By David F. Gentle, PC Historian & Author
It was a night to remember, if we go back just about nineteen years to March 20th 1999, at the Oscar Heidenstam Awards in London, a special recognition award for services to physical culture went to a man who has devoted his life to participating and competing in as well as organising and promoting the cause of true physical culture in its highest ethics, David. P. Webster, OBE.
No one who’s been in the Iron Game for more than five minutes can fail to recognise and admire the name David Webster, a name synonymous with factual, yet highly amusing and entertaining writings. Which recount heroic strength feats of long ago, as well as current ones, with the Worlds Strongest Man contests and International Highland Games.
Look back over the last 6 decades and in almost every bodybuilding, weightlifting or strength magazine of note, you will discover articles penned by David Webster. His enthusiasm for the Iron Game is legendary and his writings, especially his technical instructional manuals on weightlifting techniques, have been translated into Swedish, Danish, Norwegian, Chinese and Japanese.
His articles have appeared in dozens of strength journals and he is the author of many, many books, several of which are recognised now as classic reference sources, e.g. The Iron Game and Barbells and Beefcake, along with what are the definite reference books for old time strength athletes, Sons of Samson, Vols I and 2.
An avid collector, Dave posses possible the worlds best private collection of muscle and strength related material including a huge photo library, books, courses, magazines and even stage weights of famous old-time strongmen much of which are recorded on a superb video taken by Wayne Gallasch of Australia in 1996 (David Webster’s collection GMV Bodybuilding DVDs.) Yet David is still as keen as ever to swap and even buy more. With a photographic memory, (much used by the Terry and Jan Todd Texas Museum) he can tell you at a glance whether or not he indeed already owns a certain magazine or booklet. (mind you he is not so good when it comes to the shopping list or menial tasks).
His energy in enviable, if you could bottle it, it would be worth a fortune, still undiminished after a lifetime of travelling the world organising Strength shows, comparing contests, visiting collectors and muscle buffs, or simply on quests to discover the whereabouts of long lost strength athletes to add treasured old- time tones or journals to his collection of muscle memorabilia.
Despite his gruelling schedule of travelling organising, writing and yes still training, David was also competing not so long ago (1999) winning the 77kg class for his age in the Scottish masters, and taking second place in the British Masters Championships to Bill Bunton yet he finds time to encourage and assist others, with an enthusiasm that’s catching.
Let’s begin at the beginning. David Pirie Webster was born 18th September 1928, in a tenement house in Aberdeen Scotland, the year women were first allowed to participate in the Amsterdam Olympics, and Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin. David says.
” As a young boy I developed an interest in strength, helped and guided by others. My father passed on to me his Sandow Developers (cables or strands) when I was ten years old and got one of his army colleagues to teach my brother and me some basic exercises.”David Webster
Like all boys, Dave read comics and was inspired by the exploits of “Wilson the Wonder”, a super all-round athlete, as those of a similar age will recall. At the age of eleven he went to pro wrestling shows, later himself becoming a fine wrestler.
Back in 1943, in a Leeds railway station David became restless, so his father bought him a copy of Health and Strength to keep him occupied on their long journey back to Scotland. Thus, began in earnest for David a far longer journey than one trip upon a train. As David said himself in his book Sons of Samson. ”A pebble on the stream let scant, has turned the course of many a river.” Such were his beginnings, with David Pirie Webster causing more than a splash in his chosen sport of all-round physical culture.
Leaving school, David worked in an aircraft factory where an old weightlifter showed him how to lift a 56lbs weight overhead in one hand. Others, as is the fashion of true physical culturists helped considerable. “Gavin Pearson taught me how to use strands properly, and Al Murray coached me in weightlifting. Bill Anderson showed me how to toss a caber, Geoff Morris showed me how to break six-inch nails (spikes) and Oscar State encouraged and guided me toward the Olympic Games and officiating”.
Webster served for many years as Scottish National Weight lifting Coach. Was coach of the British Commonwealth Weight lifting Championships in Malta in 1983, Help founding the bodybuilding association NABBA, Promoted the Highland Games internationally in the 1960s and in 1980 founded the World Highland Games Heavy Events Championships. Which has been held around the world from Canada to New Zealand.
With the 2009 championships held in Scotland watched by 47,000 people including UKs Prince Charles. Fourteen years later in 2013 Arnold Schwarzenegger invited David to organise the Arnold Highland Games as part of the Arnold Classic.
Thus, many people influenced and assisted him throughout his life. And always, he returned the investment made in him to others.
