In 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.
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 where, adverts 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.
Thanks to the British Newspaper Archive. All images from the Monomania collection.