Dick Williams of Penryn – The Cornish Strongman

Richard ‘Dick’ Williams was born in Penryn on 16th April 1911, the son of Arthur and Leana Williams who lived in a cottage close to Tremough. Arthur’s work as the assistant station master at Penryn Railway Station, though a responsible one, wasn’t particularly physically demanding, so it isn’t clear where Dick’s enthusiasm for performing incredible physical feats came from but from a young age he was renowned for his indominable strength. A man who was, by all accounts, a real gentle giant and who was given the nickname “the Cornish Samson”.

All the Fun of the Fair!

According to his son John, Dick’s life as a strongman began in the 1930s when he spent some time working at the fair on Barry Island in Wales. John believes that Dick was a wrestler in the show but that he also worked as a sort of shill, a stooge encouraging the watching punters to challenge the strongman to a fight by pretending to take them on himself.

It seems that while Dick’s strength was obviously something he was born with he also possessed a degree of showmanship too that just came naturally to him.

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Dick Williams as a young man lifting weights one armed above his head.

After returning to Cornwall Dick Williams began perfected his skills at local fairs and village shows, very often raising money for charity, while entertaining delighted crowds.

“Williams’ performance ended with a feat which it is believed has never been performed before. It was a sheer test of abdominal muscle strength without any of the trick features sometimes introduced by strong men on the stage. Williams lay flat, Edney with the full force of his 12 stone, jumped from a height of 4ft onto his stomach and William’s stood up and smiled!”

West Briton, 31st August 1939

His act also saw him raising his friend Edney one handed above his head as well as lifting various heavy weights at arms length.

Wartime Entertainer

During the Second World War Dick and his two fellow strongmen Clifton ‘Chick’ Edney and Douglas Thomas used their talents to entertain some of the troops who were stationed in the Falmouth area, as the West Briton reports.

“Dick Williams of Penryn provided a new thrill for an audience of soldiers and civilians at Falmouth Drill Hall on Friday, supplementing the some of his remarkable feats of strength with a new one which left his audience astonished. A length of mild shoeing steel half an inch by three quarters of an inch thick was used. While Dick clamped his teeth on it his assistants, Chick Edney and Douglas Thomas, at one end and two soldiers at the other applied all their weight to it and bent it into a loop. The soldiers in the audience tried to bend it back straight afterwards and though four Tommies struggled hard with it they did not succeed.”

West Briton, 19th October 1939

This trick of bending metal bars either held in his teeth or around the back of his head or neck became a favourite that he would continue to perform for years to come.

When Dick later went off to serve during the war himself the local papers made jokes about the advantages that his strength would give him and interestingly the same article (below) also says that he actually set a new world record in 1940.

“Full army kit and rifle will be light as a feather to Dick Williams, the Cornish Samson, when he joins up later in the year. Dick who takes half a dozen raw eggs and a quart of milk each day to ‘keep his strength up’ has just broken world weightlifting records at Penryn, Cornwall. He lifted 126 lbs overhead on the little finger of his right hand, bettering the record lift of 112 lbs which he accomplished a few weeks ago.”

Cornishman, 11 January 1940

(Sadly I haven’t been able to confirm this as Guinness World Records do not have any record of achievements before 1954.)

Rather than being sent to fight in Europe Dick went to work on a ship that salvaged sunken wreckage out at sea. This was a very dangerous and extremely physical job but with his natural strength it was work to which Dick was well suited. Tragically however though he came home safely to Penryn and his great friend ‘Chick’ Edney, who was a Penryn man, (pictured below) never returned from the fighting. He was a trooper in the Royal Armoured Corps, Tank Regiment and was killed in North Africa.

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Dick lifting Chick Edney

Meeting Alexander Zass

After the war Dick Williams took a job at Falmouth Docks working in what was known as ‘the heavy gang’. He remained there for the next 28 years and his feats of remarkable strength became legendary amongst the dock workers, which later included two of his sons.

Gerald Pitts, who worked alongside Dick’s son John Williams from 1976 until John retired in 2013, spoke to me about Dick. He described him as a “man mountain” and said that there were numerous oft-repeated tales of his antics. In the 1940s and 50s ships would often be docked next to each other, ship against ship, in a system known as ‘rafting’. This sometimes meant that the cranes used to move the heaviest bits of machinery and parts sometimes couldn’t reach the vessels furthest out. Dick was known to have single-handedly carried seemingly immovable parts, normally lugged about by teams of men or with machines, from dry land across the various decks to where it needed to go. Gerald says:

“His legend went before him, even before I started work at the docks my dad used to talk about Dick Williams and his extraordinary strength.”

