West Malling Famous Face Gladys Wright

As we get closer to the 2023 FIFA Women’s World Cup taking place in Australia and New Zealand from 20th July, CommunityAd thought it would be fitting to pay tribute to a pioneer of promoting women’s physical education, West Malling’s own Gladys Wright.


Born in West Malling in 1891, Wright grew up with a love of physical challenges and in 1918 she would swim in a race covering 10 miles between Aylesford and Rochester competing against 16 men. Only three competitors completed the race with Gladys not only coming first but also winning the race by an incredible 30 minutes.

Intrigued by gymnastics and dance, Gladys travelled and trained in Denmark and Sweden where she studied and taught a modernised style of gymnastics influenced by fellow PE pioneer, Sweden’s Pehr Henrik Ling.

Starting to establish herself as a gymnastics and dance entrepreneur, Gladys started The English Scandinavian Summer School in 1923 based at Herne Bay; an annual course for women gym teachers from around the world to educate themselves on the Scandinavian method for teaching PE.

Determined to promote the method across the UK, Gladys would create The Scandinavian Gymnastic Demonstration in Great Britain in 1933, travelling to major cities in England and Scotland, and even performing at The Royal Albert Hall.

Gladys’ desire and passion towards the Scandinavian demonstration would see her awarded the Swedish Gymnastic Association’s silver medal. The President of Finland also honoured Wright with a medal from the Order of the White Rose of Finland in recognition for her public service to improve relations between Britain and Finland.

In 1938, Gladys founded, and became the first Principle of, the Nonington College of Physical Education which had been purchased by the English Gymnastic Society. Based at St Alban’s Court in Nonington, the facilities included a gymnasium, with equipment imported from Scandinavia, an Olympic sized swimming pool and running tracks.

At the age of 88, Gladys Wright died in a Cambridgeshire nursing home leaving an incredible legacy and an impact so huge on women’s physical education that without her work I don’t think we would have seen some of the inspirational female sports stars, teachers and athletes that we see today.

This February, two former Nonington students were presented with honorary Batchelor of Education degrees from the University of London as their courses were not acknowledged back then as the degree level studies that they are now.

Despite closing in 1986, many of the women, and later men, who studied at Nonington went on to teach PE and inspire future generations, leaving a lasting legacy on physical education.

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