If you need inspiration to spend more time at the gym then look no further than John Newman Taylor who served as Gymnastic Instructor at Sherborne School for 26 years from 1886 to 1912.
In 1885, Headmaster Edward Mallet Young erected the School’s first gymnasium at a cost of £320. The need for a School gymnasium had been long called for. In 1871, a letter to The Shirburnian described ‘boys in the Courts stooping with their heads down to their toes, just as if they were looking for a long-lost sixpence, because they have no chance to remedy the defect.’ By 1884, the Headmaster was writing to the School Governors that ‘Boys soon tire of mere drill, and there can be no question that Gymnastic exercises would be more effective and more popular. Apart from its more formal use, a Gymnasium would be a great gain to the School, especially in wet leisure hours.’
The gymnasium built in 1885 was a corrugated iron structure measuring 70 ft. x 70 ft. It was meant to be a temporary solution with a permanent gymnasium planned for the area to the east of the Lodge. However, the temporary structure remained in use for the next 37 years until in 1922 it was incorporated into a new larger gymnasium designed by Sir Reginald Blomfield. Today the building is used as the School dining hall.
The first Gymnastic Instructor appointed to run the new gymnasium was a French man, but his appointment was not a success and he was replaced in 1886 by John Taylor. John Taylor was the son of a farmer at Burton in Christchurch. He arrived at Sherborne in 1886 with his new wife, Mary Ann Stace. Their first son Reginald John Taylor was born the following year and christened in Sherborne Abbey by the Headmaster. Their second and third sons, Sidney Harold Taylor (1889-1917) and Percy Lionel Taylor (1893-1918), were both killed in France during the First World War and are remembered on the town war memorial.
Not all the boys at Sherborne School were enamoured of the new gymnasium. The novelist John Cowper Powys, who attended Sherborne School from 1886 to 1891, recalled 43 years after leaving Sherborne the fear he had felt when confronted by the horizontal bars in the gymnasium and how the puzzled instructor would give him permission to ‘fall out’ (John Cowper Powys, Autobiography, 1934).
John Taylor’s muscular physique was not only appreciated by those attending the gymnasium. In 1891, the School art master Henry Hudson gave a lecture on the upper limbs to the Field Society, using John Taylor’s ‘fine arm’ as illustration! In 1904, Henry Hudson painted a portrait of John Taylor in his fireman’s uniform which is now on display at Sherborne Fire Station. John served for 42 years with Sherborne Fire Brigade, 35 years as chief officer, and acquired for the town its first steam fire engine and motor pump. During his years of service John attended many major fires in the town and neighbourhood, including in January 1911 the fire that destroyed the new school hall at Sherborne Girls’ School. On his retirement he said ‘I have enjoyed every moment of the time spent in the Brigade.’
John was obviously a public-spirited man and took an active part in town life. He held many posts, including secretary of the Primrose League and the Conservative and Unionist Club, and was a committee member of both the Bonfire Boys and the Flower Show. For 50 years from 1886 to 1926 he was also a member of the Abbey Choir.
But perhaps the most memorable image of John Taylor is of him demonstrating the Indian Clubs during the annual ‘Assault-at-Arms’ in the School gymnasium. An account of his performance in 1907 describes how ‘each club was so worked with an electric lamp, that, when the gas was turned down, a weird and extremely attractive effect was produced by the ruby and emerald balls of fire describing fantastic figures in the darkness to the accompaniment of a piano.’
In 1936, the year that John and Mary Taylor celebrated their golden wedding anniversary, they decided to leave Sherborne and retire to East Horsley in Surrey, where, aged 81, John Taylor died on 20 November 1942.
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