The Early Years

Exeter Gymnastics Club was formed in 1967 by Des Mills and his young family, they were soon joined by Frank Ley and his daughters. Initially, training took place at the YMCA (in St David’s Hill) until facilities became available at the University. The equipment consisted of four tatty green mats and a lot of enthusiasm. The Club now has tens of thousands of pounds of equipment, premises worth - well, who knows! - and, hopefully, the same enthusiasm.

By 1973, the club had grown to 80 gymnasts and was running sessions five nights a week but at four different venues, Episcopal School in Dinham Road, St. Thomas’s High School now West Exe, Friars Gate and the YMCA. I’m sure you can imagine the problems caused by the diversity of locations - equipment was never in the right place for the gymnasts who needed it - half the time was spent getting kit out and putting it away again and the club had no real identity as a whole because it was never all together in one place. It is a credit to the voluntary coaches, Steve Marchant, Alan Spring, Mike Euridge (to name but a few) and the committee during those years that they not only kept the club going but managed to raise money for equipment and to improve the standards of the gymnasts.

Growth and Development

The years from 1973 to 1979 were a time of expansion under the Chairmanship of Ray Albon (until1977) and then Betty Punnett. During this period much of the equipment was purchased and the club further expanded its numbers. It is worth mentioning at this point that the club was always run on an entirely voluntary basis with all of the coaches and helpers giving up their time freely to help the gymnasts. All of the equipment was purchased from fund-raising income and the old minute books reveal a constant succession of sponsored walks, barbecues, discos, etc.

Exeter Gymnastics Club was using the Keyhole Centre two evenings each week when the Whipton Club, run by Mr Graham Watson and the May family (who now run the Hawkes club in Bristol), who were also using the Keyhole Centre on Saturdays, approached the committee with the proposal of combining. In 1975 the two clubs merged and with new enthusiasm a parents committee responsible for fundraising and social events was set up.

As the Club was still trying to operate in three different locations, the idea of premises where it could operate as a whole was muted. To this end a sub-committee was set up to look for any suitable premises. It was Betty Punnet who in 1977 came up trumps. Having realised that Devon County Council had purchased the Old St Nicholas School she approached the Council to ask if the Club could rent part of the school.

The move from the Keyhole Centre to St Nicholas’ School was not universally welcomed as the Club had to enter into a formal lease and pay rent, rates and heating bills that were far in excess of the previous levels of expenditure. However, the advantages of a permanent base for all the gymnasts, and the opportunity to leave equipment permanently set up outweighed the disadvantages and it was decided to move. By September 1977 volunteers had cleaned up the old school and the membership increased to 110. We then began to find out how cold the school was in winter!

In 1978 Mike’s commitments to the Royal Marines took him away from the club though he kept in close touch with us whenever possible.

The Crisis Years

1978 saw John Balding appear on the committee and at a meeting in November it was learned that the premises were to be sold and the club made homeless. When the St Nicholas School moved to new premises Devon County Council purchased the old buildings for eventual demolition as part of the Holloway Street road-widening plan. The Council had leased part of the building (the centre block) to the club while their plans were being approved. But, in 1978, they decided to abandon the road-widening scheme and sell the building.

Details took a long time to emerge but by mid 1979 it was clear that the Club could either go back to using several different premises or attempt to raise money and buy the old school. When it was learned that this would cost £60,000 the committee was understandably daunted.

Gloom and Despondency

During 1979, the club went through a crisis. With the coaches and committee gradually drifting away until there was a real danger of the club folding. By the beginning of 1980, it was clear that some drastic action was necessary and in March, John Balding called an emergency meeting of parents to decide what to do. Yvonne Budd, Diane Plumb and John explained the situation to a well attended meeting and the result was the formation of an Action Committee who accepted the task of securing accommodation for the club. A new main committee under John’s Chairmanship was formed and several parents agreed to help Yvonne and Diane (who had largely been responsible for keeping the club together during 1979) with the coaching.

The Action Committee started by looking for alternative premises and over the next few months looked at disused fire stations, half built old peoples homes, vacant plots on which to put prefabricated buildings and a variety of equally unlikely ideas. By the summer the Club had failed to find any alternatives and began to consider buying the old school despite having virtually no funds with which to do so.

. . . continued in 'The 1980's'