The German Gymnasium:
A Look Into The “Abandoned Years” and Michael Collins
Joe Brommel ’18 and Brandon B. Fabel ’18
Built in 1861 and purchased by German immigrants (with the help of Prince Albert) for the German Gymnastics Society, the German Gym was the first purpose-built gym in the UK. Located between King’s Cross and St. Pancras stations, it was quickly put to use to house various indoor events of the 1866 Olympic games (German Gymnasium). At other times, it was home to a variety of sports – from fencing to weightlifting to semi-pro/amateur boxing. Notably, though, during some initial research we found references to Michael Collins, the Irish revolutionary, training there. Since Joe is part Irish and we both share a German heritage, we decided to investigate.
We stopped by on a sunny Wednesday afternoon and spoke with Mo Kachemad, waiter and resident historian at the upscale bar/restaurant it is today. He gave us an extensive tour, pointing out the remnants of the past that still remain: hooks on the ceiling used for lifting weights by rope, paintings of the founders of the gym, upper-level handrails accented by the wires of old boxing rings. Looking out onto the ground floor from above, he explains how the gym was formerly divided into two floors: a ground floor for women, and an upper floor for men. Today, with the dividing floor removed, it makes for a beautiful view – we watched lunch-goers eat under the boughs of a central cherry blossom tree and relax at the airy bar. Above us vault the gyms original wood beams, an earthy accent to the chic space below. Renovated two years ago, it strikes a perfect balance between a respect for the space and a nice atmosphere. And Mo himself gives off a palpable sense of passion for the old space – he begins our interview a little reticent, but quickly gets excited to share the history: “two original staircases here, we’re gonna use one of them,” “don’t you think he looks like Kiefer Sutherland?” (pointing out a painting of one of the founders), “I’m not a historian as much, but when I think of these things – well, it makes me really happy” (“Interview with Mo Kachemad.”).
Our interest, though, was in Irish Republican Michael Collins’ use of the space during World War I. Because while it had continued to be actively used as a gym (hosting the Olympics again in 1908) up until WWI, by that time anti-German sentiment had boiled over (“being German in London was not the thing,” Mo remarks wryly) to the point where the gym was left abandoned (“Interview with Mo Kachemad.”). According to the Hendon & Finchley Times, the last known event held at the gym was an amateur boxing match in 1913 (“Hendon Boxing Club Annual Supper and Prize Distribution.”).
Then in 1916 it was sold at auction (where “one (person) of a crowded audience protested, amid laughter and cheers, against the property being described as the ‘German Gymnasium’”) (“Legends in a Garden.”). And in World War II it was used as an arms depot. It was later bought by the railway and became the first ticket-office in London. After that it was part of the council, then an art gallery, and then a conference center, before finally being renovated to its current state (“Interview with Mo Kachemad.”). We ask Mo about those years from 1913-1916, and he chuckles, remarking that the goings-on there were a bit “hush-hush” (“Interview with Mo Kachemad.”).
But we are intrepid explorers, eager to listen into the “hush-hush” whispers of the sands of time! A few cursory internet searches turns up some scant details: in April 1914, Collins drilled there using refurbished rifles in preparation for the upcoming Easter Rising (Hittle). But such a shallow fountain could not slake our thirst for knowledge! Knowing we could coax more secrets from history’s bountiful bosom, we set our sails for (walked to) the British Library, plunging deep into its decrepit vaults (a sterile second-floor reading room), poring through tattered old tomes (searched the library’s catalog on a computer running Windows Vista), finally unearthing (had our books delivered to us after sitting on our phones for an hour, waiting) some biographies of Michael Collins and old copies of “Inis Fail: A Magazine for the Irish in London.”
