by David Gentle
Todays bodybuilders and powerlifters usually obtain their inspiration from some hero in a video. film or magazine. getting a further taste for training with weights via a powerlifting meet or muscle show.
Seen right: JC Tolson, 'The Mighty Young Apollon'
Home of the mighty, from Ron Walker to Reg Park, one of the most famous of all Yorkshire strongmen was a man by the name of J.C. Tolson. Tolson was born July 16th 1903 near Dewsbury. His mother was a petite woman, but his father was a well known Rugby player weighing around 13 stone, strong and athletic. Young Tolson was himself rather small as a boy, and only became inspired to commence training at around the age of 17 years.
Today's bodybuilders and powerlifters usually obtain their inspiration from some hero in a video, film or magazine, getting a further taste for training with weights via a powerlifting meet or muscle show. In Tolsons days for most would be strongmen the love of power often developed after a visit to a circus or music hall on witnessing the then popular acts of professional strongmen. This was indeed the case for Tolson who began training after seeing a strongman act in a travelling circus. His objective was to develop both a muscular physique and also Great Strength ... both of which he did with some high degree of success, gaining rapidly in his endeavours, soon giving his own 'Strong-Man' show under the title 'The Mighty Young Apollon'.
Tolson took his stage name from his own hero, the fabulous early strength athlete - Frenchman, Louis Uni - or the original Apollon 1862-1928. Uni was of striking proportions being 6'3" and a muscular 2601bs. Tolson by comparison was much smaller but well proportioned. His measurements being listed when in top shape as height 5'6", neck 17 l/2", chest expanded 48 l/2", waist 32", forearm 14 l/2", (that's large for such a bodyweight) biceps 17", thighs 24" and calves 16".
Tolson, an all-round lifter of great merit, discovered after a chance involvement at a strength show in 1925 at the local Empire Music Hall put on by Alexander Zass (who called himself Samson) that he had special powers when it came to bending iron bars, coming 3rd in his first competition organized by Zass. Samson (or Zass) must have regretted ever letting Tolson enter the contest, as soon after Tolson won first prize in the bar bending challenge and then continued to follow Zass and show around the halls, taking 1st prize (and the money!!l until Zass in desperation dropped the event from his repertoire. By this time Tolson had collected a respectable £200 or more a lot of do-ray-me in those days. Zass then substituted the lifting of a steel girder which weighed over 500lbs - again Tolson took first prize and the rewards. Bill Pullum by the way recalls in 'Random Recollections' (H & S mag circa 1950's) of "seeing Zass lift a 700lb girder with his teeth, not once but many times", at the Empire Music hall circa 1925. Gaining in strength and confidence, Tolson as was the custom in those days issued challenges via the regular strength magazines to all and sundry to take him on for the title of Britain's Champion Strong Man. Entrants having to attempt the following all round tests of power:
- To bend the shortest square bar into a horseshoe shape.
- To bend the shortest length square iron bar around the neck (an idea later introduced into more recent Worlds Strongest Man contest, excelled in by Geoff Capes).
- To lift the heaviest steel girder with the teeth. As mentioned earlier, a specialist lift at which Tolson had had much practise again influenced by Alexander Zass's original strength act.
- And finally, Tolson included his two pets, but recognized lifts: Weightlifting tests of power - the military press and the two hands deadlift.
Few if any accepted his open challenge, so a frustrated Tolson decided to put on a demonstration of strength to substantiate his claims. Aided and encouraged by Bill Pullum, he chose the prestigious National Sporting Club in London in March 1927.
His act or demonstration of power is well documented in the strength magazines of the period, and consisted of the following display as described by Wilf Diamond strength athlete and historian:
"He started off by breaking a steel chain with his fingers, then he lifted to arms length overhead, with his Little Finger, a ring weight, weighing 91 1/2 lbs and not satisfied with this he took a bar of mild steel 9%" (24.5cms) by 7/16" or 1.4cms and bent it into the shape of a horseshoe. He tore a pack of cards into quarters without taking off the covers. Then to climax it all he drove a six inch nail into a plank of wood with his bare hands - and in one straight pull, drew the nail out with his teeth. Seeing this the spectators expressed their appreciation in rapturous applause. Thus encouraged Apollon went on with his demonstration.
