Cornwall’s Strongmen – feats of strength & record breakers

Over the centuries there have been many men in Cornwall who have become famous for their feats of physical strength, men who were known as the real Cornish giants, such as Anthony Payne, Bob Fitzsimmons or Charles Chilcott. Some of our strongmen are much less well known however, their names and achievements have been all but forgotten and as always it is my job to bring them to your attention once more!

My last article recalled the life of the Penryn Strongman, Dick Williams but my research of him actually uncovered some other equally incredible characters. So let’s take a moment to celebrate some unusual feats of strength and resilience and the men who made their muscle-bound mark on history as Cornish strongmen.

cornish strongmen
Bob Fitzsimmons, Cornish boxing champion

Johnny Rapson – Guinness World Record Holder

Edward John Rapson was born on Valentine’s Day 1920 in Reawla in the parish of Gwinear. His father Edward was a labourer who had served in the navy on HMS Vivid II during World War I. His mother’s name was Ellen and he had one sister, Elizabeth.

By the time Johnny, as he was known, began gaining fame as a strongman he was living in the small village of Trewennack near Helston and working for Harvey & Co, then coal and timber merchants, as a lorry driver and coal delivery man from their Helston depot.

Like so many men who earn their wage through tough physical labour he is said to have had a very healthy appetite. The picture below appeared in the West Briton sometime in the 1950s and shows Johnny eating a pasty made for him at Wearne’s bakery in Helston. It was so big it had to be served on two plates!

John Rapson strongmen

“Johnny Rapson became famous for his coal carrying adventures. He would think nothing of humping a 1 cwt. [100lb/50kg] bag of the black stuff from Camborne to Helston and then diving into the old Seven Stars pub for a well-earned pint of landlord Charlie Hannaford’s best bitter.”

West Briton, Bygone Days, June 1998

Rapson began taking his coal carrying escapades more seriously in February 1953 when he set out to beat the then current record holder Reginald Wild of Wiltshire who had carried a 100lb bag of coal for 3.5 miles in 1 hour 20 mins. Rapson succeeded in beating Wild’s record and a strong rivalry was born. Over the next few weeks the records went back and forth between the two men, with each one raising the stakes again and again in terms of distance and time.

Eventually on 4th April 1953 Johnny Rapson achieved his greatest feat of strength and created a new world record which he held for nearly 20 years.

Rapson carried a bag of coal weighing 100lbs (50kg) on his back for 14 miles in under 4 hours. The full story was printed in the local papers –

“MARATHON WITH COAL:

Hundreds of people greeted 33 year old Mr John Rapson of Sithney Green, Helston at the Town Clock at Camborne on Saturday afternoon after he had completed a record-breaking walk of 14 miles with a cwt. of coal on his back. At 11:45 am Mr Rapson left Liskey Hill Perranporth and he arrived at Camborne Town Clock at 3:35 p.m. only 3 hours 50 minutes later. Mr Rapson now claims the record for 4 miles (54 mins, 50 secs) 5 1/2 miles (1hr, 30mins) and 7 miles, as well as the new one set up on Saturday.

Shortly after Mr Rapson had finished this marathon walk he carried his cwt. of coal around the town and rounded off his notable achievement by carrying it when roller skating on the Camborne skating rink. A collection was made at this demonstration realising £10 6s 6d, half of which he has sent to St. Teresa’s Home, Predannack.

On Saturday Mr Rapson will give another demonstration of coal carrying on skates at the skating ring after which he will sell his coal lump by lump to raise money to be sent to Tehidy Hospital.”

West Briton, 9th April 1953

Almost immediately Rapson’s nemesis Reginald Wild said he would better the record . . . but he never did. A few months later in July 1953 a coal-carrying championship was held in Bath where four men, including Wild, attempted to beat the record Johnny Rapson had set over 4 miles. None of them succeeded.

Modern coal carrying competition. Image credit: Sportingnews.com

The journalists in Bath blamed the heat of the day, stating that clearly colder weather was more suited to such feats. A man called Hadley clocked the fastest time that day, 66 minutes, still 12 minutes slower than our Cornishman.

