By David F. Gentle
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. 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 Tolson’s 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 traveling circus. His object 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 endeavors, soon giving his own strongman show under the title “The Mighty Young Apollon.”
J. C. Tolson, ApollonTolson took his stage name from his own hero, the fabulous early strength athlete, Louis Uni, the original Apollon (1862-1928). Uni was of striking proportions being 6’3″ and a muscular 260 lbs. Tolson, by comparison, was much smaller, but well proportioned. His measurements being listed in top shape as height 5’6″, neck 17 1/2 ins; chest expanded 48 1/2 ins; waist 32 ins; forearm 14 1/2 ins; biceps 17 inches; thighs 24 ins; and calves 16 ins.
Tolson, an all-around 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 first prize (and Zass’ money!) 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 500 lbs. – again Tolson took first prize and the rewards. Bill Pullum recalls in “Random Recollections” (H & S mag circa 1950’s) of “seeing Zass lift a 700 lb. girder with his teeth, not once, but many times,” at the Empire Music Hall circa 1925.
Gaining in strength and confidence, Tolson issued challenges via the regular strength magazines to all and sundry to take him on for the title of Britain’s Champion Strongman. Entrants were to compete with Tolson in the following tests of power:
- Bending of the shortest square bar into a horseshoe shape.
- Bending of the shortest length of a square iron bar around the neck.
- The lifting of a heavy steel girder with the teeth.
- Weightlifting tests of power. The military press and 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 Nation 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 Will 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 3/4″ by 7/16″ 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 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 spectatorApollons 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 bar of iron twelve inches long and half an inch thick around his neck, and while laying 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 that stage was large enough, he has withstood as many as fifty men, or by way of a change, two heavy cart horses. And so, by this one performance Apollon placed himself among the greatest of strong-men and proved himself a worthy bearer of the name Apollon.
Photo: J. C. Tolson, The Might Young Apollon, (postcard) (no date) (photographer-unknown)(Contributed by Warren Pember)
To prove beyond a doubt his capabilities, the following day in March 1927 at the same venue, Tolson created a new professional weightlifting record 168 lbs. bodyweight with a pullover and press on back with 249 lbs. He later pressed in the same supine position with a girder weighing nearly 3cwt before an audience of 12,000.
Other feats of strength included bending 4-six inch nails together; lifting one end of a taxi cab weighing 3,362 lbs.; supporting more than two tons on a “bridge” of wooden planks placed across his chest, carrying half a ton on his back of 50 yards, juggling with 56 lb. weights and breaking chains. Around the 1930’s Tolson carried 8 men on a special bar. Tolson then walked around the gym twice without stopping. The contraption weighed in excess of 1160 lbs. He often trained at Chickenley Athletic Club. Once, for a bet, he bent into a U-shape a steel carriage 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 combined packs of cards into quarters as well.
In 1933, Tolson pinch lifted a lead block (65 Lbs.) by grasping with his thumb and finger alone an old penny which had been soldered onto 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 500 lb. right handed deadlift at just 165 lbs. bodyweight. Tolson, by the way, later surpassed his own record in the two hands press behind the neck by lifting 214 1/2 lbs. for an under 11 stone British record.
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 protégés and champions.
Tolson himself still trained and at later dates did a strict curl of 148 lbs. when the heavy weight record was then 152 lbs. and the Young Apollon also improved his little finger lift overhead with a lift of 108 1/4 lbs. in 1929.
As was the custom in those days of mail order muscle, whilst the vast majority 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 with no equipment at all. In Tolson’s case, relating to his love of bending nails and the influence of Alexander Zass, he based his course on isometric 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 Tolson’s 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 by David Gentle All Rights Reserved