The whole point of my research project is to focus on wrestling in the 1880s and early 1890s. 1902-ish onward has been ‘done’, hasn’t it? Early Edwardian performers (Hackenschmidt, Gotch et al), born quarter of a century after Jack Wannop, were well photographed, documented, and if a written wrestling history exists without them it’s a poor history indeed.
I’ve been more interested in piecing together the lives of the guys in the bit just before, looking particularly at Jack and the men he trained in New Cross, as well as the half dozen Caribbean and black American pugilists in the East End who have all previously gone unnoticed by historians.
But when someone points me in the direction of an Amazonian, 18 stone, female wrestler from Brockley, who was named after a Roman goddess and described in the newspapers as the ‘SIX FOOT THRILLER’ when she rose to fame in 1906? Yeah, I’m not going to turn that one down…
This post is written with thanks to Transpontine, who first posted on Miss Juno May a decade ago, and highlighted her existence to me in a tweet late last year. My article(s) expand(s) on that one, presenting everything I have managed to find out so far, including some brilliant photographs.
Introducing the Graeco-Roman Goddess, Miss Juno May
Juno was a protégé (one of many) of Antonio Pierri, ‘The Terrible Greek’, and burst onto the scene in a blaze of publicity across October and November 1906. Up and down the United Kingdom, regional and national newspapers from the Daily Mirror to the Dundee Evening Telegraph, Manchester Evening News and East & South Devon Advertiser covered her ‘discovery’ or ‘creation’ by Pierri, reporting all the same brief facts and stats from the same press note – Miss Juno May is a native of Kent, born in Brockley, is 22 years old and stands 6ft 2 and 18 stone in weight.
Pierri challenged any lady wrestler in the world to defeat Miss May in the Graeco-Roman style, backing his pupil with £1,000 of his own cash. Note that a decent annual wage for a man at this time would have been about £70 a year. That was some serious dough.
The Evening Standard asked who might be prepared to challenge the “woman wrestler whose proportions in plain figures are terrific” and asked if there were any stalwarts in the ranks of the suffragists who might be up for a go. Much to the relief of police and parliament, Miss May had allegedly told an interviewer that she was “not a woman suffragist” and would not be fighting, literally, for the cause. “Surely amongst these wildcats whose exploits masquerade as ‘politics’ there must be one who could oppose this old-fashioned lady who challenges the world and does not demand a vote?” asked the titillated Standard reporter. “The struggle might be made ‘ordeal by combat’ and the question settled finally without all this fuss and degradation of womanhood.”
Sandwiched between a very interesting article titled Woman Versus Man, exploring the statistics gathered by a Dr Brandreth Symonds on longevity and disease, and a piece on choosing harmonious colour schemes for painting (“an art that few women excel in”), the Portsmouth Evening News published Miss May’s full “terrific proportions” in its Lady’s Corner column on 6th November 1906:
A few days later the first photographs of this new star were published in the Penny Illustrated Paper alongside a short, rather thirsty, and gobsmackingly ‘of its time’ feature and interview:
“JUNO,” The Lady Wrestler of Brockley, Issues a £1,000 Challenge.
Miss May, who is only twenty-two years of age, and who is a British girl born and bred – she was born in Kent – is well named Juno, for she is of exceedingly attractive appearance, and, indeed, anything more unlike the average strong woman could not well be imagined.
Standing well over six feet in height, Miss May is perfectly proportioned, and is the possessor of beautifully shaped hands and feet. In colouring she is dark, with blue eyes, a clear skin, and very regular features. In interviewed [sic] for P.I.P. last week, Miss May gave some interesting details.
“I first took up wrestling in fun when I was a girl of about thirteen in school, but it is only lately that I have gone in for it at all seriously. For the last five or six months I have been in strict training under Mr Antonio Pierri, who I think I may say is well satisfied with my progress. My father, who is in South Africa, is rather against my wrestling in public, but I think I am quite old enough to please myself, and I intend to do so.
“I wrestle in the Graeco-Roman style, and I have, so far, thrown all the women-wrestlers with whom I have tried conclusions, so I am rather eager to make my first public appearance, but I can’t tell you yet just when or where it will be. I have had several offers to go to America and wrestle there, but I haven’t decided yet whether I shall accept any of them.
“And please, please don’t ask me if I am a woman suffragist. Everyone seems to think it’s such a splendid joke to ask that question, and I’m getting tired of it. But if you must know – I’m not.”