Gerald Pitts & John Williams (r) in 2022

Local legend has it that Dick’s career as a strongman began when he was challenged with a £20 bet to bend a piece of metal with his bare hands but it was after his encounter with Alexander Zass, the Russian Iron Man, professional wrestler and animal trainer, that Dick really established his reputation as “the Cornish Samson”.

Zass was said to be the strongest man in the world when he embarked on a tour of England sometime in the late 1940s or early 1950s. During the tour he would challenge anyone who thought they were strong enough to drink out of his custom-made tankard. This was no ordinary tankard, it was moulded out of solid iron and weighed 84lbs (38kg). The strength needed to raise this cup with one arm to your lips was enormous!

Alexander Zass

John Williams says that his father decided to take the challenge, there was after all a prize of £15 offered, and he went to meet Zass at the Greenbank Hotel.

To Zass’ astonishment Dick Williams lifted the massive flagon and drank from it!

The Russian had to pay up the £15.

As far as John knows Dick was the only one, apart from Zass, that ever managed to lift that cup and this was the start of one of his own popular tricks.

After the meeting with Zass Dick went to the workshops on the docks and had them make him his own iron tankard, a copy of the one used by Zass. It too was solid iron covered in a layer of copper to make it shine and also weighing 84lbs. He would then fill it with a half pint of Guinness and challenge folks in the pubs around Falmouth and Penryn to take a drink. No one could.

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Dick Williams drinking from his 84lb tankard

Pianos & Iron Bars

During the 1950s Dick continued impressing the crowds driving from village to village around Cornwall with his friend Jack Simmons in their Austin 7. By the time these two large men (Simmons is the chap on the right of the picture above) and all Dick’s weights and equipment were squeezed into the little car John says it a miracle that it moved at all!

On one occasion my own father watched him perform at the Mabe Heavy Horse Show, he still remembers some 70 years later seeing Dick lifting that iron cup and then bending a steel rod in his teeth before tying it into a knot! He also recalls watching him lying down with a wooden board and a great block of stone on his chest while men smashed it up with sledgehammers.

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Dick Williams as an older man with his tankard

Dick also performed a couple of tricks involving a piano.

During a concert in Penryn in 1939, which was held to raise funds for the Red Cross, Williams apparently supported the piano on his chest while a Miss Crothers played a tune. On another occasion in 1945 he supported the piano plus two men sitting on a plank of wood across his chest. His son John says . . .

“He would put a board across his body, from his shoulders to his knees, lie down like a crab backwards and they used to put the piano on the board.”

Flexing at Falmouth Docks

Dick’s incredible strength certainly earned him something of a reputation and later became the subject of a cartoon by Bill Skinner that appeared in the West Briton in 1989. It’s said that when the tugboat men in Falmouth went on strike the workers on the docks joked that they should just get Dick to take over the job and pull the boats in himself.

West Briton, 19th December 1989

Gentle Giant

Dick married his wife Hazel in 1951 and together they had three sons and a daughter. And there was something else that Dick William’s excelled at beyond his displays of power and that, it may surprise you, was massage. Apparently during the lunch breaks on the docks there would be a queue of men waiting for Dick to give them a back rub. He was very interested in physiology and physical therapy and many people swore by his massages to help their various aches and pains. This was something he continued to do into his retirement.

Another story that perhaps illustrates not only this great man’s strength but also his love for his community is one that John remembers being told about his father. Apparently a man called Henry Pascoe was moving house in Penryn in the 1930s and the family had a huge, heavy sideboard which they were struggling to move let alone fit into the cart with their other furniture. It was suggested that Dick might help. Dick picked up the sideboard and carried it all across the town on his back to The Praze where their new house was.

I mentioned that Dick often raised money for local charities and in 1988 he was presented with the Saracen Award by the Mayor of Penryn for his outstanding contributions to his community. He proudly hung the certificate and medal on his wall at home, as his son John does to this day.

Dick passed away in 1993 at the age of 82.

Final thoughts

Fortunately Dick’s wonderful legacy has lived on through the many people who still remember this giant of a man in Penryn and at the docks where his son John also gained a reputation for being equally strong! After his death much of Dick’s strongman equipment, including his tankard and the weights that bear his name, was given to Penryn Museum for safe keeping on the proviso that it would never leave the town.

During his strongman career Dick was often joined by other Cornish entertainers or novelty acts, for example in August 1954 the West Briton reported that there would be “displays by Dick Williams of Penryn, the Cornish strongman and Mr J. Rapson, the well-known coal carrier”. Rapson, a world record holder himself, just so happens to be one of the strongman on my list for my next article! My research of Dick’s story has led me to discover a whole host of other Cornish Strongmen and in the next blog post I intend to share their amazing stories with you!

Author’s note: My heartfelt thanks go to John Williams and Gerald Pitt for sharing their memories with me and bringing this story to life!

Further Reading

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

The Notorious Women of the Killigrew Family

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