According to an article written at the time of Johnny’s death in 1986 his coal-carrying record stood for 17 years until it was eventually beaten in 1970.

Surprisingly there is still a coal-carrying championship held in Yorkshire each year but although the participants do carry the same weight of coal they only run for 1 km, less than 1 mile, in comparison to Johnny’s 14 miles!

And I don’t think any of them has a quick spin on some roller skates afterwards either!

Author’s Note: I contacted the Guinness World Record association to see if they had any more details about Johnny Rapson’s record but unfortunately they were unable to help. Apparently they do not have digital records of all of the older world records, from what I can gather nothing before 1954, and so they weren’t able to say whether Johnny’s record was ever confirmed by them “due to the age of the record”.

Cyril Harvey – The Newlyn Strongman

Cyril Harvey came from Newlyn and seems to have begun his career as a strongman in 1930. The newspapers in November that year published a number of articles reporting on his “feats of super strength and muscular posing”.

Cyril was a keen participant in different forms of hand to hand combat and took part in and won many local boxing matches, often by knock out. It was at these events, and at Penzance Athletic Club, that he took the opportunity of show off crowd-pleasing displays of weight lifting and “various feats of strength, dexterity and acrobatic tricks.”

Like many strongmen he was as much a showman as he was an athlete.

Unknown strongman

The following report was published in the Cornishman on New Year’s Eve 1931 and took place at a boxing competition in Penzance.

“A rare treat was provided by Cyril Harvey of Newlyn who displayed amazing feats of strength. Perhaps the best of all was the way in which, with a noose around his neck, he defied the efforts of for men to strangle him, but the effect of a fully grown man jumping on his stomach from a chair did not seem to trouble him at all. Not only that but he lifted three half hundred weights [75kg] at the same time. Another feat was to walk around the ring on his hands with a half hundred weight [25kg] suspended from his teeth and he also did a handstand on a chair with a half hundred weight hanging from his teeth, and he easily balanced 400 lbs. He showed how well he had developed the various muscles of his body when he gave a display of muscle control, his shining body was nothing but a mass of rippling muscle and he was heartily applauded.”

Cornishman, 31st Dec 1931

At another Penzance boxing match in 1932 the crowds watched as Cyril lifted a 10 stone man (63kg) and a 132 pound (59kg) barbell over his head. It was around this time that the papers seem to have christened him the ‘Cornish Samson’, a name that was later also adopted by Dick Williams of Penryn. One admiring journalist wrote that there were “many envious eyes cast upon this Cornish Samson”!

In line with his daring, athleticism and a life lived by the sea Cyril Harvey also became a champion swimming and started giving displays of trick diving, along with another man called Charlie Streets in August 1932.

This included what one reporter described as “handstand diving”.

A young trick diver in Mousehole.

Harvey also gave lessons in ju-jitsu and weight lifting.

However, Cyril’s background is something of a mystery. None of the strongman articles about him mention any details about his private life. But I have done a little digging and I think that he may have been baptised Edmund Cyril George Harvey in Oct 1910. If so, he was the son of William Charles Harvey and his wife Susan. William Harvey worked as a stone mason, so Cyril may have developed his amazing physical strength from working in the family trade.

Ferdinand Keast – ‘ Nutcracker Nandie’

Ferdinando Keast is the bit of a wildcard in this bunch of strongmen. ‘Nandie’ as he was fondly known was not exactly a strongman in the same way as the others in this article but his formidable strength was legendary in his hometown of Saltash during the 19th century.

Keast was a tailor by trade but was also the town sergeant for 44 years, from 1845 until his death in 1891 aged 87. He was an intimidating character who was frequently called upon to arrest criminals on board the ships anchored off Saltash or at near by Hamoaze. On such occasions he would take his large oak truncheon with him but it is said that he often used a more direct technique to subdue any unruly offenders – he would headbutt them.

Ferdinand Keast in his traditional Town Sergeant garb.

And Nandie was very proud of his unusually hard head!

“His part trick was cracking brazil nuts with the back of his head against doors. Indeed he believed his skull to be so exceptional that he willed that after his death it be given to a doctor for examination but 19th century sentiment and regulations prevented this from being carried out.”

