Category Archives: Strong women

Raising the bar

imageIn Victorian and Edwardian society women were often portrayed as the weaker sex but music hall was another world altogether and audiences flocked to see women of prodigious strength full of confidence in themselves and their right to perform. One such was the Great Athelda, born Frances Rheinlander in Manchester, who performed on the music hall stage from around 1912. Athelda was reported to have made her debut in Buenos Aires in December 1911. She was also known as the miniature Lady Hercules and Britain’s Beautiful Daughter.

We know from reports at the time that her act began with various poses showing sinew, fibre and muscle without distortment and that her posing created something like a sensation in Dewsbury. She would pose while manipulating a dumbbell. In her own advertisement in 1913 she describes her act as dignified posing without ornamentation or drapery, showing genuine muscular development void of fat or pencilling. She sees herself as a graceful figure of beauty, muscle and concealed strength. I haven’t found reports of her height but she weighed 9st 5lb, just under 60 kilos, and was said to hold the record amongst ladies for lifting a half-hundredweight by means of her little finger. She would invite people on to the stage to check the weights were genuine.

In 1916 Athelda claimed to introduce an entirely new novelty in her speciality act which consisted of a group of women in classical poses, featuring acrobatic bending, singing etc which was all arranged to work in harmony. She had previously worked with female assistants, one of whom was called Tiney Loretta. In 1918 she specified she could work on any size stage as she travelled with an elaborate, unique fit-up which was in sections and that she had the equipment to produce her own posters, daybills and throwaways. This strong woman seemed determined to be independent in any way she could.

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Vulcana and Atlas

Athelda was always keen to portray herself as an honest performer and made a point of saying she did not write her own press notices or encourage reporters to say good things about her. There could well have been some needle in her pronouncements as she had a rival in the strong woman world whose name was Vulcana. I’ve written a previous post about Vulcana so won’t go into detail about her here. Performers placed adverts in the trade publications of the day and it is interesting (and amusing) that in The Stage whereadverts being featured in alphabetical order,  Athelda is placed immediately before Vulcana who appeared with the Atlas troupe.

In 1912 the two women were keen to win over promoters and managers and be at the top of the pecking order with Athelda writing that instead of swanking about her abilities she is a real weight-lifter while Vulcana claims to be the strongest lady living. The Great Athelda maintained she asked no favours and said she let her act speak for itself whereas Vulcana made great play of the fact that she had defeated every woman who claimed to lift heavy weights. Vulcana threw out a challenge that she would lift heavy weights against any woman who had the courage to cover her money. The following year in June 1913 Athelda accepted a challenge made by Vulcana but was defeated. She claimed she did not have fair play and issued a £10 side challenge to Vulcana to appear at Vint’s Palace in Llanelli on a Friday evening to ensure a fair test of skill of the two strong women. So far I can’t find evidence that the challenge was taken up. It was exciting for the audience and guaranteed good houses for the managers.

I’m including cards of two more strong women, Herculine and Madame Soffritti as well as a photo I came across of a would-be Athelda. Any information on Madame Soffritti would be much appreciated.

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Madame Herculine

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Thanks to the British Newspaper Archive. All images from the Monomania collection.

 

 

 

 

 

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All but forgotten

Today we’ll look at some lesser-known artistes of the music hall and beyond. The work wasn’t always a choice as young girls could be pushed into singing in pubs and rough drinking establishments, often working very long hours cleaning and waiting at tables for very little money. One can only guess at what they had to put up with. More established performers worked on various circuits, some more prestigious than others. Once they had signed a contract with one of the syndicates that controlled the circuits they were not allowed to work in halls on other circuits. At one point artistes could not work on other circuits even if their engagements with their own circuits were months ahead or they were offered work in a nearby hall. It was virtually impossible for an individual to set up a new music hall as performers would be barred from working there. In established halls artistes were obliged to work matinées for no extra pay if the management put a formal advertisement in the trade publication called ‘The Performer.

