By David F. Gentle, PC Historian & Author
LOUIS UNI, born in Marsillargues, France on the 21st January 1862, was THE most famous and strongest bearer of the name APOLLON. Uni was described by the early leading European authority on strength, Professor Desbonnet as the “Emperor of Athletes”, in a class of his own or a super athlete.
‘Apollon’ Louis Uni, from a cover picture of La Culture Physique, 1907
Naturally a possessor of great strength, Louis Uni was a professional, strongman for most of his life, from exhibiting in Circus to even appearing in the Cinema in a film entitled, “Mare Nostrum”, when even at the age of 65 years his powerful, physique was still in evidence. He was at his best shape around the age of thirty, …when at a height of nearly 6’3″ and a weight of 120 kilos, his arms were slightly over 19 inches and a normal, chest almost 50 inches. His forearms, which were his most outstanding feature and denoted his enormous power, were 16 inches held straight and 18 inches in a flexed position.
Uni, who seldom exerted himself and therefore never really showed the true extent of his strength, certainly performed some fantastic strength feats in his era. He could regularly do a one arm snatch with 100 kilos, the weight being made up with crude block weights tied together and the lift being performed without any attempt at style, i.e., dipping. He lifted Prof. Desbonnets challenge thick handled barbell which weighed 102 kilos, previously only three super-strong men had been able to lift the weight single-handed off the floor. One of these was John Marx, who was famous for his ability in genuinely being able to break horseshoes. Louis Uni however, when challenged to lift the weight, not only managed to snatch it overhead one handed and without dipping, but, in fact, pulled so hard that the huge dumbell flew on over his head, crashing about ten feet behind him.
The most famous lifting feat associated with Louis Uni must be the lifting of the so called ‘Apollon Wheels’. These were a huge set of railway wheels mounted on an axle which he used as a barbell. The weight of this cumbersome set was 367 lbs or 166 kilos. The most difficult part about this barbell, apart from the weight itself, was the thickness of the bar, being almost two inches in diameter, thus making the lifting of the bar extremely difficult.
Apollon has been credited with cleaning and jerking these huge wheels at nearly every one of his performances. That well may be an exaggeration, as Uni did in fact have several smaller and lighter sets of wheels before he ‘worked up to’ the largest set. It’s certainly true that it took many years before another man was capable of lifting the huge wheels again. The first one being the great Frenchman Charles
Rigoulot, who lifted the wheels overhead in March 3rd, 1930, the great American heavyweight lifter John Davies was next in 1949. Then came Norbert Schemansky of USA in 1954. Apollon, Louis Uni died in 1928.
WILLIAM BANKIER was known as the Scottish Apollon. He was born in Banffshire, Scotland in 1872. Although not a large man, being only 5’6” and weight around 180 lbs., he had a very symmetrical physique with a 49-inch chest expanded and arms, neck and calves all bordering on the 17-inch mark. A great all-rounder possessing plenty of natural energy, he performed a variety of strength feats as the following random items will show…He could lift 400 lbs. with his teeth and could put an unwieldy iron plough weighing 130 lbs. overhead with either hand. In the harness lift he did 2200 lbs. and also once walked forty yards with a 24-foot steel rail. He could support overhead with one arm two men on a bicycle and demonstrated his fitness by doing standing jumps over a chair with a 56 lb. dumbell in each hand. Other stage stunts were letting a large car run over him, and in the TOMB OF HERCULES position, which is a type of ‘bridging’ with your feet and hands only touching the floor, he supported a platform, upon which there was a large piano, a dancer and a six-man orchestra.
Rope climbing was one of his pet exercises, at which he was unbeaten. A great believer in natural training, he enjoyed pushing around loaded wheelbarrows (he should have worked for Wimpey’s) which no doubt helped account for his good leg development. He wrote a book called “IDEAL PHYSICAL CULTURE”, which he appears as a critic of SANDOW, irritated no doubt because Sandow always avoided his challenges to a strength contest (Sandow was no fool). Bankier died in 1949 aged 80.
The last, but by no means the least, in my trio of strongmen who chose the name Apollon was Yorkshireman J.C. TOLSON. Tolson, like many previous strongmen, was first inspired to strength by visits to a Circus and seeing the Circus strongman. The strength item that apparently impressed him most was the ability to bend iron bars. This was an area of strength in which Tolson was later to excel.
Unlike other would-be strongmen who had to fight parental prejudice, young Tolson was encouraged to participate in weight training and strength building pursuits by his father. With his strength ever growing he took on the title of THE MIGHTY APOLLON and claimed to be the WORLD’S STRONGEST YOUTH. Later, going unchallenged, he called himself BRITAIN’S CHAMPION STRONGMAN (I told you he came from Yorkshire).
To prove his entitlement to that label he challenged all-comers to a variety of strength feats, both weight lifting recognized lifts and stage stunts. At the National Sporting Club, he broke steel chains, did a one finger lift overhead with 91 ½ lbs., bent steel bars, tore a pack of cards into quarters still in the pack and also drove six-inch nails into planks of wood and then withdrew them with his teeth; definitely not recommended.
Further proof of his power was demonstrated by resisting twenty men in a tug of war, supporting twenty men on his chest, and further feats of bar bending and nail breaking. At nail bending he was one of the all-time greats. He could bend 4 six-inch nails together. Other stunts were, lifting a tax cab weighing 3, 362 lbs., carrying over ½ a ton on his back 50 yards and deadlifting 551 lbs. These are all good performances considering Tolson only weighed around 165 lbs. at a height of 5’6”. For many years he ran a mail order course under the name of the APOLLON COURSE. The basic idea was a type of isometric training; the pupil being supplied with various degrees of iron bars to bend. Most were soon able to bend six-inch nails after a spell of Tolson’s training.
What became of Tolson later in life I have no idea, perhaps someone from Yorkshire can tell me.
©The Three Apollons by David Gentle