In this post you will see the transition of Kate from young Welsh athlete to Vulcana on the London Music Hall stage.
Vulcana is looking very young here perhaps around fifteen years old but already she has won many medals.
In 1890 she has what is possibly her first professional performance with William in Cardiff. That year William also appears in London on the Music Hall stage. As we know Kate is still living with her family in 1891 and I can only conjecture that she asks if she might go to London with the troupe to perform there. Perhaps her strict religious background meant that her father refused this request. He may not have disagreed with her training but performing was perhaps beyond the bounds of possibility for a Baptist ministers daughter. In 1891 Kate is still living with her parents as this is recorded in the Census of that year. It has been written that her father was an Irish minister living in Wales but in the census of 1891 he is recorded as Baptist Minister and having been born in Anglesea, Holyhead, South Wales! He would not be pleased to think of his daughter in London with it’s overcrowded foul smelling streets. It was a dangerous place to be not just because of thieves and pick pockets but also because of the odds of being killed by cholera or typhoid which routinely caused thousands of deaths at that time. Young women were at great risk of being lured into immorality due to the huge numbers of prostitutes plying their trade. The age of consent had been twelve until 1871 when it was raised to just thirteen so historically a great many girls and boys were working in this way on the streets and this continued even after the age of consent was raised in 1885 to sixteen years of age. Her father would know about the harshness of the working class life in London as he had lived in Bristol and would have seen how dangerous life in a city could be for a young woman.
Whatever the situation she was obviously strong willed and was determined to be with Atlas and the troupe as she resorted to running away to London to be with them either as they caught the train or soon after. The family in London told me this was definitely what happened as they were also grandchildren of Vulcana and Atlas and had discussed this with close relatives who had known them.
Here are two pictures of her with a group of people mostly women who I believe were some of the members of the “Society of Athletes” as Atlas had named them. Most of the faces are recognizable from later photos of the troupe.
Kate Williams (Vulcana) is fifth from the left in the first picture and second from the left in the following picture. She is wearing a tie.
Going to London to perform must have been very exciting for them all and it looks as if some of the older members would act as chaperons for the younger ones. This was going to be a very different life for them all but I imagine Kate had mixed feelings about embarking on this new Music Hall life and leaving her old life behind forever. To get an idea of what that new life would hold for Vulcana it would be good to look at what the London Music Hall scene was like!
In 1878, the number of halls had peaked, with 78 large music halls holding 500 to 5,000 in London and 300 smaller venues. After this there was some decline in numbers due to stricter licencing laws. Variety halls as they were often described started to be developed after the London Pavilion was rebuilt in 1885 which served as the prototype for the grander deluxe music halls of the late Victorian and Edwardian period.This gives us some idea of the popularity of Music Hall at that time and it’s glamour.
Contemporary accounts noted: Hitherto the halls had borne unmistakable evidence of their origins, (coffee houses and Inns) but the last vestiges of their old connections were now thrown aside, and they emerged in all the splendour of their new-born glory. The highest efforts of the architect, the designer and the decorator were enlisted in their service, and the gaudy and tawdry music hall of the past gave way to the resplendent “theatre of varieties” of the present day, with its classic exterior of marble and freestone, its lavishly appointed auditorium and its elegant and luxurious foyers and promenades brilliantly illuminated by myriad electric lights.
This was to be the life that young Kate, soon to be Vulcana was embarking on! How excited and nervous she must have been!
Below we see what looks like the lodgings and the room that was to be shared by the three young women in the picture. Vulcana is in the middle. You can see the cases on the beds and their belongings strewn around in the background. On the small table is their meal of bread, butter, milk and cheese. Obviously Atlas who took all these photographs was there with camera to record what must have felt like a momentous occasion to them all.
Lodgings in London
Once they were settled in and the arrangements for their evening performances were made it seems they did some sightseeing. One of the places they visited was Boulter’s lock. It was a part of the river Thames that became very popular for boating parties in the late 19th century. It was the place to visit on Sunday when the wealthy and famous passed through the lock in their boats. Here is a photograph of Vulcana with two of her troupe companions at Boulter’s Lock.
She is enjoying the scene with hundreds of others on the banks of the river Thames at the Lock. It’s a lovely sunny day, perfect for boating but it seems strange to modern eyes that it should draw such crowds of onlookers! This must have been so exciting to the young Kate!
