Former Mr Universe and Stalybridge gym owner John Lees dies aged 91

JOHN Lees, who put Stalybridge on the map globally after landing the Mr Universe title in 1957, has died at the age of 91.

The former bodybuilder, professional wrestler and successful local businessman passed away peacefully on November 14, days after being admitted to Tameside General Hospital.

John Lees

John had a life which was rich and fulfilling as he often mixed with the rich and famous. He was also a great raconteur with stories of who he had met, a far cry from his humble upbringing.

John, who lived in Stalybridge all his life, was a trailblazer in health and fitness, and opened a gym in the town in the early 1980s when they were still rare.

And even at the age of 91, John was still doing daily exercises at his home in Stalybridge.

John was born on January 17, 1930, in the Castle Hall district to John and Elsie Lees and left St Peter’s RC School aged 14 to work for his father’s building firm and went to night school to study joinery and bricklaying.

It was also while in his early teens that John became fascinated by health and fitness and began bodybuilding. In the absence of gyms, daughter Tina explained training entailed lifting bags of cement in each hand while he also worked out with East Cheshire Harriers.

John, who was intensely proud of his hometown which he always championed, was able to pursue his interest in health and fitness during his National Service as was a PT instructor during his time spent in Germany in the Army.

It was between 1949 and 1957 that John, who stood at 6ft 1in and weighed 16.5 stones and at his peak had a 54in chest and 28in waist, enjoyed a remarkable period of success in bodybuilding competitions.

He was the winner of Mr Britain in 1953, fourth in Mr Europe the following year with the crowning glory landing the overall Mr Universe title in 1957, a competition he had entered for each of the six previous years. He received the winners’ trophy from movie legend Errol Flynn.

The previous six holders of Mr Universe had all been from America which made his success extra special as he competed against bodybuilders from 18 other nations.

Tina recounted her father accepting an invitation to dinner at the home of industrialist Jean Paul Getty who at that time was reputedly the richest man in the world, competing against actor Sean Connery in a bodybuilding competition at the Royal Albert Hall and later being a judge at the first UK event Arnold Schwarzenegger competed in.

In the 1960s and 70s, John was a professional wrestler during the sport’s hey-day when it was televised every Saturday afternoon and he competed against the likes of Jackie Pallo and Adrian Street.

The sport took John all over the world and he even got to train with sumo wrestlers in Japan.

Tina added through wrestling in the Middle East her father got to meet the famous as well the infamous including Saddam Hussein and the ruler the Shar of Iran.

And she remembered as a young girl hiding behind the ‘couch’ at home on a Saturday afternoon too frightened to watch her father in the wrestling ring.

Golf was also a sporting passion with John a member at Stamford for 45 years and he played until in his eighties.

And even when he was unable to continue competing, John would regularly visit the club on a Tuesday to chat with his friends in ‘codgers’ corner’.

He was also a successful businessman who bought the old Co-op building on Armentieres Square and transformed it into the John Lees Health and Fitness Centre at a time when there were few gyms.

The gym, which provided local employment, even had a jacuzzi, a rarity in those days, and Tina remembered the interest it sparked.

Wife Irene, who died in 1990, was also well-known in Stalybridge as the owner of the Wishing Well and she also had a second greetings’ card outlet in Glossop.

John, who was interested in British history and especially the two great wars, was also renowned for being a prankster and his 1970s impression of singer Tom Jones.

Tina asked friends for memories of her father and ‘big’ and ‘Mr Universe’ were the abiding ones.

She said: “When they refereed to ‘big’ it was not his size but his enormous capacity for life, his humour, booming laugh while he was also opinionated.

“Dad has a presence when he went into a room. He was intelligent, complex and a force to be reckoned with.

“He had a long and interesting life, one which is to be celebrated. He went from humble beginnings to having a successful life, and I am proud of what he achieved.”

St Peter’s RC Church, Stalybridge, featured prominently in John’s life as it was where he was baptised, married and had his funeral on December 14.

He described wrestling as showbusiness, and it was fitting he chose Frank Sinatra’s ‘There’s No Business Like Show Business’ as the exit music on leaving church for burial at Dukinfield Cemetery.

John leaves daughter Tina and two grandchildren.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *