Punch and the cult of athleticism
Pages 10

While it might be expected that a periodical as (relatively) conservative as Punch would show hostility to the incursion of women into sport, it may seem at first sight more surprising that its cartoons also ridicule the highly powerful, popular and increasingly pervasive cult of athleticism that first emerged in the mid-nineteenth century in the English public schools. By the late nineteenth century compulsory games had been enthusiastically adopted in the majority of British public schools. Its consolidation can be seen through the evolving provision of games facilities, the anti-intellectual contempt for academic learning on the part of many boys and some masters, and the growing number of robust public school pedagogues who loved games.44 Yet while athleticism was undoubtedly a dominant ideology in most schools, it was not all-pervasive, and Punch was a constant critic of the values, attitudes and practices associated with it, holding up to ridicule many of its manifest preoccupations. Here again Punch’s sporting cartoons chart the ground for a battle over activities that could be seen as respectable by some, unrespectable by others.