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Australian Strongman Don Athaldo
Posted By Scott Bird
Don Athaldo as pictured in Health, Strength & Muscular Power

Don Athaldo as pictured in Health, Strength & Muscular Power.

Walter Joseph Lyons (better known as Don Athaldo) was an Australian Circus Strongman in the 1920s and 1930s. Although he published several books, it was his The Athalding System mail-order offering that helped give him lasting fame.

Poster for Fitzgerald Bros' Circus

Poster for Fitzgerald Bros’ Circus.

Lyons was born to Queensland carpenter Frederick Horace George Lyons and his wife Elizabeth on 26 November 1894 at Condobolin, New South Wales [1, 7]. Named Walter Joseph, he was constantly ill, asthmatic [9] and could not walk well until aged 5. At Fitzgerald Bros’ Circus he saw the strongman ‘Dr Gordon‘, became inspired and began reading about ancient Greece and taking correspondence courses in physical culture to build himself up [1].

Promotional flyer from The Arrow, May 13 1932

Promotional flyer from The Arrow, May 13 1932. State Library of Victoria.

Apprenticed to a blacksmith for five years, in 1915-16 he served as a shoeing-smith corporal with the Australian Naval and Military Expeditionary Force at Rabaul, New Britain. In 1916-17 he twice enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force, only to be discharged both times as medically unfit. Rejoining the A.N. and M.E.F. in November 1917, he returned as a shoeing-smith corporal to Rabaul where, after briefly being discharged in 1919, he served until 1921. On 22 August that year he married Vera Elizabeth Stewart at the Warren Methodist Church, Marrickville (a Sydney suburb) [7]. He resumed blacksmithing at Leichhardt (also a Sydney suburb), as well as becoming involved in numerous sports (he boxed for a time as a light-welterweight).

Horse Lifting (using harness lift technique)

Herr Pagel demonstrating the Horse Lift (using harness lift technique) in 1903. Athaldo used the same method almost 30 years later.

Adopting the name ‘Don Athaldo‘ (*), he won acclaim as a circus strongman; cementing his reputation through spectacular demonstrations of strength and a flair for showmanship. Among his best-known feats were the Human Link, Bending & Scrolling, and Horse-Lifting (involving a harness lift of sorts). Topping the list : pulling a touring car with six passengers an incredible 805m (more than half a mile) up the hill of William Street, Sydney. If you’ve ever run the Sydney City to Surf half marathon, you know this hill. Insanely steep.

Various exercises from The Athalding System

Various exercises from The Athalding System.

In 1932 he authored Health, Strength & Muscular Power, a booklet detailing his Athalding System [3]. This was followed in the early 1940s by Meet Don Athaldo and Muscular Strength. In the early 1950s he wrote The Athalding Course, a 3-part series of lessons detailing his own approach to training and nutrition [3]. Heavily influenced by Charles AtlasDynamic Tension course [4], it was Athaldo’s The Athalding Course that helped cement his long-term fame.

Athaldo’s philosophy combined the idealized man of action with ideals of health, masculine beauty and virility. Rejecting the notion of ‘abnormal development‘ fostered by weight-lifting, he stressed diet, fresh air and ‘dynamic tension‘. ‘The Athalding System‘, he claimed, would overcome bad breath, bad habits, cancer, stammering, brain fag, virile weakness and pimples, while developing a pleasing personality and the Oriental secret of calmness [1].



Don Athaldo as pictured in Health, Strength & Muscular Power

Don Athaldo as pictured in Health, Strength & Muscular Power.

Although only 163 cm (5’4″) tall and weighing between 70 and 76 kg (11 and 12 stone), Don ‘The Pocket Atlas‘ Athaldo had a reputation for being something of a lady-killer. When performing he wore a leopard skin and leather ankle-boots, and off-stage enjoyed large American, convertible cars (preferably red) [1].

In January 1941 he enlisted in the Australian Military Forces as a physical-education instructor. Here he taught skills such as unarmed combat, but developed osteo-arthritis and was once again discharged medically unfit in 1944. During the war he and Vera separated [1].


On 24 May 1965 Athaldo died of a heart attack (caused by a coronary occlusion [1]) at his Ettalong home, and was buried in the Catholic section of Botany Cemetery [8] (now part of Eastern Suburbs Memorial Park [5]). He left his business to his secretary Catherine Thelma Nelson, (with whom he had lived for many years); his car to a son-in-law, and £5 per week to his wife [1].


* I’m not sure why he chose this name in particular, although there are certainly a lot of people & places named after him (notably the misspelt ‘Atharldo Ct‘ in Canberra, Australia [2]). Perhaps Maxalding (originally Maxaldo) was an influence.


Questions

Advertisement for Royal Gymnasium, Leichhardt

Advertisement for Royal Gymnasium, Leichhardt.
  • Athaldo lived/worked at Burton St Darlinghurst at one point. Does anybody know the exact address, or when this was? I suspect it was around the time he ran the Institute of Physical Culture in Oxford St.
  • He ran the Royal Gymnasium in Short St, Leichhardt for a time. Does anyone remember, or know anything about it?
  • When did he begin living with his secretary, Catherine Thelma Nelson?


References

  1. Lyons, Walter Joseph
    Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 13, (MUP), 1993
  2. Arthaldo Court
    ACT Government Place Name Search
  3. Don Athaldo
    Sandow Plus
  4. Oldetime Strongman University
    Dennis Rogers
  5. Eastern Suburbs Memorial Park
    Wikipedia
  6. Australia Birth Index, 1788-1922
  7. Australia Marriage Index, 1788-1950
  8. Australia Cemetery Index, 1808-2007
  9. David Ireland (the original ‘Crocodile Man‘)

Further Reading

  1. Movements of Fitzgerald Bros’ Circus – 1891-1999
    Australian Travelling Entertainers
  2. Health, Strength & Muscular Power
  3. John Farley (Bush Poet)
    Born in the City

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