Readers of this blog will undoubtedly be familiar with my fondness for Indian club swinging, that great Hindu and Persian practice which became all the rage in England and the United States during the nineteenth and early twentieth century. The history of Indian club swinging has been previously covered here with one big exception. I have said little to nothing of my favorite Indian club athlete, the great Tom Burrows.
Burrows was an Australian athlete who came to Britain in the late nineteenth century to train soldiers at the Royal Army Physical Training Corps gymnasium in Aldershot. Once there, Burrows became a minor physical culture celebrity owing both to his expertise as a coach but, more importantly, his ability to swing Indian clubs for hours on end. This is no exaggeration. By the late 1900s, Tom Burrows could swing Indian clubs for eighty hours without resting. Such was his popularity and demand that he even went on a world tour during this time to showcase his abilities to foreign audiences.
Today’s post, which is based on an article I wrote for Sport in History, centers on Burrow’s ultimately failed efforts to swing the Indian clubs for 100 hours without rest. Interested? Read on.
Given that Burrows’ popularity and his athletic sense of self worth was based on his unique ability to swing Indian clubs for minutes, hours and days at a time, it should come as no surprise to learn that Burrows continued to push the boundaries of human endurance in the years preceding the Great War. For Burrows this meant the relentless pursuit of a hundred-hour club swing, which for many represented a scarcely plausible goal. A goal, which in the views of many contemporaries came to resemble Captain Ahab’s reckless desire of the great white whale. In Burrows’ case, newspaper and magazines reporting on his efforts illustrated the deeply polarized views regarding his efforts. Such polarized views were in many ways warranted, especially in light of his unsuccessful hundred-hour swing in 1911 and his successful attempt two years later in 1913.
Having reached over eighty hours continuous club swinging by the first decade of the twentieth-century, hopes were high amongst Burrows and his followers that the hundred-hour mark would soon be surpassed. Hopes which very nearly materialized in late 1911, when the Australian athlete came to England in a bid to beat the elusive number. Primed for the event following an endurance swinging victory over Jack Beamish in Liverpool early that month in which he won £150, Burrows appeared to be fit, willing and able for the task.[i] As the following morning’s reporting on the event demonstrates however, Burrows not only failed in his Herculean labour, he quite literally succumbed to delirium owing to a combination of stress and tiredness. While the Australian newspaper the Brisbane Courier reported quite scantly and diplomatically on the event, English newspapers, such as the Gloucestershire Echo, showed no such reserve.[ii] In the report’s opening lines, readers were invited to learn more about Burrows’ ‘fool hardy feat’ in which the ‘colonial’, by which they meant Burrows, fell into delirium.[iii] The following paragraphs showed the extent to which Burrows’ lost control of the evening’s competition. For example, during a point of considerable fatigue Burrows called out to the audience in the most distressing of ways, a plea, which the reported, noted was continued at random intervals over the next several hours.
On several occasions, Burrows looked as if he were going to succumb to exhaustion and at these times many calls of encouragement came from the audience…At about a quarter to ten…Burrows addressed the audience saying ‘Will someone please give me a chair? These men wont let me sit down and my legs are paining me….They have been keeping me here for hours.[iv]
The Australian’s call for help heeded little sympathy from the on looking audience composed of his friends and family. Arguably an act of malign callousness, the indifference towards Burrows’ plight was apparently an act of kindness as to intervene would have ‘been a breach of conditions.’[v] Burrows needed to stay the course as it were. The judges and the public would soon regret this course of action.
As the clock struck ten o’clock at night and Burrows crossed the ninety-eight hour mark it became clear that something was amiss. Swaying side-to-side, reportedly in a gaze, Burrows’ energies were fading quickly as the Australian broke into a cold sweat. Seeking to check on the weary competitor, one of the judges, a Professor Stevenson, tentatively approached Burrows to enquire about his condition. Cue pandemonium.
At ten o’clock he [Burrows] appeared to be falling and Professor Stevenson placed his hands on him. Burrows then attacked Stevenson with the clubs striking him several times on the head.[vi]
Owing to the quick actions of Stevenson’s fellow judges, the Australian’s Indian clubs were stripped from his hands and he was placed in a chair to compose himself. As the crowd gathered around both men to check on their conditions, Burrows broke loose and ‘assailed Stevenson with his fists.’[vii] Once more removed from his victim, Burrows was carried back to his accommodation, where he quickly fell in to a slumber. Seeking to explain his actions the following morning, Burrows claimed that his fatigue had reached extreme levels stating that ‘I did not know I was swinging clubs on Saturday night. I must have been doing it mechanically.’[viii] This mechanical induced approach eventually led to Burrows’ annoyance with the judging committee and in particular, with Professor Stevenson. The Australian’s claim that the committee members had insulted him was negated by his later admittance that he had no recollection of the attack whatsoever.[ix] Assuring fans that this was the first time in a twenty-year long career that such an attack had occurred, Burrows quietly but assuredly returned to touring the Empire for demonstrations and competitions. At the same time, he continued training for his one hundred hour swing. As his efforts in 1913 demonstrated however, such a goal proved remarkably disruptive.
