Born in about 1710, Thomas Topham was known as ‘The Strong Man’ and ‘The British Samson’. In his youth he was apprenticed as a carpenter, his father’s trade, but he abandoned the business and became a publican, first at the Red Lion Inn, in which he failed, and later at the Duke’s Head, Islington. He began to perform feats of strength in his pubs as a way of attracting customers; his first public performance was to hold back a horse whilst lying on his back and bracing his legs against a short wall. Having heard that a German had held back two horses, Topham attempted to copy this but the stirrups were not properly connected, causing Topham to slip and fracture his kneecap, leaving him with a permanent limp.
|Topham's Great Feat|
On May 28th 1741, Topham lifted three barrels of water weighing 1831 lbs on a harness around his neck and shoulders, in celebration of Admiral Vernon’s victory at Portobello (the Admiral, and a crowd of several thousand, was present to witness this act). Other feats he performed was to break a broom handle into two by striking it against his bare arm, to crack open a coconut by hitting it against his ear, he lifted a horse over a turn-pike gate, lifted two hundred pound weights above his head with his little fingers and carried a roof beam over his shoulder as a soldier might carry a musket. One day, a belligerent carter was disrupting the progress of a race on the Islington road, so Topham took hold of the rear end of the cart and pulled it, together with the horse and driver, out of the way.
|Another version of the same feat.|
He toured in Ireland and Scotland, as well as across England, giving demonstrations of his prodigious strength. At Derby he rolled up a pewter plate of seven pounds weight as easily as a man would roll up a paper, held a two-quart pewter can at arms length and squeezed it as you would an eggshell, bent an iron poker of three inches circumference around his neck and then bent back to straight again, he took a similar poker and struck it against his bare left forearm until it was bent to a right angle. He broke the bowl of a tobacco pipe held between his first and third fingers, and broke another by placing it behind his knee and flexing his tendons. He broke a rope tied to the floor that was two inches thick and capable of holding a weight of over a ton. One feat was to lift a six-foot long oak table with his teeth, by means of a leather strap fastened to one end and by bracing the legs against his knees – and the other end of the table had a hundredweight weight fastened to it. Topham lifted up Mr Chambers, vicar of All Saints, with one hand – this vicar weighed in at twenty-seven stones. The Strong Man would lie with his head on one chair and his feet on another, then four men weighing fourteen stones each would sit upon his body, and he would raise them up as he breathed. When staying at the Virgins Inn in Derby an ostler insulted him, so he took an iron roasting spit and tied it about the man’s neck as easily as you might tie a cravat, and much to the amusement of the crowd, would not untie it until he had received an apology.
|An ostler with a spit tied around his neck.|
One night he carried a sleeping night watchman and his sentry box from Chiswell St to Bunhill Fields cemetery and left the man, still asleep in his box, on top of the cemetery wall. In 1745, he moved to the Bell and Dragon Inn, Hog Lane, Shoreditch where he continued to perform for a shilling entry. Topham was five feet ten inches tall and of a mild disposition but could be pushed to action – two drunks in his bar tried to provoke him to a fight until he picked them up, one in each hand, and banged their heads together.
But our Samson had his own Delilah – a wife who was unfaithful to him. When Topham discovered her infidelities, in a jealous frenzy he took a knife and stabbed her, and then turned the knife on himself, inflicting terrible wounds from which he died several days later, on August 10th, 1749, at the Bell and Dragon. He was thirty-nine years old. His wife recovered from her injuries.