Georgie Heyhoe 1937–2023 – An inspirational woman

Margaret Peggie pays tribute to Georgie Heyhoe, a longtime Flexercise teacher and friend

Georgie Heyhoe was a remarkable woman whose courage and strength in the aftermath of a terrible accident was an inspiration to all who knew her. Undeterred by injuries which left her with permanent mobility problems, she carried on teaching her classes for many years afterwards. She believed profoundly in the benefits of the FLexercise system. She loved it, had been helped to recover by practising it and knew it could help others in all sorts of ways.

Georgie and I met an the interview and audition for a new teacher training course for the Women’s League of Health and Beauty, as the organisation was known then – the ‘League’ for short. It was one of the first courses to be run on a part-time basis. Until then the teachers had attended a full-time course at Morley College in London. Sixteen of us were accepted on a probationary basis for the first term, with the number reducing to 14 after that. By today’s standards, that is a remarkable number. Even more so, considering we had to be between 18 and 35 years of age. How times have changed!

Georgie and I lived quite close to each other in Surrey, so I drove to pick her up and we travelled together to the fortnightly training sessions held at Crystal Palace National Sports Centre. The training was intensely practical and very hard work. By the time we got home at the end of the day our poor over-worked bodies had stiffened up so much that it was a struggle to get out of my Mini.

Georgie was a strong character with a great sense of humour whose down-to-earth comments kept us all laughing with her. She was a ‘beautiful mover’ as we like to say, loving every opportunity to express herself through movement and music that the League gave her. She married Don when she was just 18, was devoted to him and the rest of her family, many of whom she cared for in their later years.

She and Don had no children which left her with plenty of time to pursue her League training and then her classes in addition to a variety of full-time jobs. After qualifying in 1973 she opened a centre in Cobham, then another one in Staines and Ashford in 1975. By the end of the first month she had more than 70 people attending and the centre continues until this day. Back then they were called ‘centres’ because there was usually a range of classes to choose from according to ability or type of class.

Life was going very well for Georgie, but all that changed later that year. Travelling to a teachers’ meeting in Surrey on her motor scooter, she was sent flying by a car whose driver hadn’t seen her. Georgie was immediately taken to the Spinal Injuries Unit at Stoke Mandeville Hospital in Buckinghamshire where they diagnosed two broken vertebrae and a badly bruised, swollen spinal cord.

I remember being told that she had fractured the odontoid peg, part of the second bone in her neck. Had it completely fractured she might have been paralysed from the neck down, though whether or not this is true I cannot say. Georgie was many weeks in traction, tied down to keep her head and neck still in a bed which rotated to prevent bed sores. Abiding memories of my visits to her are of her stoicism and cheerfulness, then of the number of young men who had come off motorbikes and the girls who had come off horses. Very off-putting in respect of both those activities.

It was expected that Georgie would be in a wheelchair for the rest of her life, but she was definitely not going to let that happen! She worked tirelessly to restore the neural connections between brain and body. She did that from day one by thinking through pelvic tilting as well as the feet and leg exercises – until one day her big toe moved!

Six months later Georgie left the hospital under her own steam and spent the summer learning to walk properly again. By September 1976, one year after her accident, she resumed teaching. The Staines and Ashford centre went from strength to strength reaching a peak of 199 members. What an achievement!

While Georgie’s body was never to move as gracefully as it had done before the accident, that did not stop her from being an excellent teacher of exercise and movement. She took on the Hounslow class in 1982 from a retiring teacher. Her centres often came together to put on joint rallies and displays as Georgie continued to contribute successfully to the life of the League beyond her classes.

In recognition of the role Stoke Mandeville Hospital had played in Georgie’s recovery and inspired by Georgie herself, her fellow teachers and their class members raised money for the Spinal Injuries Unit. A cheque for, I think, £30,000 was presented to the now disgraced Jimmy Saville after a display given by the small team I trained for the occasion in front of patients and staff.

Georgie retired from teaching in 2007 at the age of 70 when health problems stemming from the injuries caused by her accident began to catch up with her. She had the League to thank for her basic fitness which enabled her to rise above her health problems. She had the knowledge she gained from training as a teacher which meant she was able to apply the right exercises for speeding her recovery. In turn the League has Georgie to thank for a lifetime of selfless dedication, as do the hundreds of fortunate people who enjoyed her classes and her colleagues who loved and admired her.