Long-term readers of Straight to the Bar may recall this image of 18thC Strongman Thomas Topham, conducting a harness lift with 3 barrels of water weighing a superb 1,836lb 1. Just one of the many strength feats he was regularly performing for a London audience, decades before this was consistently done elsewhere.
This article outlines the life of this incredible Strongman, the many feats he performed, and a little more on the harness lift depicted. Let’s dive in.
Thomas Topham – known as ‘the strong man‘, and later ‘the British Samson‘ 2 – was born in London about 1710 1, the son of a carpenter. Although he was brought up as a carpenter’s apprentice, he eventually found himself as the landlord of a small pub, the Red Lion Inn near the old St Luke’s Hostpital (now in Fitzroy Square, Marylebone).
Here he discovered that although he was a poor businessman (as far as the pub was concerned), he was able to entertain the patrons by performing various feats of strength. Ultimately this would become his routine – crowds would gather not just to drink, but to see him perform (at 1s each, no less).
Feats of Strength
Thomas Topham regularly performed many strength feats which can still be seen in Strongman shows today. His first public exhibition – sometime around 1733 – consisted of him pulling against a horse while lying on his back with his feet against the wall dividing Upper and Lower Moorfields 1. He later performed this feat held back by wooden stakes driven in to the ground 6.
On 10 July 1734, a concert at Stationers’ Hall was given for his benefit, and included several of his strength feats. The woodcut on the performance’s programme (now in the British Museum) shows Topham lying extended between two chairs, with a glass of wine in his right hand, and five men standing on his body.
In 1737 Topham performed in Ireland and Scotland; and at Macclesfield in Cheshire he impressed the corporation to such an extent that they gave him a purse of gold and made him a free burgess. At Derby he rolled up a pewter dish of seven pounds ‘as a man rolls up a sheet of paper‘; twisted a kitchen spit round the neck of a local shopowner who had insulted him, and lifted the 27 stone Vicar of All Saints with one hand, he himself lying on two chairs with four people standing on his body. He further entertained the crowd with a rendition of ‘Mad Tom‘ (Tom O’ Bedlam), though in a voice ‘more terrible than sweet‘ 1.
These feats were documented by several people, most notably Dr John Theophilus Desaguliers; a French Natural Philosopher and member of the Royal Society of London. Desaguliers lived nearby, and took a strong scientific interest in Topham’s abilities. In his writings (notably System of Experimental Philosophy) he described his various skills 6 :
- Having rubbed his fingers with coal-ashes to keep them from slipping, he rolled up a very strong large pewter plate 6.
- Having laid seven or eight short and strong pieces of tobacco-pipe on the first and third fingers, he broke them by the force of his middle finger 6.
- He broke the bowl of a strong tobacco-pipe placed between his first and third fingers, by pressing his fingers together sideways 6.
- Having thrust another such bowl under his garter, his legs being bent, he broke it to pieces by the tendons of his hams, without altering the bending of his leg 6.
- He lifted with his teeth, and held in a horizontal position for considerable time, a table six feet long; with half a hundred weight hanging at the end of it. The feet of the table rested against his knees 6.
- Holding in his right hand an iron kitchen poker three feet long and three inches round, he struck it upon his bare left arm, between the elbow and the wrist till he bent the poker nearly to a right angle 6.
- Taking a similar poker, and holding the ends of it in his hands, and the middle against the back of his neck, he brought both ends of it together before him, and he then pulled it almost straight again 6.
- He broke a rope about two inches in circumference, which was partly wound about a cylinder four inches in diameter, having fastened the other end of it to straps that went over his shoulder 6.
- He lifted an 800lb “rolling stone” off the ground using only his hands, taking hold of a chain that was fastened to it, whilst standing on a platform above 6. Topham himself only weighed 200lb.
Dr Desaguliers would take the young Topham regularly to perform at meetings of the Royal Society 10; where there was considerable interest in human physiology. Desaguliers also invited Thomas to act as his bodyguard on various Masonic travels, and he encouraged Topham to hold public demonstrations at each location. This not only proved to be a handsome source of income, it helped make Topham famous both nationally and abroad.
He Could Also Sing
In addition to his freakish strength, Thomas Topham could also sing; he was a soloist for St Werburgh’s Church in Derby 7. Though his basso profundo was said to be so deep and resonant that it was scarcely human 7.
‘That‘ Lift in 1741
On 28 May 1741, to celebrate the taking of Porto Bello by Admiral Edward ‘Old Grog‘ Vernon 5, he performed at the Apple Tree Inn (formerly opposite Coldbath Fields Prison); in front of numerous spectators and the admiral himself.
Here he performed a spectacular harness lift, described in the Dictionary of National Biography 4:
‘Here, standing on a wooden stage, he raised several inches from the ground three hogsheads of water weighing 1836 pounds using for the purpose a strong rope and tackle passing over his shoulders.
This performance is represented in an etching published by W. H. Toms in July 1741, from a drawing by C. Leigh (cf. woodcut in PINKS’S Clerkenwell, p. 78).’
Although Thomas had what some would consider a great life (being paid well to perform strength feats for large audiences), it all came to an end on 10 Aug 1749 when he discovered his wife’s infidelity 1. After stabbing her, he used the knife on himself; dying from his wounds some three days later. At the age of just 39, the career of one of the world’s greatest strength athletes came to an end.
Thomas Topham was buried in the church of St Leonard’s, Shoreditch (aka Shoreditch Church 4). Ironically, his wife survived the attack; recovering fully from the knife wound.
References and Further Reading
1. Dictionary of National Biography
Volume 57, pp 983-984
2. Procol Harum
6. System of Experimental Philosophy (commonly just Experimental Philosophy)
Dr John Theo Desagulier
7. Getting stronger: weight training for men and women : sports training
Bill Pearl, Richard Golueke
8. A Library Of Wonders And Curiosities Found In Nature And Art, Science And Literature
9. The History of Derby
10. Strong Man Lodge #45 – a potted review of an old lodge and its curious name
Philbrick Lodge (#2255) website
For more information surrounding Thomas Topham and the many strength feats he performed, you may also wish to read :
The History of Clerkenwell
The Miracle Mongers, an Exposé
The eccentric mirror, reflecting a faithful and interesting delineation of male and female characters, ancient and modern
G H Wilson
The Wonders of the Little World; or, A General History of Man: Displaying the Various Faculties, Capacities, Powers and Defects of the Human Body and Mind.
Wonders Of Bodily Strength And Skill: In All Ages And All Countries
The book of wonderful characters: Memoirs and anecdotes of remarkable and eccentric persons in all ages and countries
Letters on Natural Magic, Addressed to Sir Walter Scott
Sir David Brewster
Music entries at Stationers’ Hall, 1710-1818
Michael Kassler, William Hawes, Donald William Krummel, Alan Tyson
Over to you. I’d love to hear what you think, and there’s a thread for this article in the Members’ area of the Straight to the Bar Forums (including a full list of locations, for anyone visting the area). See you there.