Last week I visited the birth place of netball, which not many people know is right here in Dartford.
The historic sporting site is at North Kent College where the Bergman-Österberg Physical Training College was located at the end of the 19th century.
In 1895, part of the Oakfield Lane site was bought by Martina Bergman-Österberg, who created a physical training college for girls and women specialising in gymnastics.
It was here a year later where the game of ‘net ball’ began.
The sport, which was adapted from basketball, was developed at the physical training college by the students in 1896. Changes from basketball included making the court smaller and zoning the areas where players could go.
At the time the students used a type of waste paper basket on top of a pole to throw the ball at. They soon found that it was annoying to have to keep removing the basket every time the ball went in it and so, at the suggestion of the father of one of the students, they replaced the basket with a net and changed the name of the sport from ‘basket ball’ to ‘net ball’.
The college was also responsible for another invention, one of the students Mary Tait invented the gymslip. This meant the women, who usually wore long dresses, could change into the gymslip, which was shorter and more comfortable to move about in. Into the 20th century, the gymslip went on to be worn as standard uniform among British school girls.
Since its inception, the sport of netball has grown into an international phenomenon and this year England won gold in the Commonwealth Games for the first time.
This college was well ahead of its time and it helped to end the view that women couldn’t take part in sport.
The training college was left in the hands of a management committee by Madame Bergman-Österberg, as a gift to the nation shortly before her death in 1915. Over the years, it trained hundreds of women and it remained a physical education college until 1986.
Today the college houses the Madame Österberg archives, which is a treasure trove of photos and literature about the history of the game.
Next year, England will host the Netball World Cup in Liverpool, where sixteen nations will compete for the world title. I hope that when this happens people will learn more about the game’s roots, which began right here in our town.