The Strange Tale of Britain’s First Bodybuilder

Eugen Sandow

A new book published recently tells the tale of “Britain’s first bodybuilder” – the remarkable tale of Eugen Sandow.

The strongman and music-hall artiste came to the UK in 1889 from Prussia at the age of just 22, after having spent the previous seven years seeking to attain “ the utmost notion of perfection” in the gymnasiums of Konigsberg and later in contests versus circus strongmen. He left Prussia at the age of 18 in order to avoid military service and took to the roads – earning a crust as a strongman himself, a professional wrestler or as an artists’ model.

While in Venice in 1889 he was swimming in the sea and emerged in front of American painter Edmund Aubrey Hunt, who was impressed by his physique and advised him to travel to London and seek his fortune there. With the painter’s patronage, he made his first appearance before society the same year, at the Royal Aquarium Music Hall in Westminster, where he competed against two other professional strongmen in various weightlifting contests in order to win a £600 prize – a sum of money worth £50,000 today.

Wearing full evening dress and a monocle, Sandow was initially mocked by the audience, until he ripped open the front of his attire to reveal his bodybuilding physique, shocking the crowd into silence and winning the tournament, before lifting a 500lb stone block using only his middle finger as a grand finale.

He became a celebrated fixture on the London scene, toured the UK performing dizzying feats of strength, and brought the forerunner of modern bodybuilding to Britain, establishing the Institute of Physical Culture at 33a St James’s Street for people interested in striving for the same “perfection” of body as Sandow’s himself in 1897. His muscle-building system involved repetitious exercises using quite small weights and is still the basis for bodybuilding today. He opened more institutes in the UK and the USA, and perhaps his most famous student was Sherlock Holmes author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who he invited to be one of the judges at Britain’s first ever national bodybuilding contest, dubbed “the great competition” and held at the Royal Albert Hall in 1901.

The Perfect Man: The Muscular Life And Times Of Eugen Sandow, Victorian Strongman, by David Waller, is available in the shops and to buy online now.

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