U is for Universe

If I was a pre-Copernican, I would believe that the Earth was at the centre of the universe. More specifically, I would imagine that Tameside was at the heart of everything. Of course it isn’t, but it did once boast a Mr Universe.

John Lees was born in Stalybridge and was crowned the Overall Winner of the Mr Universe competition in 1957, having taken part in the competition since 1950.

Mr Universe was a bodybuilding competition, of course, but with overtones of Crufts and the slave market as this excerpt from the Muscle Builder in 1956 illustrates:

Competitors are judged for how they look in a natural, unposed stance as well as for their appearance in muscle poses. The condition of the skin, hair, eyes, teeth are all taken into consideration. How they walk, how they stand, their overall appearance and stage presence are taken into account.

Getting your body into the sort of shape to win the title obviously took a great deal of dedication and in an article published afterwards, John Lees said: “…the sweat and toil had been worthwhile, the unshaking confidence had been justified.”

Born in 1930, the son of a builder, Lees had always been big, indeed he believed he was the biggest baby born in Stalybridge. “Even as a child I thought if I was bound to be big I might as well be as big as I could get.”

His father introduced him to free exercising and at the age of 15, Lees invested in a Charles Atlas course. He had carried the advert around for three weeks before taking the plunge, realising what the ‘investment’ would do to his three shillings a week pocket money.

“It meant that all my precious pocket money I had saved had to be sent to Mr Atlas, but I thought with a chest like that he deserved it, even if it meant making a pauper of me for the next six month!”

After winning Mr Universe, Lees turned to wrestling as a career, a popular ‘sport’ on Saturday afternoon television, Wrestling Heritage recalling commentator Kent Walton drooling over his muscular frame.

Although a skilled wrestler, he lacked the flair to take him to the top of his chosen profession at a time when there were colourful characters like Jackie Pallo, Mick McManus and Les Kellett.

Later in life he opened the Casablanca gym in his home town of Stalybridge and I was a member there for a few years. He was very much a loud and larger than life character and though in his 50s, he hadn’t gone to seed and still had the physique of a bodybuilder.

Casablanca was destroyed in a fire in February 2005. All that remains is the sign in the centre of the photo above.

ABC Wednesday Round 7

Umbrage by MorningAJ

Umbrella at Words, Words, Words

Underground Prison by Dina

Ukelele at Rinkly Rhymes

Unnecessary and Untimely at Mrs Nesbitt’sPlace

U’s Gone by Feather Brained

Nobody’s prefect. If you find any spelling mistakes or other errors in this post, please let me know by highlighting the text and pressing Ctrl+Enter.

13 comments… Add yours
  • rog 8th December 2010

    Yes, i think the title Mr. Universe (or Miss Universe) is SO funny, given its vastness. Still, an intriguing story.
    ROG, ABC Wednesday team

  • Mr Parrot 8th December 2010

    Funny now Roger, but taken ever so seriously in the 1950s!

  • jabblog uk 8th December 2010

    Remember the ‘7 stone weakling’ advertisements? On balance, I preferred the ‘before’ to the ‘after’.

  • Yorkshire Pudding 8th December 2010

    Casablanca/Stalybridge – The two names just do not sit comfortably together. Do you think there might be a Stalybridge gym in Casablanca or perhaps a Chorlton cum Hardy massage parlour in Marrakech? Doubt it…

  • Mr Parrot 8th December 2010

    Jabblog: I can manage the weakling, if not the seven stones!

    YP: You mean you’ve never been to Staley Vegas?

  • tom greene 21st November 2013

    Any idea about john lees age and is he still around?

    • Sofia 28th February 2014

      Tom Greene, John Lees is my grandfather. He is 84 and still as big as he ever was!

      • Mr Parrot 1st March 2014

        I’m delighted to hear that Sofia and I trust he is well.

      • Julie Towers 25th August 2016

        Hi my mother used to tell stories of your grandfather who she met at Levenshulme Palais…her name was Joan Parry, sadly she is no longer here.

    • Gregg 12th February 2020

      Yes still in Stalybridge 90 years old needs a film making about his life

  • Cheryl hardisty 30th December 2015

    Sofia, my dad is a good friend of your grandad. Good to hear he is doing well and send him mine and Tony hardisty’s regards please xx

  • Barbara Shaw nee Backhouse. 13th December 2017

    Your Grandfather John Lees lived on Albion Gardens in the early 50s with his sister Katherine he always wore a camel overcoat and a yellow scarf he cut a distinguised figure,

  • Ray Lindley 30th December 2017

    I was in Newquay in 1958 .I was 11 years old and had my photograph taken with John Lees we were both holding wooden surf boards. I remember a Scottish guy my father knew contacted a news paper journalist and said that John Lees was on holiday in Newquay and was on Lusty Glaze beach. John Lees didn’t like the publicity and when John found out we never saw him again.
    I have just found a photograph of John Lees and myself and turned it over to see if there is any date on it. On the back it as been signed to Raymond best wishes John Lees

    I used to live in Rochdale and he did invite my parent and I to the gym in in Stalybridge but never looked him up


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