Bob Carlisle was an adventurous Victorian, who fitted a dozen different careers into his six decades of life.


He was a sailor in the Royal Navy, and then a global seafarer in the merchant fleet. He was also a circus showman, clown, advertising agent and big cat tamer, working across Britain in many of the famous travelling fairs of the day.

He worked on the railways and as a carpenter and a painter. He was a man of contradictions – an advocate for both temperance and the pub trade.

He was a public speaker and an author, but most surprisingly of all, he found money and fame as an athlete, as Britain’s original long-distance wheelbarrow pedestrian.

Who was Bob Carlisle?

He was born on 29 December, 1848 in Edinburgh. He grew up not far away in Haddington, and died on 7th January 1912 in Stewarton, Ayrshire.

But while his birth, childhood and death were all in central Scotland, in between he saw much of the world and pretty much all of Britain. His life stretched across much of the reign of Queen Victoria, and all of that of her son and successor King Edward VII, who died in 1910.

He wrote two autobiographies: one very short life-story in 1887 and another, much longer one, in 1896. He was regularly reported on in newspapers of the day (particularly for his wheelbarrow-pushing exploits) and that journalism complements Carlisle’s own writings to make it possible to reconstruct much of a life that was celebrated then but forgotten now.

After a childhood in Scotland, he yearned for adventure. In 1866, as a teenager, he signed up for the Royal Navy, joining the company of HMS Trafalgar in Leith. The Trafalgar was a wooden sailing ship that had been launched in 1841, and thus was something of an echo of an earlier time by this point. After all, the Royal Navy’s first iron-hulled warship, HMS Warrior, had been launched in 1860.

The tiger tamer who went to sea

More for members | Bob Carlisle was a remarkable Victorian who lived the life of a dozen men. His adventures as a global seafarer, a circus clown showman, and yes, as a tiger tamer. Discover the untold story of a Victorian influencer

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Bob Carlisle, the seafarer

After just a couple of years in the Royal Navy, Carlisle left (probably buying himself out), and promptly joined the merchant fleet. In 1868, he sailed to Savannah, Georgia, on a cotton trader. This was just a few years after the end of the American Civil War and the cotton blockade, and so Carlisle saw first-hand the aftermath of that conflict.

He worked on various commercial ships over the years, and saw much of the world in so doing. His seafaring career spans the end of the age of wood and sail, and the start of that of steam and iron. As well as working on ships transporting products as diverse as cotton, herring, and livestock, he completed numerous transatlantic voyages on the state-of-the-art passenger liners that plied the sea between Britain and America.

His sailing career was a stop-start affair. In-between times, he also found work, and common cause, in the world of the travelling circus. He had since childhood been fascinated by circuses. Having come into an inheritance from his grandfather, at the age of 21, he swapped ships for stage and bought into a circus.

It was an ill-judged investment, and he lost a lot of money, but his passion for the travelling showman’s life was undimmed. He went on to perform many roles in numerous different circuses across Britain, most notably the travelling menagerie of Bostock and Wombwell.

He worked variously as an agent-in-advance (going ahead of the circus advertising its impending arrival to the towns on its route), a clown, and as a keeper and tamer of animals, notably big cats.

Bob Carlisle, tiger tamer

In his autobiography, Carlisle describes his performance routine at Bostock and Wombwell’s. First he “entered the cage of hyenas, bears and wolves, made them leap over a gate, made the bear stand on his hind legs and take a piece of sugar from my mouth, and concluded by making the hyenas leap through a hoop of fire”.

“I next entered the Bengal tiger’s cage and stood up in the corner of it. The tiger made a spring, placed a paw on each shoulder, and gave me a kiss, his tongue being as rough as a file. This was a very affectionate animal, but like many good things, he did not last long, dying of consumption… The last den performance was among a group of wild lions. I did a dash into the cage, ran the animals around it, and then came out, the lions after me to the door. I then a conducted a performance of the African war elephant, who played a mouth organ, a barrel organ, stood on side legs, cross legs, walked over me twice, and lifted me up on her head with her trunk.”

He regularly swapped jobs between circuses and sailing, and one reason for this was probably his drink problem.