Returning to Aldershot in 1913 following a tour of the United States with the American club swinger Gus Hill, with whom he co-wrote a book on Indian clubs[x], Burrows announcement that he would attempt a hundred hour swing once more caused great interest amongst newspapers and physical culture magazines alike. Having failed at the final hurdle two years previous, Burrows had assiduously spent his time preparing for the swing under the watchful eye of numerous friends and colleagues. This time he assured them would be different, a promise that he failed to keep in its entirety. Passing the ninety-six hour mark, Burrows’ discomfort became public once more as a post-swing report by Health and Strength noted
His doctor has taken him in hand, and his wife – in mental agony, which because she is a plucky woman, she was able to cancel for her husband’s sake – tends him (4 hours to go)…So we looked on…no longer on an athlete but on an invalid – the gamest, pluckiest invalid there ever was.
Humanity cried to us: Stop Him! But Sport Pleaded: Let him go on. Given him a chance to win through. We wanted, yet we did not want, to see him stopped and the spirit of sport prevailed.[xi]
In a bid revive his spirits some audience members blew horns in Burrows’ ears, massaged his feet, and feed him food for nourishment.[xii] Rather remarkably Burrows’ wife, of whom little is unfortunately known, adopted a much tougher approach. As her husband neared the ninety-eight hour mark, the point at which he failed previously, his wife discouraged any future efforts to assist her husband.[xiii] Stepping on stage, she apparently told Burrowa that ‘you’re on your own now. You must stand or fall alone.’[xiv] Though seemingly callous to an impartial observer, the advice was apparently well received by the man in question, who resolved to continue on. When the Australian finally collapsed at 5 am on Saturday morning, he had swung the clubs for one hundred and seven hours.[xv] A feat, which took a remarkable toll on Burrows’ body, something that Health and Strength was keen to stress.
Both before and after the endurance attempt, members of the magazine measured Burrows’ various body parts and weight to establish the effect that such exercise on the body. Included in this was an examination of Burrows’ heart by medical professionals, presumably to counter any claims that Burrows’ was damaging his heart by such events. Published several days after the event, Hopton Hadley, the magazine’s editor revealed that Burrows’ one hundred and seven hour swing resulted in an eight-pound weightless.[xvi] Coupled with this, the inflammation induced by the swing caused his shoulders to grow one inch over the event.[xvii] An exhaustive process, which caused Burrows to fall into a twenty-eight hour slumber moments after the event finished.[xviii] From the reporting in Health and Strength, a clear image of Burrows emerged as a heroic figure with a keen desire to push the limits of human endurance. Indeed, one article’s closing paragraph ended on the inspirational note
And I saw the man next day. He was in bed and his foot was swollen but otherwise he was sound as a bell. The doctor knew that, and he also knew that such men have a stoical disregard for pain…they conquer pain.[xix]
While Burrows’ feats were undoubtedly impressive, the magazine’s Homeric portrayal left much to be desired as the rather less partial newspaper accounts noted. Highlighting a rather less heroic and altogether more dangerous element to Burrows’ event, the Leeds Mercury reported that
A few minutes before that hour (5am), Burrows suddenly roused himself and developed great irritability. An attendant sprinkled some water on him and this he seemed to dislike and became delirious. He struck out at a friend on the platform.
The clubs were seized and Burrows broke away and turning around, dealt a quartermaster a severe blow on the forehead….a few minutes later he was sound asleep.[xx]
That several other newspapers corroborated this account showcases the extent to which Health and Strength sought to protect one of its athletes from criticisms. Demonstrating considerable schadenfreude, one reporter opined that it was a display of remarkable idiocy.[xxi] Others, perhaps more concerned, implored Burrows to desist from such performances in future.[xxii] Perhaps heeding their calls, Burrows’ never attempted another hundred-hour swing. By 1915, he was limiting himself to other variations of endurance swinging which limited his efforts to fifty hours.[xxiii] The deleterious bodily effects of endurance swinging combined with the outbreak of the Great War, effectively put an end to Burrows’ career.[xxiv] One of his final appearances in his native Australia in 1920 saw him advertised as the man once capable of swinging clubs for one hundred consecutive hours.[xxv] A tribute Burrows no doubt appreciated.
[i] ‘Club Swinging’, Cornishman, 10 August (1911), 6.
[ii] ‘Club Swinging’, Brisbane Courier, 29 August (1911), 5; ‘Club Swinging Extraordinary’, Gloucestershire Echo, 13 October (1911), 1.
[iii] ‘Club Swinging Extraordinary’, Gloucestershire Echo, 13 October (1911), 1.
[x] Gus Hill and Tom Burrows, Club Swinging (New York: Richard K. Fox, 1913).
[xi] ‘The Last Few Rounds’, Health and Strength, 6 September (1913), 233.
[xvi] Hopton Hadley, ‘Echoes of the Great Tom Burrowes’ Swing, Health and Strength, 3 May, (1913), 464.
[xix] ‘The Last Few Rounds’, Health and Strength, 6 September (1913), 233.
[xx] ‘Club Swinging in Delirium’, The Leeds Mercury, 21 April (1913), 8.
[xxi] ‘Magazines’, Lichfield Mercury, 25 April (1913), 8.
[xxii] ‘Sporting Paragraphs’, Nottingham Evening Post, 21 April (1913), 8.
[xxiii] ‘Record Club Swing’, Manchester Evening News , 6 May (1915), 7.
[xxiv] A point covered, somewhat unsympathetically, in Kent, The Strongest Men on Earth, 290.
[xxv] ‘Twenty Four Hours Game of Billiards’, Sheffield Weekly Telegraph, 14 August (1920), 21.