I was amazed to see this picture as my parents had a copy of “Boulter’s lock Sunday afternoon” by Edward John Gregory hanging on the wall at home. This famous picture is hanging in the Lady Lever Art Gallery. I had always wondered about the scene of seeming chaos on the water with what looks like the privileged boaters all converging on the lock and creating such a spectacle that others flock to see them. Apparently a railing had to be erected to keep the spectators at bay. So here she is on a sunny Sunday afternoon, the little party of three in their Sunday best. They have their best hats on and Vulcana on the right has a high necked blouse with fills down the front under a tiered linen coat and white cotton gloves. Behind them on the river are the boaters they have come to see and an enormous crowd of spectators on both sides of the river. I guess this was a day out for those Londoners who could get a train to the spot and get out of the city to enjoy the countryside. There was a famous hotel called Skindles nearby. Until the arrival of the railway Maidenhead was a small town but during the Victorian era it grew significantly. From 1890 to 1914 Maidenhead was the playground of the rich and famous. The Skindles Hotel had a reputation then for being used for illicit liaisons! However frivolities were brought to an abrupt end with the outbreak of World War 1.
It was so popular that the painting below was commissioned of the very same vista as Vulcana was able to see.
This photograph taken at around the same period is entitled “Upper Lock Cut -Boulters Lock” shows just how big an attraction it was to those Victorian boaters and sightseers. It looks more chaotic than the painting with hardly any water to be seen for boats jostling each other.
So by 1892 she is in London with the troupe, at this stage we do not know if she is with William as a life partner but we do know she is with him as a stage partner because on 26th November 1892 she has possibly her first professional appearance on the London stage as Vulcana. They were billed as Atlas and Vulcana. It was decided to be known as a brother and sister act perhaps to counteract gossip, who knows!
In this photograph above we can see how young she looks. He is eleven years her senior but looks older with his handle bar mustache. In this picture she is wearing a modest costume that is ruched at the neck and arms with a sash at the waist. They are both wearing gladiator sandals and it is obviously a publicity photo as it is signed Atlas and Vulcana.
Here we see her posing on a marble plinth in much more relaxed poses. Her strong thighs are very visible but her upper body is still smooth as the biceps are not flexed. She appears demure as she looks down with her hair falling loosely in front of her. In the first picture she is looking directly at the camera in a confidant pose and the second is in imitation of a famous pose by Eugen Sandow the renowned strongman.
She is still looking very young in this photograph titled “Vulcana Society Athlete” which again is a publicity picture. Looking straight at the camera in a Grecian style costume. She was without doubt very beautiful but was also a talented athlete who won many genuine medals. It looks to me as if Atlas was not only promoting his protégé but becoming emotionally entranced by her.
From 1892 to 1897 it was reported that they traveled to and performed in every Music Hall of note in Britain and Ireland. They also begin to travel abroad. Around this time they are going to France Holland and Spain.
Here we have to examine the relationship between Atlas and Vulcana. On stage they were billed as a brother and sister act, why they did this is not known but gossip about a relationship may have affected their success so in articles about them at this time they keep up this illusion. Things had moved on for them and they had become partners in the romantic sense. This would have been understandable except for the fact that he William was already married to Alice in Wales. He hadn’t abandoned his family there, he still had a wife, children and a home there and would go back when they had no engagements. But obviously things had developed between him and Kate. We as a family do not know how this was resolved but it appears to have been an amicable arrangement between the two women or a least that is how it appeared later. My long lost family from London told me that his original first family loved Kate (Vulcana) and there was no bitterness between them as far as they knew. I guess there must have been at first but obviously some arrangement that suited them all must have been arrived at! Divorce was incredibly difficult in those days and obviously he did not want to abandon Alice!
So we can see from the 1891 census that he had a family. A wife Alice and two daughters Alice and Grace as well as a son Reginald. But if we look at the 1901 Census we see that William (described as a professional athlete) and Alice are still listed as husband and wife living together along with two sons Reginald and Ernest. Then there is a daughter named Winifred and a Nora Williams who is listed as adopted daughter, both girls are 4 years old. That means they were born around 1897. Miriam K Williams (Vulcana) is also listed and she is described as a Music Hall artiste who is visiting. So Atlas (William) is still with Alice and they have adopted a daughter born to Vulcana (Kate) who is visiting at the time. Did Alice realize that Vulcana’s daughter was also Atlas’s. I imagine she did, what other reason would Atlas have for adopting Nora?
I can only surmise that whatever emotional upset this had caused had now settled down and Alice was willing to continue with the status-quo while William continued to support both families and to manage the troupe. It seemed likely that Nora was often looked after by Alice when the troupe went abroad. This may also have happened to subsequent children that Vulcana had. My Grandmother was born in 1901 so I believe Vulcana was pregnant with her second daughter Mona at the time of that year’s census.
Now we are at the point when William and Kate are a couple and travel to foreign parts together but she is the star of the show and brings in the bookings and the audiences. Here are some pictures of some of the posters that were printed in Britain. You will notice that although they are billed Atlas and Vulcana it is only ever Vulcana who is seen on the photographic posters!
