This is Great Grandma!!! or should I say……
VULCANA THE VICTORIAN WONDERWOMAN
This is the story of Vulcana my Great Grandmother who was the daughter of a Welsh Baptist Minister, who ran away from home at fifteen, became famous on the Music Hall scene and traveled to places she could only have dreamed of!
This is my her in her prime. I aim to tell you why I am so enthralled by her story, that started with my father telling me bedtime tales of her escapades. Those stories stayed with me and I began to research her history. I will tell you how she met my Great Grandfather and how a career in the Music Hall took her to the far flung places most young Victorian women could only dream off. You might think she was a singer or a comedienne but actually she was a weightlifting strong woman and the star of an act that was famous in it’s time for turning the tables on society norms of the day!
So this is the story of VULCANA THE VICTORIAN STRONGWOMAN and her stage partner ATLAS!
Their real names were William Roberts and Kate Williams.The dates below are taken from the Memorial stone to Variety Artistes in Streatham Park Cemetery in London.
William Hedley Roberts: Born 1864 – Died 1946
(Miriam) Kate Williams: Born 1874 Died 1946
Here she is above in her leotard with a tiny waist that I envy! She has a plain black costume with a white under garment and it is embellished with a decorated hip sash and an under her knee a garter over her white tights. Her long dark hair is thick and luxurious; the plait lies over her shoulder and is tied with a loose white bow as it falls over her breast.I love this picture as she is looking straight out at the viewer and is obviously proud of her beautiful body.
This second picture is of the two of them together and you can see it is signed Atlas and Vulcana which was their stage name. I think it must have been very early in their career together as she looks so young. He was eleven years her senior and they were billed as “Brother and Sister” in their publicity material.
When I was young my father showed me some photographs he had of her and William her partner in their stage costumes. These were few and I always hoped to find more information about them. After my sister Sue and I did a short film with the BBC on the Atlas and Vulcana story I was contacted by some long lost family who had some glass photographic plates taken by Atlas (William) during their career. These glass slides had been in a beautiful wooden box that a member of the family wanted so he (who shall be nameless) dug a pit and tipped the plates in. Thankfully another family member called Donald rescued as many as he could. Obviously some were destroyed and some were damaged but many were saved and this has been a wonderful resource for me. Of course the plates were small and difficult to see clearly so when a friend of mine offered to transfer them to digital I jumped at the chance. The family allowed me to do this and gave me permission to use them. It was wonderful for me to see their life laid out in front of me but the photographs were very jumbled and it has been hard to piece together a somewhat chronological story from them. It was always exciting to find a picture that backed up something I had hoped was true such as who the man was who invited them to travel to Australia. I felt from what I had read of another Music Hall star Marie Lloyd who went to Australia to perform that it was possible the same impresario Harry Rickards had also invited Atlas & Vulcana. So when I saw photographs of his theatre I was thrilled to see the name of Harry Rickards, the very same man.
Above -Vulcana standing outside Harry Rickards “New Tivoli Theatre” Sydney, Australia. His name can be seen above the theatre name!
These pictures will come later in the story. I cannot always be sure where the pictures were taken but I will try to be as accurate as I can. If anyone recognizes a place I am unsure of or if I have got the wrong place please let me know.
So as you have probably gathered I have decided to tell you their story with the use of these photographs and other material I have researched.
I hope those who are interested in female body building, feats of strength, weight lifting etc will find this blog enjoyable as well as those who are interested in the history of the female forerunners of feminism and proponents of health and fitness for women in Victorian times.I also feel that anyone with an interest in Victorian and Edwardian history, especially that of the Music Hall will enjoy the photographs and stories of what could be viewed as scandalous in those days. The context of Vulcana’s start in the career that was to take her to many countries can only be imagined as she left a religious family in a quiet Welsh town called Abergavenny to run away to London to be with the troupe of athletes led by William. London at that time was in comparison to Wales a dangerous place. There were many dangers especially for young women as the number of prostitutes per ca-pita was huge, promiscuity and vice was rampant. In this atmosphere a young girl needed to be protected especially as the Music Hall was viewed by some parts of society as “wicked” The history of Music Hall has shown us that there were more than a few great artistes who were hugely appreciated for their skills and who became “Stars” in their own right and greatly sought after. I believe that Vulcana was one of these. There were many strong men at the time but not so many strong women and although she was very attractive, even alluring in her stage costumes she was also a serious athlete who won many medals for her weight lifting.
So let’s start at the beginning
William Hedley Roberts was born Sixteenth September 1864. His father was James Roberts and his mother was Jemima Roberts formerly Sherbourne.
Kate Williams was born Miriam Katherine Williams around 06.05.1875 (possibly 1874 according to some records I have been told about but have not seen!)
I know nothing of her former life except that Kate was living with her parents and siblings in 1881 at 16 Bond Street Aberdare Glamorgan, Wales and she is five years old. The 1891 census it states that at fifteen she is living with her Baptist Minister father, mother and siblings still in Aberdare.
Some time prior to this William starts a gymnasium in Abergavenny, Wales. I went to Abergavenny to see what information could find and I was told by the archive department that a building at 22 Tudor Street was used as a gymnasium in late 1800’s. This may have been the gymnasium that William started. There are some old photographs of it but the building was demolished in 1957.
It was reported that that Kate stopped a runaway horse in a Bristol street aged 13 years. This must have taken some strength and courage! It is reported in later articles.
Kate obviously started to attend the gym sometime before 1890 as it was that year that she appeared with the troupe of athletes William had trained at a fete in Pontypool. William later stated that she had deputized for someone who was ill and she was very well received. It was this performance that gave her a taste for the life she was to lead in the future. In an article about her Atlas said that “she so delighted the audience that she then and there decided to turn professional. At that time she was fifteen” This quote was shown to me by David Webster a well-known weight lifter and trainer from Scotland who has an archive of the history of weight lifting and body building and has written books on the subject.
This is a copy of an article from a book belonging to David Webster. It shows a photograph of Vulcana lifting a man over her head in a “bent press” lift.