Atlas and Vulcana: A Bodybuilder Romance

Abergavenny, Wales was the site of a curious and weighty coupling. There it was in 1890 that local teenager Miriam Kate Williams (1874– 1946) met women’s gymnasium owner William Hedley Roberts (1864 – 1946). The daughter of a local preacher, Williams was stout and sturdy, and had already impressed local neighbors with fearless feats such as stopping a runaway horse when she was but a girl of 13. Soon after they met, Roberts was presenting prodigies at a local fete, and Williams substituted for an older woman who had dropped out. She wowed the crowd with her weightlifting prowess — and captured Roberts attention, as well. Though Roberts already had a wife and children, and Williams was not yet 17, they ran away together. It appears that their love and their biceps were equally strong.

In 1892, Williams and Roberts began appearing together in London music halls using the stage names Atlas and Vulcana. The full act, with other bodybuilders in tow, was billed as The Atlas and Vulcana Group of Society Athletes. Among the artistes in the act where the pair’s six children, who began performing as soon as they were old enough over the years. Vulcana and Atlas’s relationship was symbiotic. From the start and throughout their careers Vulcana was always the more impressive one, setting verified records with her feats of strength, and winning international medals in competitions and so forth. Atlas, who weighed only 126 lbs, was all about the hype and the publicity. He was often caught using fake weights which proved to weigh far less than he advertised. When one reads account of Vulcana’s offstage feats of daring do, one can’t help but suspect Atlas’s role in them. In 1901 she is said to have saved two children who were drowning in a river. That same year, she lifted the back end of a wagon in the street, in order to free it from a rut. In 1902, to have caught a pickpocket in the act act of thievery and knocked him out cold. Two decades later, she rescued horses from a burning stall, suffering bad burns on her face.

In 1903, at the invitation of Harry Rickards they toured the Tivoli music hall circuits of Australia. Australian love for the team was long lasting. The Vulcana Woman’s Circus, founded in Brisbane in 1995, bears her name to this day. In 1910, the pair made the news again, when a tip from Vulcana led to Scotland Yard’s investigation of the disappearance of Cora Crippen, leading to the apprehension of Dr. Hawley Crippen, a case we wrote about here. 

Atlas and Vulcana toured the music halls for four decades, retiring from public life in 1932. Even in retirement, Vulcana was impressive. In 1939 she was run over by an automobile, and survived.

To find out more about the history of vaudeville and music hall, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous