Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Bjelke-Petersen, Hans Christian (1872–1964)

by Chris Cunneen and E. A. McLeod

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 7, (MUP), 1979

Hans Christian Bjelke-Petersen (1872-1964), physical culture teacher, was born on 14 April 1872 in Copenhagen, Denmark, son of Georg Peter Bjelke-Petersen, gardener, later master-builder, and his wife Caroline Vilhelmine, née Hansen. His sister was Marie Caroline Bjelke-Petersen. At first educated by his father at home, acquiring a thorough grounding in gymnastics, swimming and the Bible, he later attended schools at Dresden, Germany, and at Copenhagen, graduating from Copenhagen Teachers' College in 1890. The family then went to London and in October 1891 arrived in Tasmania in the Doric.

Bjelke-Petersen opened a physical education institute in Hobart in 1892. In 1893 he began training boys in drill and gymnastics twice a week at Friends' High School, and later also taught geography and science there. During the same period he taught gymnastics and German at The Hutchins School and gymnastics at Queen's College. In 1894 he was naturalized. The Education Department employed him in 1902-06 to train teachers in a project of physical culture 'carefully based on physiological principles', which he had devised to replace military-style drills as a compulsory subject in the state schools. His scheme, for both boys and girls, stressed the importance of breathing exercises, deportment drills, physical culture games, and rest between exercises; he argued that 'National Physical Culture would give to the coming generation increased ability to do work with body and brain, and therefore greater prosperity, better health, and … greater happiness'. He was on the board of the Young Men's Christian Association in Hobart.

In 1906 Bjelke-Petersen moved to Sydney where, with his brother Harald, he established a physical training institute, and began working in private schools. In 1909 he set up in Melbourne as well. Despite opposition on the grounds that he was not native-born, in 1911-14 he was director of a Commonwealth scheme of physical training under the Department of Defence and was accredited honorary lieutenant-colonel. His task was to organize a system for Australian school children and to arrange the training of expert instructors for cadet forces and schoolteachers. He still carried on his private practice. In 1913 he visited England. Terminating his services in 1914, the department praised his work as having 'a lasting and beneficial effect on the manhood of Australia'. In 1918-20 he was inspector of physical training and in 1920-22 honorary consultant for the military forces.

After World War I Bjelke-Petersen's business expanded. The Prince of Wales used his facilities in 1920. He sold his Melbourne business to Percy Pearce in 1923. That year he claimed that he gave instruction to more than 5000 pupils in 95 private schools in Sydney; his private and evening-class roll was said to number 1300 per week. In 1924 he rebuilt premises at 68 Elizabeth Street; besides squash and basketball courts, his establishment also included departments for remedial exercises, orthopaedic massage and electrical treatment. Doctors referred numerous patients to him.

Bjelke-Petersen was 'of medium build, slim, but quite heavily muscled, with fair hair, blue eyes and a bright, eager intelligent face'. He retired in 1927 but remained a senior director of the Bjelke-Petersen Institute. In May 1933 at St Paul's Anglican Church, Glenorchy, Tasmania, he married Dorothy Gertrude Leonie Henri. In retirement, feeling the urgent need to stimulate the spiritual side of Australian life, he worked for the Pocket Testament League and for various Christian youth movements. He died at Eaglehawk Neck, Tasmania, on 23 May 1964. A nephew Johannes became premier of Queensland in 1968. His physical culture institute in Sydney still operates.

Select Bibliography

  • Parliamentary Papers (Tasmania), 1901 (66)
  • The Friends' School, School Echoes, Feb 1893, May 1894
  • People (Sydney), 18 May 1955
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 27 June 1911
  • ED 13/102/343 and ED 9/10/287 (Archives Office of Tasmania)
  • private information.

Citation details

Chris Cunneen and E. A. McLeod, 'Bjelke-Petersen, Hans Christian (1872–1964)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/bjelke-petersen-hans-christian-5247/text8839, published first in hardcopy 1979, accessed online 16 November 2018.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 7, (MUP), 1979

View the front pages for Volume 7

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