By David Gentle
Reprinted with permission of The Iron Master
Home of the mighty, from Ron Walker to Reg Park, one of the most famous
all Yorkshire strongmen was a man by the name of J. C. Tolson. Tolson
born July 16th, 1903, near Dewsbury. His mother was a petite woman,
father was a well-known Rugby player weighing around 13 stone, strong
athletic. Young Tolson was himself rather small as a boy, and only
inspired to commence training at around the age of 17 years.
Today's bodybuilders and powerlifters usually obtain their inspiration
some hero in a video, film or magazine, getting a further taste for
with weights via a powerlifting meet or muscle show. In Tolson's days
most would be strongmen the love of power often developed after a visit
circus or music hall on witnessing the then popular acts of
strongmen. This was indeed the case for Tolson who began training
seeing a strongman act in a traveling circus. His object was to
a muscular physique and also great strength, both of which he did with
high degree of success, gaining rapidly in his endeavors, soon giving
strongman show under the title "The Mighty Young Apollon."
Tolson took his stage name from his own hero, the fabulous early
athlete, Louis Uni, the original Apollon (1862-1928). Uni was of
proportions being 6'3" and a muscular 260 lbs. Tolson, by comparison,
much smaller, but well proportioned. His measurements being listed in
shape as height 5'6", neck 17 1/2 inches; chest expanded 48 1/2 inches;
32 inches; forearm 14 1/2 inches; biceps 17 inches; thighs 24 inches;
calves 16 inches.
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
by Alexander Zass (who called himself Samson) that he had special
it came to bending iron bars, coming 3rd in his first competition
by Zass. Samson (or Zass) must have regretted ever letting Tolson
contest, as soon after, Tolson won first prize in the bar bending
and then continued to follow Zass and show around the halls, taking
prize (and Zass' money!) until Zass, in desperation, dropped the event
his repertoire. By this time, Tolson had collected a respectable 200
(a lot of do-ray-me in those days). Zass then substituted the lifting
steel girder which weighed over 500 lbs. - again Tolson took first
the rewards. Bill Pullum recalls in "Random Recollections" (H & S mag
1950's) of "seeing Zass lift a 700 lb. girder with his teeth, not once,
many times," at the Empire Music Hall circa 1925. Gaining in strength
confidence, Tolson issued challenges via the regular strength magazines
all and sundry to take him on for the title of Britain's Champion
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
Few, if any, accepted his open challenge. So, a frustrated Tolson
put on a demonstration of strength to substantiate his claims. Aided
encouraged by Bill Pullum, he chose the prestigious Nation Sporting
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
by Will Diamond, strength athlete and historian:
He started off by breaking a steel chain with his fingers, then he
arms length overhead, with his little finger, a ring weight, weighing
lbs. and not satisfied with this he took a bar of mild steel 9 3/4" by
and bent it into the shape of a horseshoe. He tore a pack of cards
quarters without taking off the covers. Then to climax it all drove a
inch nail into a plank of wood with his bare hands and in one straight
drew the nail out with his teeth. Seeing this the spectators expressed
appreciation in rapturous applause. Thus, encouraged Apollon went on
He supported twenty men on his chest with a abridge, bent bar of iron
inches long and half an inch thick around his neck, and while laying on
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
On other occasions, when that stage was large enough, he has withstood
many as fifty men, or by way of a change, two heavy cart horses. And
this one performance Apollon placed himself among the greatest of
and proved himself a worthy bearer of the name Apollon.
To prove beyond a doubt his capabilities, the following day in March
the same venue, Tolson created a new professional weightlifting record
lbs. bodyweight with a pullover and press on back with 249 lbs. He
pressed in the same supine position with a girder weighing nearly 3cwt
an audience of 12,000.
Other feats of strength included bending 4-six inch nails together;
one end of a taxi cab weighing 3,362 lbs.; supporting more than two
"bridge" of wooden planks placed across his chest, carrying half a ton
back of 50 yards, juggling with 56 lb. weights and breaking chains.
the 1930's Tolson carried 8 men on a special bar. Tolson then walked
the gym twice without stopping. The contraption weighed in excess of
lbs. He often trained at Chickenley Athletic Club. Once, for a bet,
into a U-shape a steel carriage bolt being 6" long and 3/8" diameter.
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
thumb and finger alone an old penny which had been soldered onto the
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
lbs. bodyweight. Tolson, by the way, later surpassed his own record in
two hands press behind the neck by lifting 214 1/2 lbs. for an under 11
Retiring from open competition and displays, he devoted his
energies to encouraging others to improve their strength and vitality
his highly popular and successful home training course. Followed
by thousands over the years and resulting in some wonderful proteges
champions. Tolson himself still trained and at later dates did a
of 148 lbs. when the heavy weight record was then 152 lbs. and the
Apollon also improved his little finger lift overhead with a lift of
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
training with weights, they sold less expensive apparatus to the
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
Alexander Zass, he based his course on isometric methods providing
with various lengths and strengths of mild steel bars on which to
their energies in standard bar bending positions designed to tense and
exercise all muscle groups. The course as we mentioned above ran for
years, with happy pupils usually developing sufficient power to bend
nails and perform other tough stunts. I last saw Tolson's adverts
late 1950's and would be most grateful to former pupils of the Apollon
to contact me and tell me of their experiences and knowledge of