He supported twenty men on his chest with a bridge, bent a bar of iron twelve inches long (31 cms) and half an inch thick (1.5cms) around his neck, and while lying on the backs of two chairs, broke a six inch nail. This latter feat required exceptional strength of the entire body, particularly in the neck and abdominals. He ended his performance with a tug of war against twenty men. On other occasions, when the stage was large enough, he has withstood as many as fifty men, or byway of a change, two heavy cart horses. And so, by his one performance Apollon placed himself among the greatest of strongmen and proved himself a worthy bearer of the famous name Apollon".
To prove beyond doubt his capabilities, the following day in March 1927 at the same venue, refereed by famed authority and BAWLA ref - W.J. Lowry, Tolson created a new professional weight lifting record at 1681bs bodyweight with a pull-over and press on back with 2491bs (113kgs). (Remember this was long before the Bench Press became a popular lift). He later pressed in the same supine position a girder weighing nearly 3cwt before a huge 12,000 audience. Some twelve weeks later he established two new records (British) with a clean and press behind neck of 204 l/2 lbs (92.5kgs) and a two hands dead lift with 551 l/4 Ibs (250kgs).
Other feats of strength included bending 4-six inch nails together, 'lifting a taxi cab' which weighed 3,3621bs (Okay!! - I mean lifting one end). Supporting more than 2 tons on a 'bridge' of wooden planks placed across his chest, carrying half a ton on his back for 50 yds., juggling with 56 1b weights and breaking chains. Around the 1930's Tolson carried 8 men (4 each side) on a special bar - total in excess of 11601bs. Tolson then walked (shuffled) around the gym twice without stopping. He often trained at Chickenley Athletic Club. Once for a bet he bent into a U-shape a steel carriage bolt, the bolt being 6" long and 3/8" diameter. He later duplicated Samson's feat by bending a 5" long by 5/8" bar double. Apollon could tear 3 full packs of cards, altogether into quarters - too expensive a stunt to practise today.
In 1933 Tolson pinched lifted a lead block - weight 651 lbs. (295 kgs) by grasping with thumb and index finger alone an old penny which had been soldered into the block. Many contemporary strongmen failed to duplicate this feat of gripping strength, with the exception of BAWLA record holder Laurence Chappell. Chappell was tough, having done a 500lbs (226.7kg) Right Handed deadlift at just 1651bs bodyweight. Tolson by the way, later surpassed his own record in the two hands press behind neck by lifting 214 l/2 lbs for an under/11stone British record - again passed by Lowry.
Retiring from open competition and displays, he devoted his considerable energies to encouraging others to improve their strength and vitality with his highly popular and successful home training course. Followed faithfully by thousands over the years and resulting in some wonderful protégées and champions. Tolson himself still trained and at later dates did a strict curl of 148 1bs when the heavyweight record was then 152 1bs (author David Gentle has himself Strict curled 145 1bs at 11 l/2 stone for bronze medal under the now extinct SAWLA) and the Young Apollon also improved his Little Finger lift overhead with a lift of 108 1/4 lbs ... (1929).
As was the custom in those days of mail order muscle, whilst the vast majority of strength athletes had developed their own physiques and power via training with weights, they sold less expensive apparatus to the general public or in the example of Charles Atlas - no apparatus at all. In Tolsons case, relating to his love of bending nails and the influence of Alexander Zass he based his course on isometric type methods providing pupils with various lengths and strengths of mild steel bars on which to devote their energies in standard bar bending positions designed to tense and exercise all muscle groups. The course as we mentioned above ran for many years, with happy pupils usually developing sufficient power to bend six inch nails and perform other tough stunts. I last saw Tolsons adverts circa the late 1950's and would be most grateful to former pupils of the Apollon course to contact me and tell me of their experiences and knowledge of Tolson's later days.
Apollon © Copyright by David Gentle All Rights Reserved