He recounts, ruefully, several instances of excessive drinking in his autobiography. These sometimes resulted in employment termination. In 1878, for example, he had to leave a tour of Cornwall with Bostock and Wombwell’s: “Left at St Austell, through getting drunk and walking a young tiger through the street without a muzzle.”

Bob Carlisle, pedestrian sportsman

Carlisle learnt much about the art of showmanship and self-promotion in his circus career. He put these skills to good effect in 1879 when he turned his hand, or more precisely his feet, to athletic endeavours. That was the sport of pedestrianism – running and long-distance walking – was a big hit at the time, and Carlisle discovered that he had a knack for it.

After kicking his heels in St Austell, working as a painter for a year or so, he was inspired by the famous American pedestrian Edward Payson (EP) Weston.

Weston came to Britain and embarked on a walking tour of the country, specifically with the aim of covering 1000 miles in 1000 hours. He was widely reported on in the newspapers and drew crowds wherever he went.

He passed through St Austell, and Carlisle took up a wager that nobody in the town could match the American’s walking prowess. He promptly marched from St Austell to Truro and back, twice (some 50 miles) the next day, and won the bet.

Bob Carlisle, wheelbarrow-pushing pioneer

Carlisle would go on to enter various pedestrianism events and began to get a name for himself in the sport, but he decided that he needed something different to stand out from the crowd.

So, at the end of 1879, he embarked on an ambitious pedestrian challenge, to walk from Land’s End at the far western tip of Cornwall, to John O’Groats in the far north of Scotland, and back. And he did it pushing a wheelbarrow.

Oddly enough, long-distance wheelbarrow pedestrianism wasn’t an entirely new concept. Carlisle had heard about the exploits of two men pushing barrows coast-to-coast across America in the previous year, so he borrowed the idea and brought it to Britain.

The innovation was well-received, and he garnered considerable press attention as he progressed upwards on his journey. He paused at the towns he passed through to deliver public lectures, the topics of which were his remarkable life thus far, and somewhat surprisingly, given his alcohol problems, the benefits of the Temperance.

The Temperance movement, advocating abstinence from alcohol, was a major trend at the time, with support from some of the celebrities of the day. Indeed, American pedestrian EP Weston was one such vocal advocate for the cause.

Bob Carlisle was not constant in his support for the movement however, because though he started his wheelbarrow walk with Temperance in mind, by the end of it, he was in fact espousing moderate consumption of alcohol for endurance athleticism.

Carlisle continued to struggle with drink through the rest of his life, and vacillated in his support for both Temperance and the pub trade.

He used the modest fame that he had accrued through his big wheelbarrow walk to engage in further impressive feats of long-distance walking over the next few years, sometimes with a wheelbarrow and sometimes without. He continued to intersperse this with commercial sailing trips and circus work.

Bob Carlisle and the Great Wheelbarrow Craze

In 1886 and 1887, he was at sea, probably somewhere near China, when wheelbarrow walking suddenly hit the news again, in the Great Wheelbarrow Craze.

At the end of 1886, a long-distance wheelbarrow race between two men pushing barrows from Newcastle to London grabbed the attention of newspaper reporters, and then a brief mania for long-distance wheelbarrowing ensued in 1887.

Though this race and craze was clearly inspired by Bob Carlisle, he missed the whole thing and was written out of the narrative.

Though Carlisle tried to regain his place as Britain’s original wheelbarrow pedestrian in the following years, he was up against new pressures in the form of motor cars and bicycles. These upstart forms of transport rather took the wind out of the idea of long-distance wheelbarrow pushing.

Carlisle continued to try to maintain his fame. He did the Land’s End to John O’Groats walk several more times, but his efforts were eclipsed by other athletes following the same route on foot and by bike and by car.

One of these challengers, notably, was sponsored by Bovril, one of the biggest consumer products of the day, and the marketing power of the big beef brand ate up the media interest. Though Bob Carlisle was walking and wheelbarrowing to the end, the high point of his life was, I would say, reached in 1879.


Disocover more of Bob Carlisle's remarkable life story in our member-exclusive HistoryExtra podcast series, The Tiger Tamer Who Went To Sea


Dr David MusgroveContent director,

David Musgrove is content director of the website and podcast, plus its sister print magazines BBC History Magazine and BBC History Revealed. He has a PhD in medieval landscape archaeology and is a fellow of the Royal Historical Society.