By Francesca Millena
A traditionally male-dominated pastime commonly associated with duelling, fencing was an unexpected pioneer of women’s equality, according to an exhibition, En Garde!, that opened this month at Stanton Library, North Sydney.
Celebrating 100 years of The Swords Club, Australia’s oldest and continuously running fencing club, the exhibition explores the role of the Club in the development of fencing in Australia. It is also rekindling interest in an activity many regard as outdated.
Founded in 1913 by skilled swordsman Frank Stuart, who later established the Australian College of Physical Education (ACPE) to train young women as sports mistresses, the Club encouraged men and women to compete against each other at a time when women were still denied the right to vote.
“It’s actually a very modern sport,” says Vivienne Tucker, who is head trainer at The Swords Club. “It’s fast paced and aerobic – I’ve seen a match last all of 12 seconds.
“Many people also liken it to physical chess because it’s more about the strategy and tactics than the actual combat element. But it’s not a sport that most people think about so having the exhibit is a great way to highlight our history and to also encourage people to get into fencing.”
With just over 2000 registered fencers across Australia today, 850 in NSW alone, fencing is still a niche activity that doesn’t attract the participation rates of popular sports like rugby or tennis.
Duncan Fairweather, the president of NSW Fencing Association, says this makes the role of groups like The Swords Club even more notable.
“The Swords Club has made a magnificent contribution to NSW and Australian fencing during its 100 years. Many active and successful fencers started their fencing careers at the Club. In fact, the grand dame of Australian fencing, Professor Joan Beck, was based at the Club,” he says.
Yet the biggest threat to fencing, according to veteran fencers like Jackie Budniack, 26, a member of The Swords Club and fencer of over 12 years, is the lack of funding.
“I’m on the Australian Fencing Team and I have to pay for everything. When I fly out next month to compete overseas, I’ll have to pay for my tickets and accommodation,” she says.
According to Ms Budniack, the lack of funding has also had an impact on Australia’s chances at the Olympics – Australia is yet to win a fencing medal – an irony given fencing was one of the first four original sports to be played since the start of the modern Olympic Games in 1896.
Duncan Fairweather disagrees. He says that although it’s unlikely fencing in Australia will match the participation rates seen in Europe, growth overall has been steady and while there are challenges for those competing internationally, they aren’t dissimilar to those faced by athletes in similarly niche sports such as archery.
Mr Fairweather adds that fencing participation rates could actually be higher as social (non-competitive) players aren’t required to register with the association and aren’t counted in the official numbers.
“One of the good things about fencing is that you can compete at any age. We have fencers aged from seven to 70. We have several fencers in their 70s and veteran fencing for men and women aged 40 upwards is becoming more popular.”
Running until October, the En Garde! exhibition features photographs, memorabilia and modern and historic fencing attire and equipment. During the school holidays free swordplay workshops, weapon demonstrations and footwork classes will also be hosted at the library under the guidance of tutors from The Swords Club.