Mary, Bernarr’s ‘perfect woman’: Halifax girl became a champion swimmer – then met fitness fanatic Macfadden

Mary and Bernarr: she (far right ) was a champion swimmer and, according to him,  'Great Britain's perfect woman'.
Mary and Bernarr: she (far right ) was a champion swimmer and, according to him, 'Great Britain's perfect woman'.

A hundred years ago, in 1913, Mary Williamson was the talk of Halifax – and Britain.

She had been born in July 1892 to Robert Williamson, a machine-tool draughtsman, and Sarah Ann Hudson. Mary was the second of eight children, four of whom died young.

Mary Williamson "perfect woman". Nostalgia.

Mary Williamson "perfect woman". Nostalgia.

She was a sickly child; at the age of seven she suffered severe brain and typhoid fever and her doctor said she would never recover. She missed two years of schooling but proved him wrong.

When Mary was small her family moved from Keighley to Oldham and then to north London. By 1903 they had settled in Halifax, in due course living in part of Birks Hall, a large old house which stood on the site of what became Shroggs Tip.

Mary attended Battinson Road School, where her teachers taught her to swim. It helped to transform a sickly child into a healthy girl.

By the age of 13 Mary was on the way to becoming a champion swimmer and had begun to win prizes; her first was gained at a gala at the old Woodside Swimming Baths, Haley Hill.

Bernarr Macfadden Nostalgia

Bernarr Macfadden Nostalgia

By the age of 15 Mary had won 20 prizes and in 1908 she was awarded a silver trophy by the borough. By the time she was 20 she had won no fewer than 60 prizes for swimming and also held the Royal Life Saving Society’s Award of Merit. She was clearly an outstanding athlete

She began her working life in various Halifax shops and then took a job at carpet maker John Crossley and Sons but her main ambition was to get married and have a large family; she even had her eye on the church organist as a possible husband.

And then, early in 1913, everything changed. An American fitness enthusiast, Bernarr Macfadden, entered her life.

Macfadden, sometimes called the “father of physical culture”, had been born in poverty in the Missouri Ozarks. In his teens he worked hard on a farm and became remarkably fit and his outstanding physical development apparently gave him an obsession with diet, exercise and positive thinking.

Barnarr Macfadden magazine. Nostalgia

Barnarr Macfadden magazine. Nostalgia

In his 20s he became a noted gymnast, professional wrestler and body builder but his attempted promotion of muscle development equipment, both in Britain and America, failed to provide him with a decent living.

In 1899 in the United States he launched a health and fitness magazine, Physical Culture, which was followed by similar publications on the theme that “ill health is a crime”. Slowly, during the first decade of the 20th century, Macfadden began to set up a business empire based on his philosophy.

When Macfadden arrived in England early in 1913 his first publicity stunt was to arrange a contest to select “the most perfect specimen of British womanhood”.

Mary Williamson entered and was declared the winner; Macfadden declared she had the ideal female form and proclaimed her Great Britain’s Perfect Woman.

Two months later they were married. He was 45, she was 20; he had been married before, probably twice.

Bernarr and Mary proceeded to tour Britain, billing themselves as “the world’s fittest man and woman”. He gave Mary the star turn in his physio-cultural demonstrations, which often involved her climbing on to a table about 7ft high, then, after a drum-roll, springing off and landing “with both feet together on his breadbasket”. This was declared a remarkable spectacle.

But soon Mary became pregnant and life had to change; by this time they had settled in Brighton, where their first daughter was born early in 1914.

Early in World War I the Macfaddens decided they would do better in America and crossed the Atlantic, settling at Nyack in New York state.

By 1919 Mary had given birth to four girls and she also had two others to care for. Bernarr very much wanted a son and began to look for a natural way to select the sex of a baby. Whether he discovered it or not, the births of three sons followed.

Mary’s important contribution to her husband’s growing publishing empire was to suggest launching True Story magazine, based on stories which people had sent in to Physical Culture, describing how they had managed to overcome difficulties, in particular through turning to healthy lifestyles.

Perhaps Mary’s inspiration came from her experience of overcoming poor health as a child in England.

The first issue of True Story hit the news stands in May 1919 and was an immediate success. By 1923 sales had reached 300,000 and by 1926 over two million.

Macfadden was soon the most successful magazine publisher in history and by the mid-1920s he was a multi-millionaire. His “tell the real story” magazines mushroomed; they included such titles as True Romances and True Detective. Even George Bernard Shaw was impressed.

Macfadden owed much of his success to the girl swimming champion who had once worked in a mill at Halifax, but she rarely got the credit. Some writers today even see the concept of tabloid news culture as emerging from the launch of True Story.

In the period between the world wars Bernarr Macfadden is considered to have done more to educate people about healthy eating, alternative medicine, regular sexual activity and exercise than anyone before.

He bought several newspapers and mixed with important businessmen, press magnates and film stars; he met President F D Roosevelt several times.

Although he promoted his family as a perfect model of physical culture and declared that at home all was health and happiness, things were not quite so simple. Almost devoid of emotion, he certainly drove his wife and family very hard indeed and their home life was often far from happy.

His children began to rebel against the strict regime and Mary started to accuse her husband of using them as guinea pigs for his theories.

In 1932 Mary and Bernarr separated; they were divorced in 1946. Mary continued to live at the Macfadden mansion in Englewood, New Jersey, often on her own.

Bernarr moved away and went on to marry again, while his ex-wife wrote her racy memoirs entitled Dumbbells and Carrot Strips, with the help of a friend.

In later life she battled with a weight problem but mostly kept this under control by regular jogging.

Mary died in New Jersey in November 1969, at the age of 77. She should not be forgotten in the town where she first found fame.