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Kate Williams (1875 – 1946), sometimes called Kate Roberts, better known by her stage name Vulcana, was a Welshmarker strongwoman born of Irishmarker parents in Abergavennymarker, Monmouthshiremarker.

With strongman William Hedley Roberts, better known as Atlas, they toured music halls, in Britain, Europe and Australia, performing as The Atlas and Vulcana Group of Society Athletes.

Early life

Kate Williams was born to a popular local preacher, and worked at a tannery in Abergavennymarker. She met William Roberts at the local women's gymnasium he ran in 1890, when she was fifteen. They fell in love; in spite of Roberts already having a wife and family, they left town together and were never parted for the rest of their lives.

Performing career

Williams's first professional appearance was as a replacement act at a fete hosted by Roberts in Pontypoolmarker, Walesmarker. They began to bill together as Atlas and Vulcana after they began to appear in Londonmarker in 1892.

Atlas, a true showman of his times, greatly exaggerated the lifting capacities of himself and Vulcana, and so most of his published boasts have been dismissed. On more than one occasion, he was challenged to his face, and shown to use weights lighter than he claimed. At these times, Vulcana's reputation suffered alongside his, though her authenticated accomplishments were genuinely remarkable for a woman of her era.

Authenticated feats of strength

Vulcana flexing on the cover of La Santé par les Sports
Vulcana reached the height of her popularity in Francemarker, impressing the l'Halterophile Club de France with her feats of strength, earning her a medal from the "Father of French Bodybuilding," Professor Edmond Desbonnet, and the cover of La Santé par les Sports. She was honored with over one hundred medals throughout her career.

Her best-authenticated feats were bent press with her right hand of at least 124½ lb (56.5 kg), with some authorities accepting a press of 145 lb (66 kg), and an overhead lift with a 56 lb (25 kg) weight in each hand.

She freed a wagon stuck in Maiden Lane, Londonmarker in October 1901 by lifting it before astonished witnesses.

Authorities believe Vulcana reached the peak of her strength in about 1910. On May 29, 1913 at Haggar's Theatre in Llanellymarker, she lifted a challenge bell that rival strongwoman Athelda failed to raise after twenty-five minutes of trying.

Authenticated feats of heroism

A woman publicly displaying strength was sufficient to generate succès de scandale, as publicity stunts then were called, and Vulcana was no stranger to the art of aggrandizing tales of her exploits. However, some of the stories about her are based on genuine incidents of heroism on her part:

  • In 1888, at the age of thirteen, she stopped a runaway horse in Bristolmarker.
  • She rescued two children from drowning in the River Uskmarker in July 1901, for which she received an award in gratitude.
  • In 1910, Vulcana was the first to alert the police of the disappearance of her friend, Belle Crippen, ultimately leading to the investigation and arrest of Belle's husband, Dr. Hawley Crippen.
  • On June 4, 1921 the Garrick Theatre in Edinburghmarker caught fire on an evening of the Society Athletes' performance. Vulcana risked her life to save another act's horses, and came away with serious burns on her head. For this she won commendations and an award.


Vulcana and Atlas moved permanently to London in the 1920s, and retired from performance in 1932.

Vulcana was hit by a car in London in 1939, and was conscious when she heard her own death pronounced. She suffered brain damage, but partially recovered, and briefly outlived Atlas and her youngest daughter, both of whom also died in 1946.


Vulcana and Atlas never married one another, and they billed themselves as brother and sister throughout their careers. They did however have six children together, William, Hedley, Augustus, Arthur, Nora, and Mona (1900 – 1946). No scandal erupted, as their secret was not discovered in their lifetimes.

Vulcana did not want her children left with relatives or in orphanages, and insisted on raising them herself. Thus, all of her children performed with the Society Athletes as soon as they were old enough.

Nora Roberts would go on to appear in the film Things to Come (1936).


The Vulcana Women's Circus, based in Brisbanemarker, Australia, is named after her.


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