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William Gordon Young (1904–1974)

by R. I. Cashman

This article was published:

William Gordon Young (1904-1974), physical educationist, was born on 15 June 1904 at Guelph, Ontario, Canada, son of David Young, principal, and later inspector of public schools, and his wife Mary, née Underhill. Gordon attended the Central School and the Collegiate Institute at Guelph, then the International Young Men's Christian Association College, Springfield, Massachusetts, United States of America (B.P.E., 1927). Back in Canada, he studied arts part time at the University of Western Ontario, London (B.A., 1936), and taught physical education at that university and at the Y.M.C.A. He represented the university in football, swimming, ice hockey, gymnastics and wrestling. On 7 June 1930 he married Ellen Patricia Fletcher. During the 1930s he obtained a pilot's licence and competed in American air races. He was director of physical education at Montreal central Y.M.C.A. from 1936 and sometime president of the Canadian Physical Education Association.

In 1938 Young was appointed director of physical education within the Department of Education, New South Wales, and, next year, executive officer of the National Fitness Council of New South Wales. He found that, because of his dual role, he had to serve two masters, the Department of Education and its minister. The department lacked physical education teachers and training; facilities and equipment at schools were virtually non-existent. His promised annual budget of up to £500,000 was not forthcoming.

A man of abundant energy and enthusiasm, Young responded with a flurry of community consultation to promote a more professional concept of physical education, emphasizing fitness and health. He set up in-service courses for teachers during vacations, reformed the curriculum, organized better facilities and resources, and initiated a 'flying squad' of eight men and seven women to visit schools. Frustrated at many points because he was never given full control of his field, he failed to have physical education courses introduced at the University of Sydney in 1943; instructors were trained instead at Teachers' College, Sydney. Young himself graduated M.Ed. at the University of Sydney in 1962. He was president of the Australian Physical Education Association (1959-62) and of its successor the Australian Council for Health, Physical Education and Recreation (1972-74).

The Youngs lived at Neutral Bay. He enjoyed camping, golf and surfing, and belonged to the Royal Empire (Commonwealth) Society. His greatest success was developing community fitness programmes. As a member (vice-president 1960) of the Rotary Club of Sydney, he persuaded it to build nine huts to sleep 180 campers at the State's first national fitness camp, at Broken Bay. A jack of all trades, he led teams of volunteers at weekends, even driving the bulldozer himself, to clear the site. In 1969 there were ten national fitness camps in the State; over three decades, 700,000 children had had an outdoor experience in the bush. Equally popular were his vacation play and swimming centres, and his learn-to-play and community recreation programmes.

By the 1960s coaching and training camps were held at Narrabeen. Young hoped that the camp would become a national sports centre, but its potential was not realized because he preferred North American games such as softball and basketball, failing to appreciate the importance to Australians of cricket and their traditional football codes. He had introduced softball to schools in 1939 and next year was appointed commissioner for softball in Australia by the Amateur Softball Association of America. His interest was shared by his wife Pat, who was founding president of the New South Wales Women's Softball Association in 1947.

A charismatic and forceful man, Young attracted people to his cause 'with his humour, energy and drive', although he did have some detractors who saw him as ruthless and inflexible. Public servants regarded him with trepidation because of his unorthodox approach: Young never believed in saying 'no', sometimes promising support that he could not deliver or spending money that he did not have. His enthusiasm could lead to reckless behaviour. Dr Jack Cross recalled that, while excavating at Broken Bay, Young went 'wild with explosives—it was miraculous on occasions that he didn't blow himself away'.

For four decades Young was known affectionately as 'Mr Phys.Ed.' and 'Mr Fitness'. In 1969 he retired and was appointed M.B.E. He had suffered a severe heart attack after the 1960 Olympic Games in Rome, but rather than slowing down, he planned a rehabilitation centre for coronary victims. Gordon Young died of ischaemic heart disease on 6 September 1974 at Marrickville and was cremated. His wife survived him; they had no children.

Select Bibliography

  • W. Ewens, Gordon Young (Syd, 1994), and for bibliography
  • Australian Journal of Physical Education, no 66, Dec 1974, p 21
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 24 Sept, 17 Dec 1938, 1 Jan 1969, 8 Sept 1974
  • I. Fischer, Years of Silent Control: The Influence of the Commonwealth in State Physical Education in Victoria and New South Wales (Ph.D. thesis, University of Sydney, 2000).

Citation details

R. I. Cashman, 'Young, William Gordon (1904–1974)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2002, accessed online 24 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 16, (Melbourne University Press), 2002

View the front pages for Volume 16

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


15 June, 1904
Guelph, Ontario, Canada


6 September, 1974 (aged 70)
Marrickville, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

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