Bodybuilding’s First Champion: William Murray

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While many credit Eugen Sandow as the father of modern day bodybuilding, very little is said about William, ‘Billy’, Murray, the world’s first recognisable bodybuilding champion. Today’s post will look at the interaction between Sandow, the unofficial father of bodybuilding and Murray, its first official king.

So who was William Murray? How did he win? And why has his place in bodybuilding history been largely forgotten?

Who was William Murray?

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Murray (far left), pictured with Sandow in 1901.

Born in the late nineteenth-century, very little is known of Murray’s originals. Although hailing from Nottinghamshire in England, he is absent from the 1901 census, meaning that descriptions of Murray must be taken with a pinch of salt. For example, while some have written that Murray was likely an Irish immigrant, there is little evidence of this, beyond his surname.

Nevertheless, from competition reports, we do know that Murray was a profoundly athletic man. He was adept at cycling, running and football, even playing for Notts County some time at the turn of the century. This has led some commentators to argue that Murray’s physique was the result more so of his natural athleticism than years spent pumping iron. While there is little written evidence pre-1901 that Murray lifted weights, the fact that he embarked upon a strongman career shortly after his bodybuilding title makes it unlikely that he was new to the weightlifting game.

Similarly that Murray packed 189lbs. onto a 5 ft 8 inches frame suggests he was adept at weight training as the endurance element of football, cycling and running would not immediately lend itself to such muscle hypertrophy.

How did Murray become Bodybuilding’s first champion?

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Informal bodybuilding shows first emerged in England in the early 1890s when private enthusiasts such as Professor John Atkinson began running shows to determine the ‘Best Developed Man’. These shows proved to be the inspiration for Sandow’s 1901 ‘Great Competition‘, which was of the most extensive bodybuilding contest of the time. Such was the seriousness in which Sandow held his own event that from 1899 to 1901, Sandow travelled across the British Isles holding regional competitions to determine who would compete in his ‘Great Competition’.

Needless to say given the reputation of the contest promoter and its 1,000 guineas prize money, thousands entered. But by 1901 Sandow had narrowed down the masse of entrants to 156 amateurs who would battle it out for the top prize.

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Judged by Sandow himself and celebrity judges such as Arthur Conan-Doyle (of Sherlock Holmes notoriety), Murray was deemed the man best fitting the 1,000 guineas and first prize trophy, which was an exquisitely sculpted golden Sandow statue.

What was the criteria? For the judges, Murray excelled in the following areas

  • General development
  • Equality or balance of development
  • The condition and tone of the tissues
  • General health
  • Condition of the skin

Amidst the success of Sandow’s event, Murray went down in history as bodybuilding’s first recognised champion. A forgotten champion, which leads one to wonder…

Just what happened to Murray?

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Similar to Albert Treloar, America’s first bodybuilding champion, Murray used his new found fame to carve out a stage show career. Indeed the next decade would see Murray perform in his very own strongman act in which Murray portrayed a Roman soldier, who competed in mock Roman games, gladiatorial events and feats of strength. For a short time Murray even ran his own small bodybuilding competitions to continue interest in the endeavour. Throughout this time, Murray’s physique was still one of the most sought after in England, as evidenced by the fact that sculptures based on Murray’s body were regular draws for all classes of English exercisers interested in the body.

Unfortunately, and this probably explains Murray’s lack of notoriety amongst modern exercisers, Murray chose not to publish training manuals, meaning that he is largely absent from the historical record. We must remember that part of Sandow’s allure for historians is the vast array of manuals, newspaper clippings, posters etc. that they can draw upon to analyse his significance. The same holds true for others such as Hackenschmidt or McFadden. When it comes to Murray, the historical record is significantly less.

Similarly important was Murray’s decision to participate in the First World War, a decision which stripped him of his impressive strength and physique. Like so many young men of the time, Murray fell victim to a poison-gas attack while in the trenches, which although not fatal, left him significantly weakened. When the Great War ended, Murray sought out a new career and eventually became a music hall manager in the North of England where he promoted several strongmen and variety shows over the years. He would hold this position until his death at age 75.

Although largely forgotten about, Murray’s story briefly became a topic of intense interest in the 1970s when attempts were made by Boyer Coe and several others to track down the original gold Sandow statue after the original third place trophy was rediscovered in the 1950s. As a nationwide search occurred in England, the prolific iron game historian, David Webster came into contact with Murray’s Scottish descendants who had kept the statue after all those years.

While declining offers to purchase the statue, they did allow Webster to bring the statue to the 1975 NABBA Universe, where Boyer Coe was pictured holding it, see below.

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Boyer Coe with Murray’s trophy, 1975. Randy Roach, Muscle, Smoke and Mirrors Volume 2 (Bloomington, 2011), 154.

Rather amusingly, it was discovered that the statue was gold plated and not entirely gold as Sandow had stated. This perhaps explains why Randy Roach’s work on bodybuilding is entitled ‘Muscle, Smoke and Mirrors’! David Webster’s 1970s book Barbells and Beefcakes provides an in-depth account of this amusingly statue search.

