Thomas Topham

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Thomas Topham (c. 1710 – 10 August 1749), [1] of London, was a famous strongman of the 18th century. [2]

London Capital of the United Kingdom

London is the capital of and largest city in England and the United Kingdom, and the largest city in the European Union. Standing on the River Thames in the south-east of England, at the head of its 50-mile (80 km) estuary leading to the North Sea, London has been a major settlement for two millennia. Londinium was founded by the Romans. The City of London, London's ancient core − an area of just 1.12 square miles (2.9 km2) and colloquially known as the Square Mile − retains boundaries that follow closely its medieval limits. The City of Westminster is also an Inner London borough holding city status. Greater London is governed by the Mayor of London and the London Assembly.

Strongman (strength athlete) competitor in strength athletics

A strongman is a man who competes in strength athletics. In the 19th century, the term strongman referred to an exhibitor of strength or similar circus performers who displayed feats of strength. When strength sports were codified into their own categories such as weightlifting, powerlifting, etc, Strongman became its own specified category in strength sports.


Topham was the son of a carpenter who apprenticed him to his own trade. In early life he was landlord of the Red Lion Inn, near old St. Luke's Hospital, and, though he failed there in business, soon gained profit and notoriety by his feats of strength. His first public exhibition consisted in pulling against a horse while lying on his back with his feet against the dwarf wall that divided Upper and Lower Moorfields. On 10 July 1734, a concert at Stationers' Hall, given for his benefit, was diversified by his herculean performances, and the woodcut on an extant programme (Burney Coll., Brit. Mus.) shows the strong man lying extended between two chairs, with a glass of wine in his right hand, and five gentlemen standing on his body. About this time, or later, he became landlord of the Duke's Head, a public-house in Cadd's Row (afterwards St. Alban's Place), near Islington Green. [1]

Topham exhibited in Ireland (April 1737) and Scotland, and at Macclesfield in Cheshire so impressed were the corporation by his feats that they gave him a purse of gold and made him a free burgess. At Derby he rolled up a pewter dish of seven pounds ‘as a man rolls up a sheet of paper;’ twisted a kitchen spit round the neck of a local ostler who had insulted him, and lifted Mr Chambers, the vicar of All Saints who weighed 27 stone (380 lb; 170 kg), with one hand. [3] He could lie on two chairs with four people standing on his body, which (we are told) he 'heaved at pleasure.' He further entertained the company with the song of 'Mad Tom,' though in a voice ‘more terrible than sweet.’ [1]

Ireland Island in north-west Europe, 20th largest in world, politically divided into the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland (a part of the UK)

Ireland is an island in the North Atlantic. It is separated from Great Britain to its east by the North Channel, the Irish Sea, and St George's Channel. Ireland is the second-largest island of the British Isles, the third-largest in Europe, and the twentieth-largest on Earth.

Scotland Country in Europe, part of the United Kingdom

Scotland is a country that is part of the United Kingdom. Sharing a border with England to the southeast, Scotland is otherwise surrounded by the Atlantic Ocean to the north and west, the North Sea to the northeast, the Irish Sea to the south, and the North Channel to the southwest. In addition to the mainland, situated on the northern third of the island of Great Britain, Scotland has over 790 islands, including the Northern Isles and the Hebrides.

Cheshire County of England

Cheshire is a county in North West England, bordering Merseyside and Greater Manchester to the north, Derbyshire to the east, Staffordshire and Shropshire to the south and Flintshire, Wales and Wrexham county borough to the west. Cheshire's county town is the City of Chester (118,200); the largest town is Warrington (209,700). Other major towns include Crewe (71,722), Ellesmere Port (55,715), Macclesfield (52,044), Northwich (75,000), Runcorn (61,789), Widnes (61,464) and Winsford (32,610)

On 28 May 1741, to celebrate the taking of Porto Bello by Admiral Edward Vernon, he performed at the Apple Tree Inn, formerly opposite Coldbath Fields Prison, London, in the presence of the admiral and numerous spectators. Here, standing on a wooden stage, he raised several inches from the ground three hogsheads of water weighing 1,336 pounds (606 kg), using for the purpose a strong rope and tackle passing over his shoulders. This performance is represented in an etching published by W. H. Toms in July 1741, from a drawing by C. Leigh. [4] One night he is said to have carried a watchman in his box from Chiswell Street till he finally dropped his sleeping burden over the wall of Bunhill Fields burying-ground. Once, in the Hackney Road, he held back a horse and cart in spite of the driver's efforts to proceed. Dr. John Theophilus Desaguliers records, among other feats of Topham's witnessed by him, the bending of a large iron poker nearly to a right angle by striking it upon his bare left arm. [1]

