Fire Guts Famous Gym

Wednesday 17 April 2013

Fire gutted the site of Wag Bennett's gym - 'Muscle Mansion' - on Romford Road in the early hours of 13 April this year. The photo shows firefighters at work trying to salvage this famous Forest Gate landmark. 

Wag Bennett Gym Fire 2013
Fire fighters attending the Romford
 Road blaze on 13 April 2013
Bennett was a Newham boy, born in Canning Town in 1930, who died in Forest Gate in 2008. He was famous in his own right in the body-building community, but is perhaps best known as the man who "spotted" Arnold Schwarzenegger in 1966 and helped launch his career as a bodybuilder, before AS became a Hollywood star and latterly governor of California.

Wag was one of the judges at the Mr Universe competition in 1966 when Schwarzenegger, aged 19, was beaten into second place.  Something about the young Austrian impressed Bennett and his wife, Dianne, and they invited him to live with them and their six children in their flat above the Romford Road gym.  Wag trained him and took him to see his first ever movie, at the Mile End Odeon, while Dianne taught him English.
Arnold stayed with the Bennetts, whom he called his "British parents", between 1966 and 1968, during which time he became Mr Universe for the first time.

By a bizarre co-incidence this covered the very time when Jimi Hendrix appeared at the Upper Cut club, just around the corner in Woodgrange Road and where he composed the iconic Purple Haze, on Boxing Day 1966.  This incident will be a feature in a future E7 Now And Then post. We do not know whether Schwarzenegger and Hendrix met then, or, indeed, subsequently.

Schwarzenegger, with Wag and Dianne Bennett and
some of their children, during his stay in Forest Gate

Wag Bennett and Arnold Schwarzenegger
Schwarzenegger and Bennett outside
 335, Romford Road c 1967
Schwarzenegger was not the Bennetts' only claim to fame.  Dianne coached a troupe of muscle-women 'Dianne Bennett's Glamour Girls' in her gym on the corner of Green Street and Romford Road.  Wag trained a number of other muscle-men, including Mr Universe title holders Reg Park and Robby Robinson, as well as the Incredible Hulk, Lou Ferrigno.

The gym became almost a shrine to British bodybuilders and much of its interior, during its prime, displayed more than passing references to religious imagery, as some of the archive photos, below, show.

It remained a working gym well into the 21st century, as a couple of photographs illustrate.

Schwarzenegger kept in touch with Bennett for over 40 years, as the photos below indicate.  Arniold sent a memorial message to Wag's funeral in 2008.

The gym from the outside seemed like the small church hall that it had originally been, next to just one more of the triple-fronted houses on Romford Road, until it was put up for sale, following Bennett's death in 2008.

Perhaps the only external sign of its bodybuilding-gym-role came in the form of the lamp post that illuminated the front doorway to the now-damaged house.

Some of the internal shots of the gym, before it closed, won't be to everyone's taste. The images have more religious overtones, in their dedication worship of 'the body beautiful'. 

Given the almost religious nature of many of the displays in the gym, it is perhaps fitting that the building has reverted to its original purpose since its sale by the Bennett estate.  It is now the home of the Destiny Apostolic Church International.

Our thanks to the body building community, and Neil Beaumont for use of many of the images on this page.

More details and photos can be found on: A tribute to Wag Bennett

Story: Lloyd Jeans and John Walker, April 2013

Post script

In November 2014 we added the following post script to this article:

One of the most viewed articles on this site was the first (it's been all downhill since!), on the fire at Wag Bennett's gym, on Romford Road in April 2013.

Wag's house and gym (1), November 2014
The post has been viewed by a large number of both body builders and Arnold's fans, as far as we have been aware. Not all of them will pass the sorry state that is the building, eighteen months after the fire.

The building has been squatted and vandalised, but has more recently been boarded up and secured. Quite how effective this will prove to be, without a roof(!), remains to be seen.