In these documents, we find that Michael Collins had arrived in London in 1906, working a variety of jobs all across the city – over the course of ten years, he would live with his sister at four different addresses (Osborne). His interest in Irish independence resurfaced at his job at the post office and he soon joined London’s branch of Sinn Fein – an Irish Republican political party – and enrolled in the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB) (Osborne). And an eerily contemporary current of nationalism runs through the pages of Inis Fail, even in an edition published in 1907, nine years before the Easter Rising: “IRISH GOODS ONLY,” “our ideal… is not Ireland for the trippers, but Ireland for the Irish” (“Inis Fail: A Magazine for the Irish in London.”). Collins would have almost certainly been reading this magazine.
Collins would later return to Dublin in 1916, just before the Easter Rising – perhaps the climax of a centuries-long fight for Irish home rule. British rule in Ireland dates back to the 12th century, when Normans controlled the East Coast of Ireland and began moving inward. There was a Gaelic resurgence, and by the 15th century English rule almost ceased to exist. In 1541 however, King Henry VIII reasserted the Crown’s control in Ireland, and, “Irish Parliament bestowed the title of King of Ireland on Henry VIII after an uprising by the Earl of Kildare threatened regal hegemony” (Stamp). In the 17th century, continued fighting occurred as England solidified its rule. During this time penal laws were put in place as protestant English and Scotsman in Ireland seized land ownership and other rights from Roman Catholic Irishmen and other protestant dissenters. The conflict came to an end when forces of William of Orange beat James II (who was Catholic) at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690, and Ireland came under British rule (Stamp). Then in 1801, the Act of Union abolished the Irish Parliament and Ireland became part of the new United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland (Stamp). The Roman Catholic Relief Act of 1829, which repealed earlier penal laws in the United Kingdom also helped to spur Irish Republicanism, as this allowed Irish to make their own churches, and once these churches were made they were used as gathering places for the Irish in Ireland and London (Church Exhibit, British History 1800’s). And in 1840, the Great Potato Famine occurred and precipitated a shift in English-Irish relations – many Irish blaming the English for mishandling the famine, and the influx of Irish emigrants in England stirred up more anti-Irish sentiment. But the sentiment reached a high point when Pope Pius IX re-established the Roman Catholic ecclesiastical hierarchy in England in 1850 (Wohl). And so began the first calls for Irish Independence.
The leading party calling for Irish home rule was the Irish Independence Party (IIP). British Parliament had passed an Irish home rule bill in 1914, but when WWI broke out its implementation was postponed until after the war (History.com Staff). The IIP echoed this call for postponement, and many Irishmen fought for the UK in WWI. Postponement, though, displeased many Irish nationalist groups – the Irish Republican Brotherhood chief among them (IRB) (“Easter Rising 1916: Six days of armed struggle that changed Irish and British history.”). And thus plans began for the Easter Rising. Little is known about the planning process, as it was conducted in secret. However, we do know that the architects of the Easter Rising were in direct contact with German ambassadors. At one point a plan was proposed for German ships to land on the Western coast of Ireland while the Easter Rising was occurring in Dublin (Kautt). This obviously didn’t come to fruition, but it’s indicative of the level of coordination between the two powers. There was also talk of Irish Rebels receiving arms shipments from the Germans, but shortly before the insurrection began the British detected and captured the ship bearing those shipments (History.com Staff).
Nonetheless, shortly after noon on April 24, 1916 (Easter Monday) Pádraig Pearse (who would be the acting president of the Irish Republic), accompanied by armed guards, stood on the steps of the General Post Office and read a proclamation of Irish Republicanism. The Easter Rising had begun (“Easter Rising 1916: Six days of armed struggle that changed Irish and British history.”). The rebels were able to capture strategic positions such as the post office that afternoon, and their forces numbered 1,600 men (History.com Staff). However, the rebels lacked the support of the public, and the British Government soon declared martial law in Ireland. In less than a week, British forces quashed the uprising: “some 450 people were killed and more than 2,000 others, many of them civilians, were wounded in the violence, which also destroyed much of the Dublin city center” (History.com Staff).
