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Beneath the Big Top


August 2014


Steve Ward looks at the history of the circus, from its ancient roots to the rise of the‘modern’tented travelling shows, revealing stories about the lives of the circus folk, which were equally colourful both inside and outside the ring.

The circus – you either love it or you hate it, don’t you? Me, I love it. I always have done. I was born a josser; one not directly connected to the circus world, so why this fascination? It all started when I was taken as a small child to see Bertram Mills Circus in Gloucester way back in the 1950s. I remember the smell of the earth and sawdust; the hard seats; but most of all I remember Coco the Clown. In his garish checked coat, his oversized boots and his bright orange hair that seemed to stand on end of its own accord he was both a frightening and fascinating being. It was when he plucked me from the audience to take part in his ‘tricks’ that I became hooked. I left the circus that day with sawdust in my shoes.

I believe strongly that the future of the circus lies in the hands of our children and for almost 40 years now I have been involved in circus work with young people, as a performer, director, teacher and lobbyist, both in the UK and abroad. But if you look for a moment beyond the surface of glitz and glamour here is a rich and fascinating cultural history to the circus that few people are actually aware of.

Ancient beginnings

Some historians have claimed that the circus began its life in ancient Rome and whilst an amphitheatre called the Circus Maximus did exist it was used mainly for spectacles such as chariot racing and gladiatorial contests. In actual fact, circus- style activities have existed since the dawn of man. Many cultures around the world show evidence of physical skills such as juggling, acrobatics and stilt walking. But the circus, as we would recognize it today, grew out of ‘trick’ riding skills as demonstrated in the late- eighteenth century by cavalrymen returning from the wars. The main, although not the only, exponent of these was Philip Astley. This year marks the 200th anniversary of his death. It was he who, in 1768, acquired a piece of land in London between Blackfriars and Westminster bridges named ‘Halfpenny Hatch’ and pegged out his first circular ‘ride’ in order to give his demonstrations. The site is now largely covered by Waterloo Station.

A consummate showman, Astley soon realized that his audience needed more than just equestrian displays so he engaged a clown named Fortunelly who also performed on the slack-rope, an Italian strongman named Colpi, and a troupe of tumblers.

Astley became so popular that it was not long before he had bought a further piece of land and built a roofed structure, which, although destroyed by fire several times, became commonly known for many decades in its various reincarnations as Astley’s Amphitheatre. It must have been a wonderful and opulent sight inside, as Charles Dickens describes in The Old Curiosity Shop:

Dear, dear, what a place it looked, that Astley’s; with all the paint, gilding, and looking-glass; the vague smell of horses suggestive of coming wonders; the curtain that hid such gorgeous mysteries; the clean white sawdust down in the circus ... the clown who ventured on such familiarities with the military man in boots – the lady who jumped over the nine-and-twenty ribbons and came down safe upon the horse’s back – everything was delightful, splendid, and surprising!

Whilst Astley is often credited with being the ‘father’ of the modern circus it was actually a former employee of his, Charles Hughes, who coined the term ‘circus’. After spending some years in Russia, Hughes returned to London and built the ‘Royal Circus and Equestrian Philharmonic Academy’, later referred to simply as the ‘Royal Circus’. Now, for the first time in modern history, people spoke of ‘going to the circus’.

Across the globe

This very British institution, founded by Astley, was soon embraced by many others and rapidly spread across the world – to the Americas, Australia and across Europe. But it was during the Victorian era that the circus in Britain was to reach its peak of popularity. Some famous circuses appeared at this time, those belonging to the exotically named Pablo Fanque, the first black circus owner in Britain (and possibly the world); William Batty; George Wombwell; and Lord George Sanger, to name but a few. At this time a visiting circus could draw thousands of people to its shows and even schools were closed when the circus came to town.

But although this was a golden age for the circus, let it not be thought that this was without problems or controversy. Fires and collapsing galleries were common, as in the gallery disaster at Pablo Fanque’s circus in Leeds in March 1847, in which the owner’s wife lost her life. Accidents to performers were also frequent, as in this case from 1869:

Mr Pablo Fanque’s troupe have occupied the Queen’s Theatre, Hull, for the past fortnight. Les Frères Trevannion, ‘the greatest sensational star gymnasts of the age’, appeared for the first time in their ‘thrilling and exciting act – the double fall for life’ – a significant title and ominous of what was to follow. The ‘leap for life’ consists of swinging through the air by the aid of two ropes with rings attached, from a perch near the roof of the theatre, immediately over the front boxes, to a trapeze suspended from the roof at the other end of the theatre, I n a line with the perch. Hanging on the trapeze by the legs was the other gymnast, ready to catch his adventurous companion immediately he had swung through the air and let go the rings ... He reached his hands certainly, but from some unexplained cause he slipped from his grasp and commenced his ‘second fall for life’, from the roof of the theatre to the floor, amidst the agonizing and painful shrieks of men, women and children.

Liverpool Mercury,
20 March 1869

And murder itself was not unheard of! Lord George Sanger had outlived Queen Victoria but his illustrious life came to a tragic end when he was attacked and killed by an angry employee. Shops and businesses closed and thousands lined the streets of Margate on the day of his funeral. With the death of Sanger and the imminent world war, the arrival of the cinematograph and competition from the music halls, the circus was to fall into a period of decay and stagnation until after the Second World War. With an air of new optimism the circuses of Bertram Mills, Billy Smart and the Chipperfields were to become the ‘big three’ and many of the current older generation will remember these from their childhood, before they too went out of fashion in the 1970s.

Some people have said that the circus is dead but Norman Barrett MBE, the renowned circus ringmaster, has described the circus as being like a wheel:

My dad always used to say life is about a wheel. When he started his circus it was at a high, then the talkies came in and the wheel turned down. Then it came up again and then television came in and it went down again. Now we’re on the way up because people want to be entertained ... Circus in general, it’s starting to thrive again. People want to get up, they want to go out. Providing it’s good it will survive. It’s survived over 250 years and it will keep going.

So what has all this got to do with family history? Well, in the research for my book Beneath the Big Top I discovered that I actually do have a tenuous circus connection. In my extended family tree I have two music hall artist sisters, one of whom married a comedy acrobat working with a troupe called The Brothers Leopold. This group worked both the circuses and music halls, appearing with Charles Blondin, famous for his Niagara Falls tightrope walk, and even gave a performance at the Crystal Palace in 1876.

Your own circus roots

Just as I have discovered circus ancestors, it could be that hiding in your family tree you may have some too. But researching individual circus performers can be very difficult. The National Fairground Archive at the University of Sheffield (www.nfa.dept.shef.ac.uk) has an extensive collection of circus material, including a full collection of The World’s Fair. It helps if you have a name and period before you start searching through the pages. There is no searchable database of names to make life easier! The Stage, the entertainment industry newspaper, has a searchable online database (www.thestage.co.uk), but once again you will need to have an idea of who you are searching for. National and local newspapers are a good source of information and some have searchable databases. Some local libraries also allow access to The Times Digital Archive and the 19th Century British Library Newspapers Database. Regional archives often hold references to the circus in their respective areas and some authorities, as in Leeds (www.leodis.net), may have a searchable online database of old photographs and posters that may be relevant. Other useful contacts are The Circus Friends Association (www.circusfriends.co.uk), The Victoria and Albert Museum circus collection (www.vam.ac.uk) and the major genealogical websites (www.ancestry.co.uk and www.findmypast.co.uk).

• A former performer, Steve Ward also completed an MA on the role of circus in education. He later set up the National Association of Youth Circus, and his Leeds-based group Circus Zanni won several awards. Today Steve works as


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