Malvina Dunreath

Malvina Dunreath

This is a photo of Malvina Dunreath who is described on the card as an instrumentalist, singer and long boot dancer. It’s hard to tell how old she is but she’s dressed as a young girl. From a distance and with poor lighting the audience might have believed she was very young. I would be grateful for any information on her, having found only brief references to her over a few years. She appeared at the Gem Picture Hall in Tring in 1914 billed as a comedienne and dancer and at the Panopticon in Lanarkshire in 1915. In April 1917 she is at the Hippodrome, Chesterfield in an ‘Expensive Engagement, direct from London of the Revue of Revues.’ Malvina Dunreath is presented in ‘song and dance.’ The last reference I can find is of an appearance in Derry in August 1918. She is mentioned as ‘one of three first class variety numbers drawing crowded houses.’ Malvina Dunreath’s contributions ‘readily win favour for her.’ There is no mention of the long boot dancing.

Madame Herculine

Madame Herculine

Herculine, or Madame Herculine, performed feats of strength. She is wearing a garter in the photo and this seems to have been adopted by strong women as can be seen in earlier posts on Vulcana and Maud Atlas. It looks as if Herculine is wearing rather unsuitable shoes for her profession with heels and thin straps but maybe it made balancing easier. She was also known as the lady Samson and ‘Madame’ was used as a term of respect. In 1908 she was performing at Humber’s Waxworks in Aberdeen to large crowds. It was said she was the most marvellous person ever to have appeared at the waxworks. The pinnacle of her performance was lifting a barrel holding twenty-two gallons of water by her hair. January 1911 sees her in Kirkcaldy at the Olympia Roller and Skating Rink and she is there for one night only described as ‘La Belle Herculine – astounding and daring feats of strength.’ The advertisement goes on to say, ‘Madame will sustain upon her chest a local blacksmith’s anvil, weighing a quarter of a ton, while a horse-shoe is forged upon it.’ It adds, ‘Skating as usual from 7-11.’

In June of the same year Herculine visited Penzance Fair and was no doubt pleased to know that an R. Julyan George reported ‘I hereby certify that I have seen Madame Herculine’s performance and have examined her hair and head, and believe her to be genuine in what she does.’ Perhaps a wise conclusion as she was a strong woman. In August 1913 she was at Sunderland Town Moor Carnival lifting and firing a huge naval cannon. Finally, on the back of a card of Herculine, Percy writes to Walter, ‘Just a photo of my intended. What do you think of her? Expect wedding cake soon.’ Pity she couldn’t respond.

Thanks to the britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk and The Call Boy

Vulcana

I’ve just come back from Wales, near Abergavenny, the birth place of strong woman Vulcana. Her real name was Kate Wiiliams and she claimed to have been born in 1883, although this is disputed. She ran away with William Roberts who ran a local gym and who was already married with a child. Kate sometimes used the name Roberts. They toured Britain, Europe and Australia with an act based on shows of strength and featuring the Atlas and Vulcana Group of Society Athletes.

Vulcana

Vulcana

Atlas (William Roberts) was found to exaggerate the weights he could lift but Vulcana was much admired for her strength and often performed without Atlas. Her greatest rival was Athelda and on 29th May 1913 at Haggar’s Theatre in Llanelli a contest resulted in a victory for Vulcana. She was able to lift a challenge bell that Athelda tried unsuccessfully for twenty-five minutes to lift.

Athelda

Athelda

Vulcana won many commendations, awards and medals and used her strength off stage as well as on. She stopped a runaway horse in Bristol and also saved a child from drowning. In 1901 a wagon was stuck in the mud in Maiden Lane in London and she lifted the back so that the wheel could be freed, much to the surprise of the crowd, while in1902 it was reported that she knocked out a pickpocket who was trying to steal her purse. She risked her life in 1921 when the Garrick Theatre in Edinburgh caught fire on an evening when her troupe were due to perform. She saved another act’s horses but her hair caught fire and she received severe burns to her head.

In 1910 Vulcana claimed to be the first person to report to the police the disappearance of a music hall performer called Belle Ellmore. This was the wife of Dr Crippen who was later charged with her murder.

Vulcana and Atlas stayed together and had six children although they often claimed to be brother and sister. Some of the children worked with them in the troupe. I have a card of Maud Atlas who performed with the troupe and is billed as one of the ‘sisters’ Gwen and Maud.

Maud Atlas

Maud Atlas

The modern day Vulcana Women’s Circus established in Brisbane, Australia is named after the wonderful Vulcana, strong woman.