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Leschen, Heinrich Adolph (1836–1916)

by John A. Daly

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Supplementary Volume, (MUP), 2005

Heinrich Adolph Leschen (c.1836-1916), gymnastics teacher, was born at Rendsburg, in the Danish duchy of Holstein (Germany), fourth child of Polish-born Christian Heinrich Leschen (1792-1867), who had changed his name from Leszczynski and become a naturalized Dane. After attending the University of Kiel, Schleswig, where he was influenced by the ideas of the charismatic educationist Friedrich Jahn, Adolph trained as a schoolteacher and belonged to a student gymnastics group.

Migrating with his father, older brother and sister in the Peter Godeffroy, Leschen reached South Australia in September 1857. He first tried farming, then established the German School in Wakefield Street, Adelaide, and was also employed at the Adelaide Gymnasium in King William Street, teaching German gymnastics. On 25 February 1862 at the Lutheran Church in Light Square he married Johanna Christina Dithmer. Leschen was naturalized in October. In 1864 he set up his own Deutschen Turnverein (gymnastics club), in Flinders Street, which attracted some influential men in Adelaide. When the future chief justice (Sir) Samuel Way, a member of one of Leschen's classes, joined the State Education Board in 1874 he argued for the inclusion of gymnastics in South Australian schools.

Way was responsible for Leschen teaching gymnastics in South Australian model schools during the term of J. L. Parsons as minister of education from 1881 to 1884. Leschen continued to give demonstrations in many state schools and private colleges and encouraged physical education as an important aspect of a holistic curriculum. His popular annual displays of mass gymnastics at the Jubilee Exhibition Building, in North Terrace, did much to encourage local belief in the combination of character-building, English sports with systematic, European gymnastics as an ideal physical education. In an article in 1884, 'Mens Sana in Corpore Sano', he wrote: 'Whatever can be said in favour of cricket, football and other games, they do not strengthen and develop the body like the systematic training of gymnastics'.

Employed as gymnastics and German master at the Collegiate School of St Peter in 1879-91, Leschen was also a part-time teacher at Prince Alfred College in 1881-92. Both colleges built gymnasiums—replicas of the model turnhalle of the Adelaide Turnverein. Prince Alfred College Chronicle in 1885 claimed that 'few schools in the colonies . . . possess so fine a gymnasium . . . and so efficient a teacher as Mr Leschen'. He and his third son Hugo (1868-1926), who in 1891-92 studied gymnastics in Germany, pioneered medical massage (physiotherapy) in South Australia in the 1890s, both being employed at the Adelaide Hospital and working in close co-operation with Professor Archibald Watson.

Retiring from his school activities in 1892, Leschen continued teaching German gymnastics at the Adelaide Turnverein until 1909. Hugo, an enthusiastic volunteer soldier and sometime major in the cadet corps, succeeded his father as instructor at Prince Alfred College (where he had been educated) and from 1893 continued the annual demonstrations at the exhibition building. By 1900 more than 1500 of his pupils, from various schools, took part in these spectacular displays. Adolph Leschen died on 2 April 1916 in a rest home at Dulwich, survived by his wife and their five sons. An obituarist in the Adelaide Register acknowledged him as 'one of South Australia's best known identities' who 'may rightly be termed the father of gymnastics in the State'.

Select Bibliography

  • D. M. Horner, Prince Alfred College Cadet Unit (Adel, 1964)
  • J. A. Daly, Elysian Fields (Adel, 1982) and ‘Adolph Leschen: The "Father of Gymnastics” in South Australia’, Journal of the Historical Society of South Australia, no 10, 1982, p 92
  • R. M. Gibbs, A History of Prince Alfred College (Adel, 1984)
  • Prince Alfred College Chronicle, vol 2, no 7, Oct 1885
  • Register (Adelaide), 18 Apr 1892, p 5, 26 May 1914, p 10, 3 Apr 1916, p 6, 25 Oct 1926, p 13
  • Observer (Adelaide), 11 Feb 1899, p 41
  • Advertiser (Adelaide), 3 Apr 1916, p 6
  • A. Leschen diary (State Records of South Australia).

Citation details

John A. Daly, 'Leschen, Heinrich Adolph (1836–1916)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/leschen-heinrich-adolph-13043/text23585, published in hardcopy 2005, accessed online 20 September 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Supplementary Volume, (MUP), 2005

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