The aftermath of the uprising was mixed. Fifteen leaders of the rising were executed, with 3,000 people suspected of supporting the uprising, directly or indirectly, arrested, and some 1,800 sent to England and imprisoned there without trial (including Collins) (History.com Staff). The rushed executions, mass arrests, and martial law fueled public resentment toward the British and helped build support for the rebels and the movement for Irish independence. By the 1918 general election, the Sinn Fein political party won the majority of Irish seats – but they refused to sit in the UK Parliament (History.com Staff). In January 1919, they met in Dublin to convene an Irish Parliament and declare Irish Independence, which boiled over into the Irish War for Independence in 1921. This guerilla war was led by Collins, who was leader of the IRB
and orchestrated Irish Republican Army forces (not to confused with the modern-day IRA)(“Rebellion”). By July of that year, a cease-fire (and treaty later in December) helped move toward a Free State status for Ireland. Six Northern counties in Ireland opted out of joining a free state of Ireland and remained in the United Kingdom (History.com Staff).
But this treaty, negotiated by Collins, was highly contentious. Although he had tried to make its terms palatable to both sides, anti-treaty IRA forces (the progenitors of the modern-day IRA) felt that it didn’t do enough to assert a lasting Irish independent state. This led to the Irish Civil War, which, though short-lived, saw Collins killed in an IRA ambush in 1922 (“Béal na mBláth”). Nonetheless, progress towards independence steadily continued, and a fully independent Republic of Ireland was “formally proclaimed on Easter Monday, April 18, 1949,” Collins’ legacy sealed (History.com staff).
Moral of the story: next time you go to a fancy restaurant, keep your eyes open! You might uncover some history.
“Béal na mBláth” General Michael Collins. Collins 22 Society, 2014. Web. 30 May 2017.
Church Exhibit, British History 1800’s. 2017. Church History Exhibit at the V&A Museum, inside the British History 1800’s Section. Victoria and Albert Museum, London.
“Easter Rising 1916: Six days of armed struggle that changed Irish and British history.” BBC News. BBC, 23 Mar. 2016. Web. May 2017.
German Gymnasium. London: German Gymnasium, 2017. Print.
“Hendon Boxing Club Annual Supper and Prize Distribution.” Hendon & Finchley Times 25 Apr. 1913: 3. The British Newspaper Archive. Web. May 2017.
History.com Staff. “Easter Rising.” History.com. A&E Television Networks, 2009. Web. May 2017.
Hittle, J.B. E. Michael Collins and the Anglo-Irish War: Britain’s Counterinsurgency Failure. 1st ed. Dulles, Virgina : Potomac Inc., 2011. Google Books. Potomac Books Inc., 2011. Web. May 2017.
“Inis Fail: A Magazine for the Irish in London.” Inis Fail: A Magazine for the Irish in London. Winter 1907. Print.
“Interview with Mo Kachemad.” Personal interview. 24 May 2017.
Kautt, William Henry. The Anglo-Irish War, 1916-1921: A People’s War. Westport, Connecticut : Praeger Publishers, 1999. Google Books. Praeger Publishers, 1999. Web. May 2017.
“Legends in a Garden.” The Globe [London ] 24 July 1916: 1. The British Newspaper Archive . Web. May 2017.
Osborne, Chrissy. Michael Collins: a life in pictures. Cork: Mercier, 2010. Print.
“Rebellion” General Michael Collins. Collins 22 Society, 2014. Web. 30 May 2017.
Stamp, Gavin. “Neighbours across the sea: A brief history of Anglo-Irish relations.” BBC News. BBC, 08 Apr. 2014. Web. May 2017.
Wohl, Anthony S. “The Re-establishment of the Catholic Hierarchy in England, 1850.” The Re-establishment of the Catholic Hierarchy in England, 1850. The Victorian Web, 16 Dec. 2015. Web. May 2017.