Prunella Stack: The ‘perfect girl’ of the 1930s who led the Women’s League of Health and Beauty

Prunella Stack pioneered women's fitness programmes and was dubbed the "perfect girl" by the press. As head of the 1930s Women's League of Health and Beauty she was the driving force behind an organisation that touched the lives of hundreds of thousands of women all over the world. She appeared to live her own life according to the League's motto, "Movement is Life", and was still encouraging women to exercise up till two years ago.

The League gave a generation of women whose fathers, brothers and husbands had been killed in the First World War the opportunity to exercise together in classes of varying levels of difficulty. In modern terms, Stack might be seen as a forerunner of today's fitness obsession; the League embraced such disciplines as pilates, aerobics, dance exercise and yoga.

Born in India in July 1914, Ann Prunella Stack was the daughter of Mary and Captain Edward Hugh Bagot Stack,a captain in the 2nd/8th Gurkha Rifles. At the outbreak of the First WorldWar, her father embarked for France with his battalion, while she sailedwith her mother to Britain. Capt Stack was killed at the front before hisfamily had reached Plymouth three months later; nine of the battalion's 11 officers had been killed or wounded in a single morning.

While in India, Mary Stack noted the physical differences between the British Imperialists and the Indian women of all castes, who seemed to benefit from yoga, with better posture and greater flexibility. In London she started an exercise class for children and another for women, and in 1925 established the Bagot Stack Health School. Here she taught teachers – among them Prunella, who qualified in 1930, aged 16, already a veteran demonstrator of her mother's techniques. Mary promoted a philosophy of exercise structured and graded to the needs of all ages and abilities, and taught by trained physicians, through huge public displays.

Although Mary's health was deteriorating, in an attempt to reach more women she set up the Women's League of Health and Beauty in 1930 in the YMCA premises on Regent Street in London. At a time of female emancipation, with women gaining the right to vote in Britain in 1928, the League seemed to cut across class barriers. Membership was affordable, at half a crown, plus sixpence a class. There was a uniform of a white sleeveless blouse and black shorts; the League created its own energetic style, which was first shown publicly in the Royal Albert Hall in 1931, when 500 members put on a display of exercises to music; five years later, 5,000 members performed in Olympia.

By this time, however, Stack, aged 20, was now head of the organisation following the death of her mother a year earlier. The first publication of the League's official magazine, Mother & Daughter, came in 1933. Stack proved more than capable, teaching, performing, and speaking in public with skill and charm. With her long legs and radiant smile, the popular press adored her and dubbed her the "perfect girl".

In 1930s Britain, austerity sparked public health fears and the fitness craze gathered pace as Europe began to re-arm and the threat of war loomed large again. British membership expanded to 166,000 by 1937 and the League developed into an international organisation. The same year, the government harnessed the momentum built by the Women's League and began a national health campaign. Invited by the Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain, Stack was appointed to the campaign to stress physical exercise as "a matter of national importance".

In 1937, following the invitation of a Scottish MP to open a school swimming pool with an inaugural dive, Stack met the MP's younger brother, Lord David Douglas-Hamilton. He proposed, she accepted and they married at Glasgow Cathedral in October 1938. The couple went off on a post-honeymoon trip to the Alps to share their love of mountaineering.

In 1938, Stack took a League delegation to festivals in Hamburg, where she carried the British flag, and then to Finland. Although slightly unnerved by the "Nazi" experience, in March 1939 she hosted a German contingent. The Douglas-Hamiltons were invited to dine at Claridge's in honour of Frau Gertrud Scholtz-Klink, the 36-year-old leader of Germany's National Socialist Womanhood, whom Hitler described as "the perfect Nazi woman". With the outbreak of War in September, the League's girls were being called up and volunteering for service. Stack moved to Dorset to look after her two young boys, Diarmaid and Iain.

Stack's husband joined the RAF and, like his three brothers, became a squadron leader. He led a distinguished career, but as he was returning from a sortie over France, his badly damaged Mosquito suffered engine failure and crashed just short of RAF Benson: . at the age of 30 Stack was left widowed, just as her mother had been.

She eventually returned to London, where she spent several years rebuilding the League's membership. During this period, Stack met an old friend,Alistair Albers, a South African Rhodes Scholar who had returned to London to qualify as a surgeon at Guy's Hospital. Albers, who gave demonstrations of Zulu dances and war cries to Stack's boys, invited them to visit South Africa.

Stack accepted and they married in Cape Town in 1950. She then set about expanding the League's presence in South Africa, circumventing the newly written racial laws to set up classes for women in the segregated Cape Coloured suburbs. Nine months later, on Easter Sunday 1951, the couple were climbing Table Mountain when Alistair lost his hold and fell to his death. She remained in South Africa to continue her work with the League.

In 1953, in defiance of the authorities, Stack led a multi-racial team to perform at the Queen's Coronation in London. She returned with her sons to London in 1956 and continued as president of the League. Although the League changed its name to the Fitness League in 1999, it has continued to stage its displays at the Albert Hall, most recently in April last year to mark the organisation's 80th anniversary.

While in London, Stack met the barrister and lecturer Brian Power, whom she married in 1964. The couple lived in London but escaped for breaks to their much-loved Scottish hideaway in Raasay in the Hebrides, near Skye. He died in 2008.

Ann Prunella Stack, teacher and fitness educator: born India 28 July 1914; OBE 1980; married 1938 Lord David Douglas-Hamilton (died 1944; two sons), 1950 Alfred Gustave (died 1951), 1964 Brian St Quentin Power (died 2008); died London 30 December 2010.

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