Miss May’s wrestling costume is a dainty but business-like confection in black and pale blue, and in a typical wrestling attitude, as shown by her photograph, she makes a very graceful and pleasing sight.
The article is followed by pictures and information on the Autumn herring fishing season.
By December, the public debut of Miss May – who was already being promoted as ‘The Champion Lady Wrestler of the World’ despite never competing-slash-performing in a public match – had been confirmed for New Years Eve at the Cambridge Music Hall off Commercial Street in east London, with Pierri’s money up for grabs to “any woman in the world”.
Under the title of WRESTLING – WRESTLING FOR LADIES – A NEW LADY CHAMPION, The Sportsman reported from a private preview of the music hall event, and opined:
“Music Hall wrestling having gained popularity of late, it seemed certain that sooner or later wrestling among ladies would come to the fore. For all that the development which has now actually taken place comes in the nature of a mild surprise. In a week or two a champion lady wrestler will appear … but the day may still be a long way off when public wrestling among ladies shall be the rule rather than the exception.
One great reason for the improbability is that few women are as equipped for the game as Miss Juno May, the lady referred to. She appeared at a private performance at the Cambridge Music-hall yesterday afternoon, and having vanquished first another lady and then a man, who was not exactly a puny milk-and-water antagonist, she demonstrated sufficient to prove that Miss Juno may is no ordinary woman, and may be more than a match for the average professional male wrestler. “
The inevitable dissection of her striking physical attributes followed:
“Her physique and proportions are interesting. She stands 6ft 1in, and turning the scale at 18 ½st it will be understood that she is no bantam weight when she comes to fall on a man and pin down his shoulders in the best Greco-Roman style. Her age is 22 ½ years although because of her great size, weight, and muscular development she looks older. One saw at a glance that she is admirably proportioned, but when asked whether the development of flesh all represented hard muscle, Antonio Pierri, who trained this Juno, replied emphatically and with a grant contempt for the insinuation, ‘Of course!’.
Her wrestling attire is both up-to-date and practical, that is to say, skirts are not in any way permitted to enter into the argument.”
Dressed in knickerbockers, a loose sleeveless blouse, and tight-fitting leather boots, Miss May was able to move quickly (“indeed, considerably quicker than most men”) while, one imagines, keeping a paying audience as satisfied as the Sportsman’s reporter seems to be.
At the Cambridge she dispatched a “fairly quick but not so strong” average-sized woman in two minutes and 45 seconds, before a challenge from a Walter Clive of Walworth came in – entirely unexpectedly and with absolutely no prior organisation, of course. Clive made his way to the mat and a “merry, keen bout” commenced, Clive testing May’s strength to the max. Just shy of the eight minute mark she threw him by somersaulting him over her while she was on the ground, before pinning her back to his chest and gaining the fall.
The Referee, The Stage and the Sporting Life all promoted the upcoming New Year show, with an advert in the Life enticing challengers with the strange tagline “A CHANCE FOR CHAMPIONS, MONEY FOR NOTHING”. Pierri was putting up £1,000 in total, and would give £5 to any local gentleman who could last fifteen minutes in the ring with Miss May, and £100 to any woman who could beat her. It was “The chance of a lifetime. No notice required. First come, first served.”
At 6.30pm the ‘Royal Cambridge’ hall was packed for the opening bout between Misses Barker or Parker (there are variations in reporting) and Martin, culminating in a win at five minutes for Miss Martin with a half-Nelson hold. A Glaswegian named Ernest then put himself forward for the fiver-for-fifteen prize against Juno, the two engaging in an exciting tussle cut short when she threw him at six minutes.
Miss May was far from done for the night, and in the ‘second house’ a little after 9pm took on Miss Belle McKenzie and Miss Martin, the first named proving a “tough customer” (albeit out in two minutes), the latter going six minutes but also losing to a half-Nelson. Pierri’s wallet survived intact, and stayed safe the next night too, with May beating both McKenzie again and a Mr Wallin of Germany. A Joe Bert and the “well known boxer” Young Joseph were set to meet her on Thursday night, and a John McFadden and Miss Martin again on the Friday. Juno trumped all.
I’ll give you a wink and a nudge and leave it for you to determine whether that was entirely down to her powerful build, extraordinary skill and athletic prowess…