Evaluating Murray’s Contribution to Bodybuilding

Although Murray has not garnered the fan fare of others, there is a lot to be said for his contribution to the Iron Game. He won the first nationwide bodybuilding show, ran his own local shows and dazzled the public with his feats of strength for many years. When his commitment to England’s cause stripped him of his strength, he chose to remain in the business to manage the next generation of strongman and entertainment shows.

While it’s easy to obsess over the more well known physical culturists of the early 20th century, Murray’s adherence to the old Latin adage of facta non verba (actions over words) surely makes him one of bodybuilding’s unsung heroes and hence deserving of our attention.

14 comments

  1. I am actually the granddaughter of William J Murray who did stand in for Eugene Sandow as a strongman .I found your article interesting but the information conflicts with the information I have. My father who is William Murray’s son is still alive at 91years old and he knew his dad well. His mother told him a lot of information about William Murray. We were always told that my grandfather who was a physical fitness instructor in the Army, and was a sword fencing champion as well, stood in for Eugene Sandow on occasions because he looked like him. William Joseph Murray was born in 1868 in Widnes Lancashire and his family were originally from Cork Ireland. William took the Queen’s Shilling and joined the rifle regiment. He was sent to Winchester approx 1888 to 1890. He went to India and Burma ( up the Irawaddi) seconded to the 10th Gurkha Rifles. He was wounded in the foot. Returning to England he was bought out of the army by Sandow, and at one time ran a Gymnasium in north London where he lived. In the First World War he was with a mine sweeping unit then went to Mesopotamia up the Euphrates in a shallow draft hospital boat. After the war he became a painter and decorator. He died in 1948 at 80 years old.
    I would be really interested how you connected your William Murray to Sandow as it would be very unlikely that two William Murray’s worked for him!!

    1. Hi there, thanks so much for stopping by. Such an honour to chat to a relative of William Murray. As you say, it’s doubtful there were two, making the sources I used somewhat suspect now in light of your comments.

      Regarding primary works I looked at old newspaper reports of William’s victory alongside census reports to try pin down his origins. Coupled with this I used Randy Roach’s works entitled Muscle, Smoke and Mirrors alongside the older work Barbells and Beefcakes.

      If either you or your father are willing, I would love to learn more about William Murray’s life as so little is known about such a seminal physical culturist. If you are interested please email me at contact@physicalculturestudy.com. Thanks so much for the corrections by the way! Amazing to hear accounts from his family.

  2. Hi Connor thanks for your prompt reply I am very interested to look at your sources especially the old newspaper reports, (do you have any references to which newspapers?) so many thanks for that information! I know from the family that he was quite a character and I will send you more information about his life and family that I have in my records. I also have a picture of him posing as a strong man which is treasured by the family so will try and send that. Interestingly, one of his grandson’s became interested in body building, became a cage fighter, and then an actor and had a part in many films including one of the Harry Potter films!
    Kind Regards
    Marilyn

    1. That’s fascinating Marilyn! Funny to see the athleticism exhibited by William continues to run in the family. It would be amazing to get any more information on him as he truly was an important physical culturist.

      I’m away on holidays until August 6th but if you send me an email I’ll provide all the newspaper articles and second hand writings I have on William. They’re stored on my laptop so it’s no trouble at all!

      Best wishes and I’m looking forward to hearing from you,

      Conor

  3. Hi Conor,
    Many thanks for your help in solving the conundrum regarding my grandfather.
    Having researched the newspaper article on William L Murray’s death in Nottingham, I am now assured that this is an entirely different person and I apologise for having bothered you.I also found the articles on the life of Sandow, which explained that he had several gymnasiums in London, including one in Tottenham Court Road.These were run by ex army men. My father confirmed that Joseph William Murray who was an ex regimental sergeant major did run the gym in Tottenham Court Road.Obviously we are very proud of my grandfather and it was said that he was also a sword fencing champion in Europe at some stage in his career. Unfortunately his foils were sold many years ago.He led a very colourful life before he married my grandmother Emily and had an extensive army career of which I have much information.He used to turn up at her house in top hat and cane whilst courting her and was held in great awe and respect by the other local young lads! Grandad married Emily in 1914 and then went straight off to war on a merchant ship.
    His first wife Janet had died in 1906 of TB and he had a son William Victor Murray who was killed in the First World War fighting in the trenches with the First Battalion Kings Royal Rifles.
    Granddad came home to London in about 1920 and went on to have four more children of whom my father David is the only one still alive.
    Some of my cousins live in Washington DC the rest of the family are all in the UK.
    Many thanks for your help once again and if you are interested send me your e mail address and I will attach a picture of William Joseph Murray posing as a strongman.

    Regards
    Marilyn

  4. Hi Marilyn,

    Many thanks for getting back in touch. That’s quite a life he lived! If you wouldn’t mind, would it be possible to receive the photograph? And possibly some more details about his life as I’d love to feature his story here if that was okay with you?

    My email is contact@physicalculturestudy.com and I’d be delighted to hear from you.

    Hope you’re having a great weekend 🙂

    Conor

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