the sect of jumpers.
Here Mr. Verdant Green, properly equipped for the purpose, was accustomed to swing his clubs after the presumed Indian manner, to lift himself off his feet and hang suspended between the parallel bars, to leap the string on to the mattress, to be rapped and thumped with single-sticks and boxing-gloves by any one else than Mr. Blades (who had developed his muscles in a most formidable manner), and to go through his parades of quarte and tierce with the flannel-clothed assistant. Occasionally he had a fencing bout with the goodhumoured Mr. MacLaren, who — professionally protected by his padded leathern plastron — politely and obligingly did his best to assure him, both by precept and example, of the truth of the wise old saw, "mens sana in corpore sano."
“The lower room at MacLaren's presented a very different appearance to the fencing-room. The wall to the right hand, as well as a part of the wall at the upper end, was hung around — not "With pikes, and guns, and bows," like the fine old English gentleman's,—but, nevertheless, "With swords, and good old cutlasses," and foils, and fencing masks, and fencing gloves, and boxing gloves, and pads, and belts, and light white shoes. Opposite to the door, was the vaulting-horse, on whose wooden back the gymnasiast sprang at a bound, and over which the tyro (with the aid of the spring-board) usually pitched himself headlong. Then, commencing at the further end, was a series of poles and ropes — the turning pole, the hanging poles, the rings, and the traptee, — on either or all of which the pupil could exercise himself; and, if he had the skill so to do, could jerk himself from one to the other, and finally hang himself upon the sloping ladder, before the momentum of his spring had passed away.”
ARCHIBALD MACLAREN AND SIR RICHARD BURTON
|Sir Richard Francis Burton in fencing attire|
Maclaren was also an acquaintance of Sir Richard Francis Burton, the linguist, translator, explorer and fencer. Burton had this to say of Maclaren, whom he preferred over Angelo and his school:
From “the Life of Captain Sir Richard Francis Burton” by Isabel Burton (1893):
“The great solace of my life was the fencing-room. When I first entered Oxford, its only salle d'armes was kept by old Angelo, the grandson of the gallant old Italian, mentioned by Edgeworth, but who knew about as much of fencing as a French collegian after six months of salle d'armes. He was a priggish old party too, celebrated for walking up to his pupils and for whispering stagely, after a salute with the foil, "This, sir, is not so much a School of Arms as a School of Politeness." Presently a rival appeared in the person of Archibald Maclaren, who soon managed to make his mark. He established an excellent saloon, and he gradually superseded all the wretched gymnastic yard, which lay some half a mile out of the town. He was determined to make his way; he went over to Paris, when he could, to work with the best masters, published his systems of fencing and gymnastics, and he actually wrote a little book of poetry, which he called "Songs of the Sword." He and I became great friends, which friendship lasted for life. The only question that ever arose between us was touching the advisability or non advisability of eating sweet buns and drinking strong ale at the same time.”
And Burton continued his praise of Maclaren in his “New System of Sword Exercise for Infantry” published in 1876.
“Nothing will here be said concerning the "goose step of the sword," the "Balance Motions," and the "Extension Motions," of the official 'Infantry Sword Exercise.' They are essentially a part of 'Squad and Setting-up Drill,' and as such they have been treated in several good manuals, especially by Serjeant-Major S. Bertram Brown: A ' Practical Guide to Squad and Setting-up Drill, in accordance with the principles laid down in Part I., Field Exercise of the Army.' Adapted for the use of Recruits, Bine Volunteers, Militia, Police Force, Schools, and Families: Illustrated with sixty-eight figures, representing each Stick and Club Exercise, Extension Motions, and Sword Exercise Positions. London: Allen and Co., 1871. 2nd Edition.' Considered in a wider sense they belong to the Branch of Science so thoroughly developed in 'A Military System of Gymnastic Exercises for the Use of Instructors: Adjutant-General's Office, Horse Guards, 1862; Physical Education,' Clarendon Press Series, Oxford, 1869; and in 'Training in Theory and Practice' (London, Macmillan, 1874), by Archibald MacLaren*, whose excellent code for the army, and whose influence with successive war ministers, as some one truly said, have aided largely in introducing that admirable training which is transforming the stiff, slow-moving grenadier of past times into the vigorous, rapid, and enduring soldier of the present day.
Footnote by Burton:
My old friend and instructor set out upon a thoroughly scientific principle, and the able way in which he has worked out his system will entitle him to the gratitude of the posters. Having established the fact that in all our popular athletic, as opposed to gymnastic, exercises, our walking and running, cricket and football, fives, tennis, and racquets, and especially rowing—which has advanced as an art but has declined as an exercise —we circumscribe the line of muscular operation by giving the greatest share of the work to the lower limbs, and by developing one half to the injury of the other; he resolved to cultivate the whole by a wider and more varied range of training; hence he supplemented "Recreative exercise" by "Educational exercise," and hence his systematized national gymnasia, which, taken up by H.R.H. the Duke of Cambridge and by the late Sidney Herbert, have been introduced into the military stations of the Cardwell system, into Oxford and Cambridge, and into all our public schools, with one "base exception"—Eton.
And in another footnote (Burton is the master of footnotes):
Mr. MacLaren, in his ' System of Fencing,' &c. (p. 9), sensibly advocates "resting the weight of the body equally upon both legs." He also lowers the right hand in the Lunge (p. 11), and (ibid.) he throws the trunk forward, perhaps with a little exaggeration.
A selected bibliography for Archilbald Maclaren:
The Fairy Family: A Series of Ballads and metrical tales illustrating the fairy mythology of Europe 1857
Training, in theory and practice 1866
A military system of gymnastic exercises and a system of fencing 1868
A system of physical education, theoretical and practical 1869
Next: A look at Maclaren's System of Fencing