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During the Edwardian period the ‘sporting girl’ was increasingly being framed as modern and aspirational. Intensive exercise programmes had been introduced at many British girls’ schools and the physical education colleges were graduating substantial numbers of women gymnastics and games teachers, the demand for whom increased rapidly with an expansion in the playing of team sports. Some headmistresses placed greater importance upon the character of her games mistress than any other member of staff, because the games mistress interacted with girls in their more spontaneous and unguarded moments; ‘hers was the exceptional opportunity of helping them to play in a manner to show not merely proficiency in games, but character as well’. This connection to pupils was reflected in the literature that referred to ‘what a ripping games mistress they’d got’, and to recollections of everyone having had a ‘crack’ on the games mistress in their schooldays.

Most of these women have left little trace in the historical record, but that should not dissuade the historian from making the effort to uncover their life courses. Combining evidence from a broad spectrum of key primary sources, including newspapers, the 1911 and 1921 censuses, college records, literature, girls’ annuals, specialist periodicals, photographs, local and family histories, and the 1939 National Register, this paper illuminates some of the biographies and experiences of the women who led the development of sport and physical activity for girls both inside and outside the school environment, at national and at regional level. These narratives may lack evidence in parts, but they provide enough material to give us a picture of the lives of those involved and allow us to interrogate some of the stereotypes that have been assigned to the figure of the Inter War games mistress.

Dave Day is Professor of Sports History at Manchester Metropolitan University where his research interests include the historical development of coaching and training practices as well as the life courses of nineteenth and twentieth century sports coaches. A significant feature of his research has been the pioneering of biographical techniques and the use of genealogical resources and he is continuing to explore new methodologies and sources for the creation of sports history. Dave’s current research projects include exploring the transcultural transmission of coaching traditions across national borders, the gendered socialisation into sport through the medium of Victorian children’s’ periodicals, and the lives and experiences of women coaches in the first half of the twentieth century. He is a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society, a Fellow of the European Committee for Sports History, past editor-in-chief of the Sport in History journal, and a past Chair of the British Society of Sports History.

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