This article was first published in the February 2013 issue of BBC History Magazine
The glitz and glamour of the circus has seduced audiences across Britain for more than 200 years, bringing an irresistible combination of beauty, skill and danger, and making household names out of circus performers. But the circus as we know it was born of tumultuous times, emerging in the aftermath of the Seven Years’ War which took place between 1756 and 1763.
“The foundations for circus in Britain were laid at a time of imperial conflict, when large numbers of British cavalrymen were being discharged from active service overseas”, says Professor Vanessa Toulmin, director of the National Fairground Archive and author of Blackpool Tower: The Wonderland of the World (Boco Publishing Ltd, 2011).
“One of these, Philip Astley, chose to use his remarkable equestrian skills to exploit popular demand for public entertainment, and began showcasing equestrian expertise on a piece of land near Westminster, London. When this appetite for ‘trick riding’ showed no sign of waning, Astley expanded his show to include acrobats, clowns and other skilled performers inside a circular ring. The circus was born.”
The Victorian period saw circus hit a boom period and a huge variety of acts were introduced to the genre, giving it many of the aspects with which audiences are familiar today. In fact, says Toulmin, some 15,000 people were performing in circuses across Britain during the 19th century.
One addition to the circus in particular set pulses racing and eyes widening during the 19th century: the introduction of exotic animals to the ring. Although not a new idea – menageries of exotic animals date back to the 12th century in Britain – the thrill of watching lions, tigers, elephants and even crocodiles prowling the ring made audiences flock to circuses across Britain, lured by the scent of danger and the bright sequinned world within. For many, this would have been their first encounter with a wild animal.
The early 1840s saw the iconic American big top arrive in Britain, while the development of the railways allowed circuses to transport animals, performers and equipment across the country, taking performances to the people. Indeed, the arrival of the circus in a town could create quite a stir among its inhabitants, and hundreds of people would line the streets to see the convoy of performers and animals wend its way to a chosen venue.
Says Toulmin: “The Victorian period saw an increase in the number of buildings springing up to house circuses. Great Yarmouth’s hippodrome and Blackpool Tower were just some of the buildings created to feed the public appetite for circus, providing permanent venues in which travelling companies could perform. Temporary wooden structures could also be erected on pieces of land and then dismantled once the circus had moved on, and travelling tented circuses were also big business.”
At the end of the 19th century, circus found itself facing competition from the music hall, which offered audiences a different type of performance – usually in the form of singing, dancing and comedy acts. By 1914, the future of the circus seemed uncertain, but its fortunes were turned around by British circus-owner and entrepreneur Bertram Wagstaff Mills, who opened his 16-act show at London’s Olympia in December 1920. Featuring Japanese gymnasts, elephants, horses and a wealth of international performers, the Bertram Mills Circus became renowned for the quality and skill of its acts, and made circus an event to be celebrated once more. The show returned every Christmas until 1966 and boasted a wealth of skilled performers, including a female magician named Koringa who could mesmerise crocodiles, an elephant ballet and a motorcycle-riding bear.
The circus also saw a resurgence in popularity after the Second World War as people sought an escape from the austerity of everyday life. The advent of television in the 1950s brought the genre to an international audience; circus was in fact deemed so suited to the new medium that it appeared in the BBC’s first live outside broadcast from France in August 1950. Viewing figures continued to soar over the coming decades.
A different sort of obstacle to the circus appeared in the 1970s, when public opinion began to turn against the use of wild animals in circus performances. Although the issue had originally surfaced in 1925, when the Performing Animals Defence League had lobbied parliament for changes to the law, support had grown since, and some local authorities stopped allowing performing animals on their land, forcing many circuses onto less lucrative and accessible sites. The official ban on using wild animals in circuses, however, did not come into force until 2011.
“Circus is, and always has been, an evolving form of entertainment,” says Toulmin, “and isn’t restrained by its venue. Circus can be performed in a building, a tent, or as part of a variety performance; it is the combination of skilled acts in a circular ring that makes it the art form it is. Although the circus as we know it has its roots in the 18th century, the history of its three basic art forms (clowning, equestrianism and animals) goes back much further. Every generation of circus showmen has challenged the art form, and this looks set to continue long into the future.”
Eight places associated with the circus in Britain
Westminster Bridge Road, London
Where the modern British circus was born
On his discharge from the army in 1766, cavalryman Philip Astley moved to London where he presented feats on horseback on a roped-off piece of land near Westminster Bridge. With large numbers of cavalrymen returning to England, Astley had his pick of skilled performers, but he saw an opportunity to create something unique.
The secret to Astley’s success was bringing a wide array of professional performers – clowns, acrobats and jugglers found in fairs and marketplaces – within a circular ring. In doing so, he laid the foundations for the circus as we know it today.
Two years after his first performance, Astley swapped his roped-off piece of land for a 42-foot arena, housed in an increasingly elaborate amphitheatre on a triangle of ground spanning Westminster Bridge Road, Lambeth Palace Road and Stangate.
Numerous amphitheatres were opened across Europe, all with horse acts as their driving force, but incorporating other types of entertainment, including dog acts, rope walking, juggling and acrobatics, all with musical accompaniment.