Back to our beginnings, on January 2nd, 1944, Army Cadet David Webster of the 1st Battalion Duke of Wellington Regiment showed his versatility by winning awards for running, jumping and rope climbing. Later that year (1st September 1944), Major Commandant W.H. White of the Northern School of Physical Training reported that “144089 Cadet Webster is a good type and will make a good leader…Performance good.” O.K.so the major didn’t have too much use of adjectives, but little could he have realised the positive impact this fifteen year- old cadet was going to have on encouraging others and recording for rightful posterity the history and future of strength athletics, weight lifting and training, its many strong men and women, and feats of power, strength and endurance.
Gaining experience. Webster became an army cadet physical culture training instructor in 1945, and by then he was already performing a strong boy act in clubs and at fetes and fairs, doing stunts he learned from Syd Harmers old manual, “How to do strength feats” Particularly liking metal spring chest expanders, although at that time there were no adjustable handles to allow for height, arm length etc as there are today. In fact, David first made a name for himself in strand pulling (see his book Strength Lore and Strands) joining the International Steel Strand Association or ISSA and breaking his first record in 1954. Later he won the North England-Scotland Championships and was runner up in the British. He next won Britain’s Best All rounder in 1946, represented Scotland against Ireland in ’47 at the Hercules Club Dublin, and became the first person to pull 300lbs or 136kgs, thus founding the 300pound club of the ISSA. Dave’s greatest achievement in strand pulling was to win the World Title in 1954. In 1955 Webster promoted the first televised strongman contest which included stone lifting and later the Trans World International body asked David to serve as consultant as they formed their World’s Strongest Man Classic an annual event.
To return to earlier days, his love of the strands spurred him into writing articles on strand pulling for Health and Strength, with its massive readership, catering to all-round physical culture enthusiasts. He moved on to write articles for The Weightlifter and Bodybuilder and U. S. Journals like Iron Man, and Hoffman’s Strength and Health of York Barbell Co, who accepted his articles with glee, despite the fact the U.S. had no official association for strand pulling, a popular form of strength, health and development training. He also wrote for MILO.
It was at this early period he met and became lifelong friends with his training and often working partner Alex Thomson, developing a strength act and calling themselves the Spartans. At first, they called themselves Adonis and Arethusa, until some wise guy told them that Arethusa was a girl…hence a quick change. Getting more involved, David organised many great shows, with top stars like Reg Park, Oscar Heidenstam, and weightlifters Vern Barberis Olympic bronze medalist, and Lois Martin world champion. It was these shows in the 50s that David introduced his giant steel chest expander and the famous Thomas Inch “unliftable dumbbell” plus various Scottish stones of strength, including the Dinnie Stones. Re. The Dinnie stones. Dinnie, a famous Birse athlete is reputed to have carried these two stones, weighing just shy of 770lbs together across the Potarch bridge in 1860. Currently in 2018 there is now out a strongman film winning high praise entitled Stoneland, the documentary being the brainchild of the Texan aficionados, Jan and Terry Todd, who he first met back in 1964 in York P.A. In the film, David Webster retraces is steps as he reflects how he discovered the two rocks neglected on the banks of the river Dee just after World War 11. Now strongmen from all over the world attempt to take up the challenge, first one to lift them both being Jack Shanks.
To continue our story…All in all, Dave estimates officiating or competing in over 300 events between 1950-1954. All the Spartan club shows were well supported, with up to 2,000 people at outdoor events, including Highland Games, later travelling afar, at the Golden Gate of San Francisco, 20,000 people watched strand pulling, and there were competitions in remote places like Lapland, the home of St Nicholas. It is certain that through David’s interests in special strength athletics as a sport, the stone lifting and strength tests in his early shows and their appearances on TV eventually grew into strongman events and their inclusion in Worlds Strongest Man” David was formally appointed referee by Trans World International in 1980 and introduced standard tests like the Farmers Walk in 1983, and the Stones of Strength, e.g. the world- famous McGlashen stones in 1986.
Always an all-rounder, David passed the Royal life Saving Society’s instructor courses, and founded the first Trampolining Association in the World. He loved gliding, with 26 flights to his credit, and enjoyed athletics, Scottish sports, canoeing, climbing and trekking. He was still active on the mountains not so long ago, going up to fifty- mile treks with his sons, enjoying the sheer rough-and-tough delights of the great outdoors. He also competed in Scottish country dancing, or as David puts it more succinctly, he “was a champ dancer and a damned chancer”.
In the early days, David continued to watch wrestling bouts of the visiting professionals, seeing the then invincible legendary Bert Assirati, Jack Pye, etc. After being trained by Alex Munro, a leading wrestler, Dave wrestled most of the top Scottish amateurs and became a fine wrestler at one time wrestling in front of a 20,000 strong crowd in Tokyo, Japan. Enrolling in a wrestling course, he ended up, through an administrative mistake, in a weight lifting course taught by Al Murray, thus setting David on a new direction, destined to win many medals and certificates for all round lifting. He was also a member of BAWLA and SAWLA coaching committees since their inception.
