Irene Mabel Marsh
Here in Special Collections and Archives we recently received a donation of material relating to I.M. Marsh College. A number of photograph albums dating from the 1920s show the growth and development of the site in Aigburth. A few of the pages from the albums can be seen here. In turn this made us think of the incredible woman behind one of the founding colleges of the university.
Irene Mabel Marsh was born in 1875 in north Liverpool. She was the third child of a large family of ten. Their home in Waterloo, which had a large garden with a trapeze and parallel bars, backed onto the beach. Irene and her siblings all developed a lifelong interests in sport and the outdoors. Together they also put on plays and performances and wrote and produced their own monthly magazine. As a teenager Irene was a keen swimmer at Bootle baths and became involved with teaching younger children to swim. When a gym opened nearby Irene and 2 of her sisters were amongst the first members. All of these influences in her life would later combine to inspire Irene to teach physical education.
When Irene turned 18 years old she enrolled in Southport Training College and Gymnasium. Here she trained for two years, her studies included athletics, gymnastics, swimming, riding and teaching practice. Mr Alexander, who ran the college was also in charge of the YMCA gym in Myrtle Street, Liverpool. He later appointed Irene as Director of the Women’s classes at the YMCA. Around this time Irene was also Director of the Bootle Gymnasium. Classes were held for children during the day and recognising the importance of health and fitness, a class was held one evening a week for working women.
It can be said that Irene was ahead of her time through her use of music with exercise; something which was frowned upon at the time. Irene also developed a comprehensive syllabus using a range of apparatus and equipment, incorporating ropes, scarves, clubs and dumbbells. Creativity was actively encouraged with students asked to make up their own exercises with the apparatus.
As the classes grew in popularity Irene knew she needed larger premises and more instructors. With her savings she rented a property at 110 Bedford Street, Liverpool. Here she proposed to start a training school with dormitories. Not for the first time Irene faced opposition from some family members, yet with strong resolve and the support of her mother, the Liverpool Gymnasium Training College was soon opened.
The college went from strength to strength and Irene rented another property in Huskisson Street for lecture rooms and a library. However, students had to visit other institutions for physiology and anatomy lectures. Visiting lecturers and doctors provided specialist teaching and links were built with staff in Stockholm as Irene highly rated Scandinavian methods. Students came from a cross section of society; Irene would often waive the fees for enthusiastic students from poorer backgrounds.
A number of social events were also arranged, the most popular was the Christmas demonstration. Students performed a range of exercises and national dances, followed by marching drills and a lantern parade that ended with Irene at the apex of a huge pyramid with a lantern raised above her head. The aim of this demonstration was to show the audience the health and wellbeing of girls.
At Bedford Street a room was set aside for the treatment of patients. A few local doctors prescribed exercise and massage at the college. Irene worked with renowned orthopaedic surgeon Sir Robert Jones on a clinic and a medical gymnasium was staffed by senior students. The college also developed strong links with the Stanley hospital, which also gave students hospital experience. Throughout the First World War a number of soldiers attended classes at the gymnasium; which in turn encouraged some students to become members of the Almeric Paget Massage Corps, who operated in military hospitals
throughout the country.
When the college expanded further to the site in Aigburth, the link with local hospitals continued and students began to study physiotherapy. Irene was pioneering rehabilitation years before some of the medical profession could see the benefits of active treatments.
In 1909 Irene first visited the Welsh village of Abersoch while on holiday. She fell in love with the place and went on to spend many holidays there. ‘The Shanty’ became part of life for staff and students as Irene clearly recognised the benefits of outdoor activities.
Back at the college, Irene was not averse to getting her hands dirty and at Barkhill saw the potential in these vast grounds; she marked out pitches and playing fields and could envision an open air theatre and swimming pool. In time Irene’s determination would pay off and these imagined facilities would soon be used by staff and students.
Irene Mabel Marsh made a tremendous contribution to the education of young women in Liverpool. She was an inspiration to many; her drive, determination and hard work saw her achieve her goals and ambitions. It is with great pride we remember one of our founders on International Women’s Day.
Message for International Women’s Day.
Here at LJMU we are taking steps to achieve gender equality through various initiatives such as call for gender balanced representation at decision making levels, respect and valuing differences. Every one of us can take tangible step to help achieve gender balance and help to make gender parity a reality!
Sign up for LJMU next women in stem and non-stem lecture here: https://www.ljmu.ac.uk/about-us/events/stem-lecture-chi-onwurah