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.

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