The West Melbourne Apollo building

The West Melbourne Apollo building

I have been interested to know more about the Mighty Apollo building at 109-111 Hawke St for many years, and the recently published book by Jon Faine, Apollo and Thelma, a true tall story, prompted me to find out more.

According to Graeme Butler’s West Melbourne Heritage Review, the three-storey heritage-listed building was built in 1926 for the successful battery manufacturing firm, Widdis Diamond Dry Cells Company Pty Ltd, owned by Mr A.J.W. Scovell, one of the first Australian manufacturers of special purpose portable batteries for the radio industry. The architect was H. Stanley Harris.

The building was later occupied by the Hygiene Baby Carriages Pty Ltd, which manufactured prams. A 2015 photo shows that the existing café was then occupied by Advance Automobiles. But although the man whose name continues to be displayed on the building died in 1994, his legendary fame lives on, and is perpetuated by the Mighty Apollo Lane that runs nearby.

Paul Anderson, known as the Mighty Apollo, was a legendary figure. YouTube has several videos of his prowess, including The Mighty Young Apollo, Australian Paul Anderson, Old Time Strongman in which Apollo discusses his life story. The videos show his bulging, rippling muscles as he undertakes unimaginable feats of strength and daring. He was trodden on, twice, by an elephant, and could pull heavy vehicles, including a tram loaded with people, with a harness that he attached to his teeth with a toggle. He also trained athletes and brought Japanese martial arts to Australia after visiting Japan.

Growing up in the rough and sometimes violent suburb of Collingwood, Apollo set himself the task of becoming the strongest man in the world from the age of five. Small of stature –

he was only five-feet four-inches when fully grown – his strength allowed him to defeat the school bullies. His father was a blacksmith, so training weights and gadgets were in easy reach. At a later age he was gifted a bed of nails and a board known as the “Tomb of Hercules” on which to further develop his acts of daring. He attributed his superhuman strength to his strong will power as well as his well-developed muscles. He also had a mystical belief in his indomitable will, believing that there was an indefinable spiritual force giving him power. Some of his feats were, he alleged, prompted by dreams. After setting up gyms in Melbourne’s city centre he moved his gym and his very basic living quarters to Hawke St in 1982.

Jon Faine’s book tells the story of how, as a fledgling lawyer, he was given the task of sorting out the disputed will of Apollo’s sister, Thelma Hawk, who had died suddenly. She owned a pub in a remote area of the Northern Territory but, having defaced her will by scribbling out her executor, a solicitor who had been convicted of embezzling money, she died intestate.  Her intention was to leave her wealth to her three nephews, sons of Apollo, but it was years before all the claims on her estate could be settled and the money distributed according to her wishes.

I started my search by visiting the Apollo café that has occupied the downstairs front portion of the building since 2017. After two successful years the business was severely curtailed by  COVID. However, the owner, Russ Spear, says that success is returning as life is returning to a “new normal.”  The café is well worth a visit but don’t rely on Google maps for its opening hours. Check its website instead. If you are an early riser, it’s open on weekdays from 6.30am.

I understand that the building has been owned by the same family since it was built, although Faine said it was sold in 2010 and was in the “gleeful hands of property developers.” Certainly, the top floor now comprises two apartments and there are several offices on the middle level. The façade and the café as well as the adjacent Mighty Apollo Lane remain as a monument to Apollo’s fame.

Faine’s book recounts several instances of coincidence, such as when, in 2011, he went to a Bendigo swap meet and discovered some of Apollo’s prized memorabilia that he was able to restore to one of Apollo’s sons. Russ Spear recounts one of his own. When he took his grandmother to show off his café she pointed to the building next door: she had worked at 125 Hawke St for 30 years when it was a printing business •

John Buncle

John Buncle

February 14th, 2024 - Felicity Jack
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