Archaeologists dig into Victorian open air gym

FORGET squat thrusts, cross trainers and weight machines – this is one gym offering a more surreal take on the importance of physical exercise.
The gym opened in 1865.The gym opened in 1865.
The gym opened in 1865.

Experts at Archaeology Scotland have begun digging up a New Town park to unearth the secrets of the Capital’s Royal Patent Gymnasium – where hardy Victorians took to the open air on a series of bizarre contraptions in a bid to stay healthy.

Billed as “The New Wonder of Edinburgh” when it opened in 1865, the gym in King George V Park – considered the forerunner of today’s fitness centres and thought to be the only one of its kind in Britain – was the brainchild of philanthropist John Cox.

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It was designed for the city’s growing army of factory workers and saw residents shed pounds on machines such as the patent rotary boat or “Great Sea Serpent” – a circular platform with four piers allowing up to 600 people to row simultaneously.

Cara Jones and Phil Richardson uncover objects. Picture: Alex HewittCara Jones and Phil Richardson uncover objects. Picture: Alex Hewitt
Cara Jones and Phil Richardson uncover objects. Picture: Alex Hewitt

Now archaeological teams have begun fresh excavations in a bid to deepen their knowledge of the unique gym and its contribution to Scottish sport.

Project manager Phil Richardson said: “I cannot think of anything else like it – it’s like a cross between a gym and Alton Towers. We’re trying to understand more about the grounds architecturally – what people were standing on and the materials used. A lot of the people we work with are interested in the industrial past and this is really an extension of that.”

He added: “People working in the factories came here for exercise and play. There’s a feeling that there’s more work we can do to capture these stories.”

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Mr Richardson said the gym was aimed originally at residents who might otherwise have engaged in less salubrious activities in taverns and gambling halls. But thanks to an entry fee of only 6d, they came to try out exercise machines including a 100-foot see-saw named “Chang” and a “velocipede paddle” merry-go-round.

How the gym was advertisedHow the gym was advertised
How the gym was advertised

Although the gym’s popularity waned in the latter part of the 19th century – when the park was given over to Hanover and St Bernard’s football clubs – Mr Richardson said it played an important role in the growth of city sport. “Cox funded it to create an affordable place for workers to exercise and enjoy themselves,” he said. “When it was open, it must have been amazing – a wonder on its own.”

Archaeology Scotland leaders said the Heritage Lottery-funded dig – supported by helpers from Crisis Skylight Edinburgh and WorldWide Volunteering – was also aimed at boosting community interest in historical sites.

Director Eila Macqueen said: “It’s quite hard work at times, down on your hand and knees in a trench for example, but [volunteers] love getting in amongst it all and uncovering the past, especially when we have such an unusual site.”