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Topham, the strong man, and his Taverns : London coffee houses and taverns

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In Upper-street, Islington, was formerly a house with the sign of the Duke's Head, at the south-east corner of GadcPs Row, (now St. Alban's Place), which was remarkable, towards the middle of the last century, on account of its landlord, Thomas Topham, " the strong man of Islington." He was brought up to the trade of a carpenter, but abandoned it soon after his apprenticeship had expired ; and about the age of twenty -four became the host of the Red Lion, near the old Hospital of St. Luke, in which house he failed. When he had attained his full growth, his stature was about five feet ten inches, and he soon began to give proof of his superior strength and muscular power. The first public exhibition of his extraordinary strength was that of pulling against a horse, lying upon his back, and placing his feet against the dwarf wall that divided Upper and Lower Moorfields.

By the strength of his fingers, he rolled up a very strong and large pewter dish, which was placed among the curiosities of the British Museum, marked near the edge, " April, 3, 1737, Thomas Topham, of London, carpenter, rolled up this dish (made of the hardest pewter) by the strength of his hands, in the presence of Dr. John Desaguliers," etc. He broke seven or eight pieces of a tobacco-pipe, by the force of his middle finger, having laid them on his first and third fingers. Having thrust the bowl of a strong tobacco-pipe under his garter, his legs being bent, he broke it to pieces by the tendons of his hams, without altering the position of his legs. Another bowl of this kind he broke between his first and second finger, by pressing them together side-ways. He took an iron kitchen poker, about a yard long, and three inches round, and bent it nearly to a right angle, by striking upon his bare left arm between the elbow and the wrist. Holding the ends of a poker of like size in his hands, and the middle of it against the back of his neck, he brought both extremities of it together before him ; and, what was yet more difficult, pulled it almost straight again. He broke a rope of two inches in circumference ; though, from his awkward manner, he was obliged to exert four times more strength than was necessary. He lifted a rolling stone of eight hundred pounds^ weight with his hands only, standing in a frame above it, and taking hold of a chain fastened thereto.

But his grand feat was performed in Coldbath Fields, May 28, 1741, in commemoration of the taking of Porto Bello, by Admiral Vernon. At this time Topham was landlord of the Apple-tree, nearly facing the entrance to the House of Correction; here he exhibited the exploit of lifting three hogsheads of water, weighing one thousand eight hundred and thirty-one pounds : he also pulled against one horse, and would have succeeded against two, or even four, had he taken a proper position ; but in pulling against two, he was jerked from his seat, and had one of his knees much hurt. Admiral Vernon was present at the above exhibition, in the presence of thousands of spectators ; and there is a large print of the strange scene.

Topham subsequently removed to Hog-lane, Shoreditch. His wife proved unfaithful to him, which so distressed him that he stabbed her, and so mutilated himself that he died, in the flower of his age.

Many years since, there were several signs in the metropolis, illustrative of Topham's strength : the last was one in East Smith field, where he was represented as " the Strong Man pulling against two Horses."

References :  Lots of references are made to two sources on the internet archive :
Edward Callows, Old London Taverns &
John Timbs, Club life of London Volume 2

And Last updated on: Tuesday, 26-Apr-2022 01:16:44 BST
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