As a category I International referee, David refereed many world and European Championships with a reputation for being strict, but honest and fair. Zhabotinski, the great Russian super heavy weight who deposed Vlasov as Olympic champion said. “Russian lifters were always pleased when Webster was refereeing as he always gave fair and honest judgments” Included in his many posts, David was International Weight Federation (IWF) technical officer and produced films at the Olympics, world championships and Commonwealth Games, in 1967 he travelled to Chicago to assist top U. S. champs Knipp, Gripaldi, Lowe, Puleo, Holbrook, and Karchut, and was the technical advisor at the Mexico Olympic games in 1968 and Munich in 1972. Between the years of 1970 and 1980 he also found time to work with the handicapped at the Paraplegic Games, which was much appreciated by all.
David has organised and judged many bodybuilding shows and events, including the Mr Britain and Mr Universe contests, meeting up with top competitors and stars like John Grimek, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Mickey Hargitay, Steve Reeves, Sean Connery or 007 of Bond fame, who once trained at David’s Spartan gym under the name Tom Connery, becoming friends with most. While travelling, he has met many of the old timers like George Hackenschmidt, Sig Klein, Milo Steinborn, in their own homes around the world.
David has participated in hundreds of TV and radio programmes, including scripting and narrating on national networks, and did regular Leisure Time and Out of Doors programmes advertised as “not necessarily sporting” of which I can only guess at the content, and was involved in “everything from Judo to Ludo” Around 1999, he was involved in Steven Spielberg’s film Gladiator, acting on behalf several of his strongmen.
The Commonwealth Games also played a big part in his life from when he first became involved back in 1957 as Scottish coach, working his way up to the highest position possible as chief of Mission for all sports in 1998. It seemed like nothing could deter David. At the 1998 Commonwealth Games, the team were warned that they should not wear their kilts because of the danger of “exposed flesh being attacked by voracious mosquitos.” No way, said our heroes, who wore their kilts regardless, considering the “mossies” little worse than their home-grown Scottish “midges”.
David’s last performance as a strongman was at a show in 1973 in Sweden. After already wrestled, Highland danced, and demonstrated hammer throwing, he still managed to pull his giant expanders, balancing on a roller just to make life a little more difficult, going into his finale of having a huge granite stone smashed to pieces on his chest with a sledge hammer.
Honoured by the Association of Old-time Barbell and Strongmen, on 28th September 1991, David was also made an honorary member of the Retired Detectives of the Police Department of the City of New York, which is a story in itself. He then could quite easily still bend and break six- inch nails (spikes). All of David’s work had not gone unnoticed and rightly so, on 14th December 1995 at Buckingham Palace, .H.M. Queen Elizabeth of England, bestowed David Pirie Webster with the Order of the British Empire (OBE) for his services to sports. His own peers also recognised his efforts at the Oscar Heidenstam Foundation Awards in 1999 (OHF) Even so, he can still “mix with kings, yet keep the common touch”.
David later stated:
“I’ve never believed success revolves simply around material possessions for wealth. Of more importance to me is the quality of life with family and friends, and the joy of sport, leisure, arts and travel. These elevate and enrich my life. The pleasure, happiness and fulfilment I’ve enjoyed is due in no small measure to the company I’ve kept.”David Webster
It is impossible to do any man justice in one article, especially a man of so many interests and talents. David has had his own share of tragedies, with the highs and lows life often hands out. Each of my listings (and so many I have had to leave out) or paragraphs could be expanded into a story, but to experience a real story teller, I implore you to read and treasure any of David’s books so painstakingly yet lovingly written for true fans of the Iron Game.
Terry Todd said:
“For the last 60 years few if any men have done more to advance the cause of physical culture around the world”Terry Todd
Just an estimate but to add to David’s achievements, he has penned well over 1,000 articles in over 50 publications along with 30 books and counting both on bodybuilding, weightlifting, Strongmanism, and Highland Games with three more waiting for publication as we write (2018).
As far as I am concerned, everyone we meet in this life has some influence on us, but few influenced me (David Gentle) so positively and personally as that superb scribe of strength David Pirie Webster. Once when asked why he worked so hard without financial gain, David replied, ”Service is the rent we pay for our room on the earth. “I believe David Webster has paid his dues, don’t you?
© David Gentle (An earlier briefer version previously published in Milo Magazine, Vol.7 no 2.and updated in 2018 ) From personal interviews with David Webster, with thanks to Terry and Jan Todd.)