Martin Lister, Cornish Times Reflected, 1988.

At that time the lock-up in Saltash was beneath the Old Town Hall on Fore Street and was known as “the Black Hole”. Ferdinand Keast lived above and it was said that whether it was a mutinous sailor, a riotous drunkard or a violent fugitive a swift headbutt from Keast and some time in the Black Hole was enough for even the most hardened criminal.

Old Town Hall, Saltash. Image credit: Saltash.org

Keast was a colourful character who wore a shovel hat and a black cloak and he certainly had the affection of the townsfolk who viewed him with a mixture of fear and admiration. His duties as town sergeant also made him the town crier, the verger and ‘bill sticker’, responsible for posting public notices around Saltash.

When Keast died on New Year’s Day 1891 the entire town felt his loss. It was the end of an era for Saltash and perhaps the end of a connection with another time too.

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Western Morning News, 3rd January 1891

Hundreds of people from Saltash and the surrounding area attended Ferdinand’s funeral as well as a number of local dignitaries.

Local legend has it that after the service, when the bearers bought Keast to the churchyard to be buried, they weren’t able to lower his coffin into the ground because the grave cut wasn’t big enough. While they waited for the hole to be enlarged apparently a rumour spread that “Ole Nandie”, who had been fond of a “two penny worth of rum”, was refusing to go underground without one more drink.

Richard Trevithick – The Man who Changed the World

It is probably fair to say that Richard Trevithick is something of a cultural icon in Cornwall, he is known to us as the man that changed the world. But while we are all aware of his achievements as a pioneer and inventor of road and rail steam transport you may not know of his reputation as a strongman.

cornish strongmen
Linnell, John; Richard Trevithick (1771-1833); Science Museum, London

Trevithick was born in Tregajorran in Illogan parish in April 1771, the son of a mine captain. He began work in the mines himself at the age of 19 and was a popular chap amongst his fellow miners. By the 1790s, alongside his experiments into steam power, it is said that he was also becoming renowned for his feats of strength. Sometimes called ‘the Cornish Giant’ he had inherited a powerful build from his father and stood at over 6ft tall, unusual for the period.

Trevithick is said to have regularly wrestled with the other miners for fun, a very popular sport at the time, but he was also known for weight lifting. He was said to be able to throw a sledgehammer weighing 14lbs over an engine house chimney.

cornish strongmen
Cornish Miners wrestling – credit Cornishmining.org

But his strength was obviously useful in his work too. On one occasion some men were trying to move a 9 inch cast iron pump which they estimated weighed seven or eight hundred weight (400kg?) when Trevithick is said to have lifted it on to his shoulder and carried it off.

“John Vivian, who was the foreman-smith in Cooks Kitchen in 1869 said that his father worked in Dolcoath under Captain Dick about 1800, and he used to say how Trevithick would climb up the great shears, or triangles, 50 or 60 feet high and standing on the top of the three poles, or shear legs, would swing around a heavy sledgehammer. He did it for exercise and to steady his head and his foot.”

Cornishman, 27th July 1893

Trevithick’s physical abilities seem to have impressed the hard working men of the mines as much, if not more than, his inventions!

Final Thoughts

Sometimes Cornwall is referred to rather begrudgingly as ‘a macho society’. Perhaps it is in some ways, but I don’t think that that should necessarily always be seen as negative or in any way a choice.

Cornwall, like all frontiers, all out of the way, edge of the world places, is naturally a hard place to live and as a consequence it produces hard, determined, resourceful people. Cornish people have had to fight for their existence whether it was against the elements or against invaders and they also had to fight for every advantage that the earth or the sea gave them. Tin and fish are not easy to come by. The three industries that made Cornwall, mining, farming and fishing, produced strong men and boys (and strong wives and mothers) because there was no alternative.

This article just goes some way to celebrate those whose strength went beyond the innate, everyday resilience – Cornwall’s strongmen.

Further Reading

Real Cornish Giants, where legends begin

Dick Williams of Penryn – The Cornish Strongman

Memories of a South Crofty miner

Robert Johns of Penryn & Sir John Franklin’s Doomed Arctic Expedition

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