Oftentimes this blog has focused exclusively on the star names of the physical culture industry. This, as perhaps can be guessed, is due to the extensive documents such men and women have left behind. The true physical culturists, that is those people who exercised for the joy of it, are much harder to track down.
Luckily, a discussion on a previous article has thrown up a fascinating source on one William Joseph Murray, an English born strongman of considerable interest to those studying the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. A keen athlete, Murray’s life exemplifies several of the trends discussed in previous posts as well as reminding us that fitness is inevitably, a lifelong pursuit.
Born in Widnes, Lancashire in 1868 to Timothy and Mary Murray, William’s early years were beset with tragedy. Less than two years after his birth, William’s father, Timothy, lost his life at the chemical plant where he was working. An Irishman living in England, Timothy had spent a considerable amount of time as a chemical labourer, working in tough and horrid conditions. His death, though tragic, was symptomatic of the poor work and living environment encountered by workers at the Widnes chemical works plant.
According to family legend, Timothy lost his life when he fell into a vat of corrosive chemicals at the plant. All that remained was his shoes.
The untimely death of his father put considerable pressure on William and his mother Mary. Stemming from this, in 1881 at the age of thirteen, William was sent to a Catholic Boys Industrial School. A school instituted for orphans and those whose families no longer had the means to care for them. Still a teenager, William was put to task by the teachers who sought to instil the school’s strict Catholic ethos into their pupil. While little is known of William’s experiences at the school, his son David suspected that William’s adept cobbling skills were learnt during this time.
The Beginnings of William the Strongman
Upon school leaving age, William enlisted in the British army, one of the great institutions of Victoria’s reign. Significantly for William, the 1880s was an exciting time for physical culturists within the army.
Since the mid-1860s, army generals had begun to take a much greater interest in troop fitness. Indeed the establishment of the Royal Army Physical Training Corps (RAPTC) in 1860 had been followed by a series of internal mandates for the creation of gymnasia, training programmes and competitions across barracks. When William entered the army, he encountered a world that was serious about health and fitness. Something William seemed to thrive in.
Within a decade of service, William had progressed to the rank of Staff Sergeant. More significantly, William was a gymnasium instructor in the army, a position brought about by the RAPTC’s creation in 1860. At this time, gymnasium instructors were some of the fittest and strongest men in the army, with many instructors becoming accomplished athletes in their own right. William was no different, as a series of sword fencing competition victories across Europe attested.
Despite his advancements within the army, something different beckoned for William. Soon after his 1895 marriage to Janet Rosina McIntyre, William left the army to join the company of Eugen Sandow who offered William a role in his budding business ventures. Though still in the early stages of his career, Sandow was beginning to make a name for himself in Europe and the United States. The following years would prove profitable for both William and the Prussian born strongman.
By 1901, William, Janet and their first son William Victor, were comfortably living in Hammersmith, London. William was prospering as a gym instructor and often stood in for Eugen Sandow when the Prussian was unable to meet his performance commitments.
The Murray Family’s 1901 Census Statements
While many gymnasiums had emerged in England by the beginning of the twentieth-century, William’s relationship with Sandow saw the Lancashire born strongman become a gym instructor at Sandow’s prestigious Tottenham Court Road Gym.
Opened in 1900, the gym boasted 3 large exercise halls, forty bedrooms for those enthusiasts seeking to spend twenty-four hours with Sandow trainers and a Sandow approved restaurant. It was one of the best equipped gymnasiums England had to offer and William’s position as an instructor was undoubtedly the envy of others in the business.
Unfortunately disaster struck at a time of prosperity.
Tragedy, Travel and Turmoil
In 1906, William’s beloved wife Janet diet of tuberculosis, a disease that proved to be a bane in the side of the medical community of the time. Janet’s untimely death proved to a catalyst for William to change his life and for the next decade, William travelled on several merchant ships across the Atlantic.
Having had his fill of the high seas, William returned to London in 1914 to marry his second wife, Emily Florence Sweeney. The outbreak of the Great War however interrupted any time the newlyweds may have planned to spend together as William joined England’s war effort almost immediately, as did his son from his first marriage, William Victor.
Initially deployed as a fireman on the SS Otway, William was transferred to the Royal Engineers Inland Water transport division in 1916. This proved to be a particularly timely move as a German bomber sank the Ottaway in early 1917.
The SS. Otway
As a member of the Royal Engineers, William moved across several of the war’s infamous warzones, most notably the Mesopotamia. It was here that William was tasked with bringing wounded soldiers back from the Allemby’s forces who were engaged in battle with German and Turkish forces. It is said that William was given the name ‘Whiskey Jack’ during this time, although his family members are unsure of the nickname’s origins. According to legend it was either because of his smuggling or drinking skills!
While William managed to survive the war, his first-born was sadly killed in action in France, leaving the former strongman return to England with a heavy heart. The post-war period would see William, then in his fifties, oscillate between paid work as a painter-decorator and unemployment.
Unperturbed, William and his second wife Emily had four children between 1920 and 1924. Of the four children (Constance, William, David and Paul), only David remains with us. In 1948, William senior passed away aged eighty.
Though William Joesph Murray’s life has never received the attention enjoyed by Sandow and others, his tale is nevertheless one of remarkable interest for the physical culture enthusiast.
His life encapsulated several of the most important trends of the nineteenth and early twentieth-century spanning disease, war, fitness and commerce. At a time when the British public became awakened to the importance of health and fitness, William led the line, first as a gymnasium instructor and then as a strongman in his own right.
Coupled with this, William successfully fought for his country, raised five children and perhaps most importantly, left a lasting memory of joy for his family members.
Surveying William’s life demonstrates how physical culture was linked to the British army and how one’s fitness could be used to earn employment. That Sandow personally selected William to work in his prestigious Tottenham Court Road gymnasium shows the esteem held for William by his compatriots.
So here’s to William Joseph Murray, the forgotten physical culturist of Tottenham Court Road.
This article would not have been possible without the kind assistance of William’s granddaughter, Marilyn. Marilyn first got in touch with the blog several weeks ago and has kindly given information on William’s remarkable life.
It is hoped that this short piece does some justice to her grandfather’s memory. As always, any mistakes are of course, my own.