Battle of Porto Bello 1739 battle

The Battle of Porto Bello, or the Battle of Portobello, was a 1739 battle between a British naval force aiming to capture the settlement of Portobello in Panama, and its Spanish defenders. It took place during the War of the Austrian Succession, in the early stages of the war sometimes known as the War of Jenkins' Ear. It resulted in a popularly acclaimed British victory.

Edward Vernon Royal Navy admiral

Admiral Edward Vernon was a British naval officer. He had a long and distinguished career, rising to the rank of admiral after 46 years service. As a vice admiral during the War of Jenkins' Ear, in 1739 he was responsible for the capture of Porto Bello, seen as expunging the failure of Admiral Hosier there in a previous conflict. However, his later amphibious operation against Cartagena de Indias suffered a severe defeat. Vernon also served as a Member of Parliament (MP) on three occasions and was out-spoken on naval matters in Parliament, making him a controversial figure.

Coldbath Fields Prison former prison in England, UK

Coldbath Fields Prison, also formerly known as the Middlesex House of Correction and Clerkenwell Gaol and informally known as the Steel, was a prison in the Mount Pleasant area of Clerkenwell, London. Founded during the reign of James I (1603–1625), the prison was completely rebuilt in 1794 and extended in 1850. It was used to house prisoners on short sentences of up to two years. There were separate blocks for felons, misdemeanants and vagrants.

Desaguliers helped to make Topham famous, as he would take Topham to perform at meetings of the Royal Society, employed him as a personal bodyguard while he travelled and encouraged Topham to perform at places they visited. [5]

Royal Society English learned society for science

The President, Council and Fellows of the Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge, commonly known as the Royal Society, is a learned society. Founded on 28 November 1660, it was granted a royal charter by King Charles II as "The Royal Society". It is the oldest national scientific institution in the world. The society is the United Kingdom's and Commonwealth of Nations' Academy of Sciences and fulfils a number of roles: promoting science and its benefits, recognising excellence in science, supporting outstanding science, providing scientific advice for policy, fostering international and global co-operation, education and public engagement.

In 1745, having left Islington, he was established as master of the Bell and Dragon, an inn in Hog Lane, St. Leonard's, Shoreditch. Here he exhibited for his usual charge of a shilling a head. [1]

Shoreditch district in the East End of London

Shoreditch is a district in the East End of London, which is divided between the London boroughs of Hackney and Tower Hamlets. It is part of the traditional county of Middlesex, but for administrative purposes became part of the County of London following the passing of the Local Government Act 1888, and part of Greater London in 1965. It has been known as an entertainment quarter since the 16th century, and today hosts a number of pubs, nightclubs and bars; while to the east of Shoreditch High Street and north of Brick Lane are primarily residential.

A dish of hard pewter, rolled up by Topham on 3 April 1737, is preserved in the British Museum, and is marked with the names of Dr. Desaguliers and others who witnessed the performance. [6] [1]

Topham was about five feet ten inches tall and muscular, but he walked with a slight limp. He is said to have been usually of a mild disposition; but, excited to frenzy by the infidelity of his wife, he stabbed her and then wounded himself so severely that he died a few days afterwards at the Bell and Dragon on 10 August 1749. He was buried in the church of St. Leonard's, Shoreditch. [1]

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  1. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 Warwick William Wroth, Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900, Volume 57, p.56
  2. Harry Houdini. "The Miracle Mongers, an Exposé" . Retrieved 19 August 2013.
  3. Platts, John (1822). The book of Curiosities : Containing Ten Thousand Wonders and Curiosities of Nature and Art. p. 115.
  4. woodcut in Pink's Clerkenwell, p. 78
  5. "Thomas Topham". Legendary Strength. Retrieved 20 August 2013.
  6. Cromwell, Islington, p. 245