Wag's house and gym (2), November 2014
So we are producing a two photos taken a couple of days ago, primarily for the benefit of blog visitors from beyond our local boundaries.

The original article, with these photos as a postscript can be accessed


  1. A real part of history is gone in more ways than one. I enjoyed my time with Wag and Nic.

  2. such a shame to see it end this way,i trained there back in the 80's,albeit as a hobby,but it should be conserved as a shrine to bodybuildings' history and preserved.

    1. well said mate.......I went there today and noticed that the lamp post is still standing!....It will soon be demolished....I think some one should take that lamp post as a memory of the gym and all it stood for!.....or it will end up in a skip very soon......

  3. Does anyone know when the house will be demolished?

    1. They have now refurbished the house. The correct door number is 335 romford road

  4. I went there from 1965-66 never saw Arnie though.

  5. The one gym in the world i would truly have loved to train in. Full of so much history and character, unlike today's soulless, modern, corporate factory type gyms. Just love the images with all the painted murals and photos on the church walls. The rusty weights improvised benches and well used old school machines. This was literally like a spiritual cathedral for real, oldschool bodybuilding

  6. Masters great Len Brown and his team from Colchester my first bodybuilding competition at Wags in November 1975. It was one of the most enjoyable evenings of my life. We drove to Tiptree en route to collect Gordon Vansertima's son Aubert. I managed to garner a little trophy that was awarded to me by Wag and Diane's beautiful daughter, Leigh who tragically died, as I recall, from an asthma attack while on a family holiday. I was taken aback by Wag's generosity and unselfish enthusiam. I went to watch the previous competition. The main event was won by Ian Dowe from Ron Morris and Alan Simpson. As we left we noticed the venue was still packed. We were told not to leave because Wag had departed earlier to collect the evening's guest star IFBB Universe and Olympia competitor Albert Beckles. Unbelievable! Thank you Wag and the Bennett family.

  7. Who remembers the little serving hatch at Wag's comps in whe even a poor student like me could buy large amounts of cheese and digestive biscuits. I still keep in contact with Ian Dowe, who trained mainly at Len Sell's in Walthamstow and Bill Steven's in Stratford. Some other people I remember from Wag's are: Gary Kendall and his brothers, upper body specialist Joe Matthou, Rick and Kevin Wayne, Ron Morris, Bill Trotter, Roy Chavez, Brian Buchanan, guest posers Gordon and Bridget Pasquil, Wilf Sylvester, Alan Simpson from Chelmsford, Roy Perrott and a huge number of competitors and supporters from the Estuary Gym, Angelito Lesta, Terry Fisher and his parents (Terry was only 14 at the time), Barry Stritton, Lloyd Berry, Eugene Laviscount, Russ Gray from Dagenham, Sulby Prince, Dennis Stallard and his team from Wales, Len and Brenda Sell Bob Turner from Maidstone "Y", Gordon and Aubert Vansertima, Al Beckles, Len Brown, Colin Grayston, Bob Tinworth, Nusrat Baig and his brother, Martin Lewis and many more. Once, Wag showed his famous 8mm film of Sergio Oliva pumping up with a huge dumbell Hyde Park... Halcyon days.... Thanks Wag.

  8. I was privelaged to train there for nine months in 1990. Wag was such a legend and never pretentious, he even opened his doors for me at 8am when the gym didn't open till 9am simply because of my shift pattern. I have used many of the unique design ideas in my own gym and find his passing and the later demise of the gym a complete tragedy. A once in a lifetime man and gym. Respects David Livingstone

  9. Love to see some photos of the inside of that church as it is now.

  10. I used to go to school with Barry stritton, and even then he was quite a size. I would love to see some photos of him, just for old time's sake. I also trained at Wag Bennett's, just as an amateur and I loved the welcoming atmosphere, where you were treated as an equal. Tim

  11. I used to train here once a week with my mate from North London Barry Codrington , who introduced me to this gym back in the late 80s early 90s , a great iconic gym


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