Keeping Fit with Eileen Fowler (1906–2000) - by Lucy Rivers, Thurrock Museum Volunteer

At the beginning of Covid19 lockdown in 2020, Joe Wicks announced that he would make short exercise videos available on his YouTube channel so that children remain active whilst staying at home. Children and their parents (as well as those who were simply intrigued by seeing Mr. Wicks exercise in his living room) were quick to integrate this into their new lockdown routine. There have been countless exercise gurus since the second half of the twentieth century – some people may remember Diana Moran (‘The Green Goddess’), Lizzie Webb and Mr. Motivator. They try to convince the population that exercise can be a part of daily life and completed by the ordinary person. Before all of them, however, was Thurrock resident Eileen Fowler.

Born in Edmonton on 13th May 1906, Eileen found herself in the world of the performing arts and musical theatre. In the mid-1930s, after years of late nights and parties which came with such a career, Fowler left the theatre and focused on fitness and nutrition. Believing that exercise was the key to a sense of well-being, she quickly began exercise classes for ladies. In 1936, she held Health and Beauty classes at St. John’s Hall in College Road, Grays, as well as regular classes in the Ball Room at Bata and at Thames Board Mills, Purfleet until the beginning of the Second World War. She also choreographed the Bata pantomime.  

In 1948, Fowler resumed her classes in East Tilbury and Aveley. By the 1950s, Eileen had begun to reach a national audience. On 1st April 1954, Fowler broadcast her first radio show, which, at its peak, began to attract half a million listeners. Her television career rapidly followed with regular exercise shows, broadcast every morning at 6:45 in the BBC's first keep-fit programme. She would give jolly instructions and ‘down with a bounce; with a bounce, come up’ soon became something of a catchphrase.

Eileen examined ways to sell her notions to the public at large, and before and throughout World War II, she set up the Industrial Keep Fit organisation, with classes for the company workers of Middlesex, Hertfordshire and later Essex. Her displays and demonstrations were given by teams from her various groups. She was able to bring her unique presentation skills to that task. Her classes often featured smiling girls with ‘EF’ on their shirts.

Fowler published many books on fitness and nutrition, including ‘Stay Young Forever’ and ‘Keep Fit Exercises for Everyone’. She even recorded some keep fit records, such as ‘Swing into Shape’ (a copy of this is held in Thurrock Museum). Eileen Fowler was a founder member of the Keep Fit Association in 1956 and was awarded the MBE in 1975.

Eileen Fowler lived and worked in Thurrock for many years. From 1942 to 1977, she lived at High House, Horndon on the Hill, before moving to Frinton on Sea. In her later years, she was a resident at a retirement home in Colchester. Even then, continued exercising and would encourage many other residents to join her. She died at the home aged 93 on 7th March 2000.

Fowler is known mostly due to her national fame and success in the postwar period, but the significance of her work completed in the 1930s is something that should be recognised. In interwar Britain, female athleticism, keep-fit classes and physical culture were promoted as symbols of modernity, and women who pursued beauty, health and fitness demonstrated ‘civic virtue’. Ina Zweiniger-Bargielowska has argued that a modern, actively managed female body was part of women’s liberation during this period. However, fitness culture was limited by traditional ideas of femininity; women’s competitive sport remained controversial and slimming in pursuit of fashion was widely condemned. Nevertheless, women from all social classes embraced sport and were eager to join fitness organisations, which paved the way for future advancements in women’s sport and exercise.

Sources and further information:

Thurrock Museum Fact File 65 Eileen Fowler.

Ina Zweiniger-Bargielowska (2011) The Making of a Modern Female Body: Beauty, Health and Fitness in Interwar Britain, Women's History Review, 20:2.