The formidable founder of the Game of Netball
Martina Sofia Helena Bergman-Österberg is a lady that the modern feminine world owes a considerable debt to. Not only is she the creator of the game of Netball, the first game that was deemed a socially acceptable competitive team sport for women but she was an active and loud advocate of women’s rights in society and their right to vote. She was a strong willed and extremely capable woman who deserves more focus than she currently receives.
Born into a Swedish farming community Bergman-Österberg soon learned the benefits of hard work and physical activity. She considered her long life, passing at 65 which, for the time in Victorian/Edwardian England was quite the achievement, down to her continued pursuit of physical health through exercise and sport. She came from a family of 5 other siblings, the sisters being the only ones to reach adulthood. Bergman-Österberg was educated at home and excelled in her studies that her first job was as a governess and then a librarian of the Swedish Encyclopedia Nordisk familjebok. It was here that she was to fall in love and to marry.
While she was keen on the academic side of her life it was Physical education, especially in the young, that was her main passion. At the time the use of gymnastics was seen as being of medical importance and in her native Sweden this had been giving educational status following the work of Pehr Henrik Ling. Her studies of Gymnastics would take her around Europe finally settling in London in 1881.
In the same year she was made, at the young age of 32, the Lady Superintendent of Physical Exercise for Girls. She went on to train over one thousand three hundred teachers in the ways of Swedish gymnastics and introduce the discipline to over three hundred schools. She was clever to organise public demonstrations of the sport to illustrate its worth and also show how much fun it could be. She left her position to focus on lower and middle class girls rather than the upper classes that she had been teaching. She was appalled and conditions working class girls found themselves in so much so that she remarked they were in no physical state to be taught in the first place.
Determined to do things her way and without constraint she set up the Hampstead Physical Training College and Gymnasium for Women. It would admit only women and everyone told her it would be a failure. It continues to this day having moved to Dartford College, a larger site operated by North West Kent College. She invented the Gymslip, Netball, which has allowed for the development of netball drill video series that help with game skills, and made sure that generations of Women at the start of the twentieth century had education not only in sports and deportment but also anatomy, chemistry and physics.