January 2011

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Papers of William J. Ireland

If your New Year’s Resolutions includes joining a gym, dance class or simply taking more exercise, find some inspiration in the papers of William J. Ireland (1924-2002), graduate of the Scottish School of Physical Education and eminent teacher of Scottish country dance.

Bill Ireland grew up in Glasgow, where he attended the Scottish School of Physical Education (SSPE) from 1942-45. Established at Jordanhill College in 1931, the SSPE was the only training centre for male teachers of physical education in Scotland, with fierce competition for places. Its diploma-holders consequently enjoyed a reputation for excellence. Bill was a particularly diligent student and took copious notes of the classes in anatomy, hygiene, theory of physical education, history of physical education, and theory of games. These he carefully copied out in blue ink, illustrated with hand-drawn diagrams and stick figures (shown below), and filed in neat black ring-binders, already demonstrating the self-discipline and fastidiousness that would characterise his subsequent career.

Bill Ireland's immaculate student notes c.1943  

Bill Ireland’s student notes form the core of his papers, and illuminate both the content and nature of physical education in the early 1940s. An official drive to improve the health of the nation at the start of the twentieth century, prompted by the poor physical condition of volunteers for the Boer War, led to a strong medical emphasis within British physical education courses that persisted until the 1950s. Aspiring PE teachers accordingly learned to ‘recognise and counter the effects of poverty and deprivation’ (Small, p.146). As we might expect, Bill’s notes also reflect the parlance of the day: for example, the distribution of fat on an adult woman’s upper arm (one of the physiological differences between males and females as taught in the Theory of Physical Education class) is tactfully described as ‘one of the charms of womanhood’!

SSPE students brave the elements! The notes are complemented by 96 delightful black-and-white snapshots of Bill and his classmates, mostly taken on the Jordanhill Campus. These images evoke all the humour, liveliness and camaraderie for which students of the SSPE were known. A particular highlight features Bill (third from the right) and five friends, standing in the campus grounds in the snow wearing only their shorts, and smiling through clenched teeth.

Another gem shows Bill (far right) and two classmates in playful mood, striking a choreographed pose worthy of the Glasgow music halls:

Bill & Co audition for the music hall

The students’ impressive physical abilities are captured in this picture of an impromptu outdoor gymnastics display - again wearing only shorts, but this time in more appropriate weather!

Student outdoor gynmastics display c. 1944

The image below, of a student dance display at one of the SSPE’s end of term ceremonies in the grounds of Jordanhill Campus, is particularly poignant as it captures Bill Ireland (centre) at the start of his long association with Scottish country dancing.  Jean Milligan

Amongst Bill’s teachers at the SSPE was Miss Jean Milligan (left), co-founder of the Royal Scottish Country Dance Society (RSCDS), and it was in Miss Milligan’s classes that he learned Scottish country dance. After receiving his diploma from the SSPE, Bill settled in London, where in addition to his day job as a PE teacher at Wallington County Grammar School for Boys and playing for the London Scottish rugby club, he joined the London Branch of the RSCDS, eventually becoming Chairman. Remembered by pupils and colleagues as an extremely gifted and highly exacting teacher of dance, who expected the best not just of himself but of every single student, Bill ran the Society’s Demonstration Class for almost four decades, served on the Society’s Branch Committee, and taught many courses and summer schools on behalf of the RSCDS, both abroad and in the UK. He also taught Scottish dance for the Imperial Society of Teachers of Dancing and the English Folk Dance and Song Society, as well as at the Royal Ballet Junior School, Richmond Park, where he was highly regarded by the founder and Director of the Royal Ballet, Ninette de Valois.

Student dance display

This fascinating collection of papers and photographs not only offers an insight into the early life of Bill Ireland as an individual, but also shines an invaluable light on the training, lifestyle and spirited character of students of the SSPE in the early 1940s. The SSPE finally closed in 1990, as a result of Government rationalisation measures; but the institution is fondly remembered by former students and staff, and its graduates are still employed in Scottish schools today.

Anne CameronArchives Assistant

Further information:

GB 249 JCE 22/5/2: Papers of William J. Ireland (1924-2002)

Bill Ireland: obituary by Robert Ferguson et al, The Reel (Magazine of the London Branch of the Royal Scottish Country Dance Society) No.243, February-May 2003, pp.4-6

Roy B. Small, ‘The Scottish School of Physical Education’, in M. Harrison and W.B. Marker, eds, Teaching the Teachers. Edinburgh: John Donald, 1996, pp.146-157. Andersonian Library, D 378.4144 HAR

SSPE student high jinks, June 1944