The image above is I have been told by a Pier historian is Morecombe Pier at the end of the Victorian period or the beginning of the Edwardian period. Unfortunately the photograph is not very clear here but on my copy you can see emblazoned along the length of the pier a banner which reads: DIVING & MERRY JAPS (should this be Japes I wonder!) VULCANA MOST BEAUTIFUL WOMAN ON EARTH, BROS REDMOND ll GREAT STARS 6P. (or 6d) Atlas certainly did go into overdrive when describing Vulcana but it shows that she was the draw for the crowds that made them successful. I believe that Vulcana was the one doing the diving and perhaps the merry japes as she is shown here in a swimming costume for a publicity picture. I can imagine her having the courage to dive from the pier!
She was an all-round athlete who as well as weight lifting did swimming diving wrestling and even fencing. She must have been a very unusual woman for her day as they used her example to promote fitness for women at a time when wealthy females were allowed to do very little and the poor females were probably worn down by child rearing and poverty or forced to take up an arduous occupation. Professional strongman Eugen Sandow started one of the earliest physical culture magazines in the first decade of the twentieth century, which was one of the most popular sporting publications in Britain. It encouraged the women’s physical culture craze that had swept Europe. “Sandows magazine used a clever mix of health, fitness and scantily clad models (male and female) to attract readers.” (from Venus with Biceps by David L Chapman and Patrica Vertinsky)
Vulcana appealed to those women who were able to consider exercise and take it up for their health and well-being. She had many articles written about her and often was at pains to point out she started to develop the characteristics of an above average athlete as a youngster. Apparently she states in an article that she was allowed to be “a regular tomboy and spent a good deal of time running about without restraint, climbing trees and all those other things girl’s aren’t supposed do” She says she amazed her school friends by lifting and carrying the school’s organ. So thanks to this early lifestyle she was later able to start training with heavy weights and not waste time with light dumbbells or Indian clubs.
Articles have described her as “Pert and attractive, Vulcana was one of the first strongwomen to attempt to retain her feminine charms while building her muscles to a highly developed state.” It also says “Vulcana also championed sensible clothing and vigorous exercise for all young women. She was vehemently opposed to corsets and advised girls not to wear them. The ideas she advocated were later taken up by the feminist movement, proving that Vulcana was very much ahead of her time.”
An article titled “Types of Women Athletes” in Sandow’s Magazine (Sandow a famous body builder of the day) was a four page feature on Vulcana. In it Atlas claims she is the Champion Lady Weight Lifter of the World!! In it he states he is her brother and has been her trainer since childhood and that she has never yet been defeated. I can see that as her publicist he had exaggerated claims for her as well as maintaining they were brother and sister. I don’t know the date of the article but it states “though still very young, her muscular development is superb; she is already the possessor of 120 gold, silver and bronze medals, 100 of which have been won in open competition and is quite ready to add to their number when opportunity offers” It goes on to say “She challenges any other lady who cares to compete or to dispute her championship , and although this is not to the “sterner sex” she has already defeated several well-known male athletes”
“When you hear or read of this description you naturally conjure up visions of a large, heavy, mannish looking person, devoid of the soft feminine graces…of true womanhood. But you only have to see Vulcana to realise there is nothing masculine about her, in spite of her strength.”
In the last page of this long article Vulcana encourages mothers to look after their own health as if they are delicate and ailing how can they bring up their family as they would wish. She tells mothers not to be afraid to let their girls have plenty of exercise but in clothing that gives all the growing limbs full play. She was obviously against the wearing of tight corsets! She ends the article by saying “ Girls too often spend their time in flirting when they might be spending it in a more profitable manner, improving their health and fitting themselves for what may befall them in time to come.
Here is a photograph of Vulcana lifting a man above her head with one hand. It is published in a magazine of the day but I’m afraid I don’t know which one. This was given to me by David webster, retired athlete and historian.
The caption reads “Vulcana can also raise and hold above her head, at arm’s length , a man weighing more than twelve stone”.
The next picture is of a publicity poster advertising “VULCANA champion lady athlete of the World” In very flowery language it describes her as Holder of all world’s records in feats of strength by women founder of the Modern school of physical; culture for women. Originator and cause of the late posing craze! It tells us that leading artist, sculptors and students of anatomy have proclaimed her to be the most perfect woman ever known! WOW! What a publicist Atlas was, he couldn’t be accused of understating her appeal. Next to the photograph we can see a list of all her measurements from head to ankle. I don’t know the date of this poster but I do know that it is a much later one possibly in the 1920’s as it mentions the introduction of EVE, the most famous juvenile athlete of all time!! Atlas is running away with his descriptive language again. This EVE is their youngest daughter who was born in 1901, she was the last of six children born to Atlas and Vulcana throughout their career. I can only marvel at the fact she was still working and had continued to work after having six children! She did once say in my father’s hearing that she wasn’t allowed to be what she called a “proper mother” as she was always traveling. However the children all became part of the troupe as they grew.