Edward Brayley described the amphitheatre in his 1826 work Historical and Descriptive Accounts of the Theatres of London: “The stage, which is probably the largest and most convenient in London, is provided with immense platforms, or floors, rising above each other.”
Nothing now remains of Astley’s London amphitheatre, which was demolished in the 1890s.
A view of Philip Astley’s London amphitheatre, where the modern British circus was born. (The Print Collector/Print Collector/Getty Images)
Elephant Walk, Leamington Spa
Where elephants once marched down the town’s parade
Exotic animals were extremely popular with Victorian audiences. Samuel Lockhart, a renowned Victorian elephant trainer, was born in Leamington Spa to a circus family – his father, Sam, was a stilt-walking clown and his mother, Hannah, was related to the founders of the famous Pinder Circus.
Lockhart formed his own elephant acts, the most famous of which was ‘The Three Graces’, which featured three elephants: Wilhelmina, Trilby and Haddie. Lockhart brought his elephants to Leamington Spa where they performed at the Victoria Grand Circus, a permanent circus building that stood on the river Leam. The elephants were walked through the town daily to a site on the south bank of the river where they could wash.
The cobbled slipway, known as Elephant Walk, is sited near Priory Terrace. The original route to the river was closer to the parish church, but was changed after the elephants were deemed to be disturbing church goers. The property deeds of 38-40 Morrell Street still give its owner the right to walk elephants down the parade to wash in the river. A plaque marks the site of a former elephant house on Morrell Street, while the Loft Theatre stands on the site of the original circus building.
Britannia Panopticon, Glasgow
Where the oldest music hall in Scotland still plays to audiences
Founded as a music hall in 1857, the Britannia Music Hall (now the Britannia Panopticon) quickly became the city’s most popular place of entertainment, playing host to some of the best-known circus acts of the day, including Mademoiselle Paula, the Reptile Conqueror, who, according to her billing, “would allow serpents to entwine around her body and played with viscous crocodiles as if they were children”.
Around 1,500 people filled the space four times daily to watch dancing girls and other popular entertainers, and in 1906 the building was re-opened as the Britannia and Grand Panopticon.
One of the venue’s most notable claims to fame was the debut of Stan Laurel in 1906, who performed as an extra act to a packed audience at the tender age of 16. Laurel went on to join a number of travelling groups, including Fred Karno’s Barmy Army, where he understudied Charlie Chaplin.
The Britannia Panopticon still holds regular viewings, exhibitions, bazaars and traditional music hall shows to raise funds to restore the building’s auditorium.
Where a 19th-century showman brought the circus to the people
Probably the most celebrated showman of the 19th century was Lord George Sanger, who brought the flair and excitement of the fairground to the circus arena, making it part of Britain’s mass entertainment culture.
Sanger’s career began on the British fairgrounds, working with his father’s peep show, but after marrying lion tamer Ellen Chapman (known as Madame Pauline DeVere) in 1850, Sanger, and his brother John, started their own circus at the King’s Lynn Charter Fair.
The company travelled the length and breadth of Britain, reputedly in a convoy of wagons said to have stretched two miles. Every town in Britain with a population of more than a hundred would have had a visit from Sanger’s circus, he famously boasted.
In 1874 Sanger took over Margate’s Hall-by-the-Sea, a site that incorporated zoological gardens, an indoor menagerie of lions, tigers, baboons, leopards and wolves, and amusement rides. The site also acted as a breeding and training centre for animals used in his travelling circus.
The Hall-by-the-Sea occupied the western half of what is now Dreamland amusement park, but the Grade II-listed remains of Sanger’s menagerie enclosures and cages are still visible. George and his brother John are buried at Margate cemetery, which also boasts a magnificent memorial to the Sanger family.
Pavilion Theatre, Winter Gardens, Blackpool
Where a high-wire ‘king’ nearly plummeted to his death
Blackpool’s Winter Gardens first opened to the public in July 1878, billed as “the most magnificent palace of amusement in the world”. The huge glass building featured a dazzling complex of theatres, ballrooms and other public spaces, and allowed circus performers from across the world to showcase their talents to eager audiences.
It was here that aerial gymnast Joseph Smith (known to audiences as King Ohmy) nearly plunged to his death. The act, which saw Smith dive headfirst with a rope attached to his ankles, was supposed to see him land inches from the ground. In 1883, to the dismay of his audience, Smith failed to stop before hitting the ground; amazingly he survived the fall. It is said that Smith was inspired to adopt ‘Ohmy’ as his stage name by his audiences’ cries of “Oh My!” as he made his sensational dives.
A new proscenium (the part of the theatre stage in front of the curtain) and private boxes were added to the Pavilion Theatre in 1885, and the Winter Gardens continued to entertain audiences throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. It remains one of the town’s biggest attractions.
Blackpool Tower, Blackpool
Where Britain’s oldest continuous circus still delights visitors
Blackpool Tower Circus opened to the public in May 1894 at the height of circus popularity. The auditorium, positioned at the base of the tower between the building’s four legs, was designed by English theatrical architect and designer Frank Matcham, and is now one of the only remaining arenas designed by Matcham that is still in use solely for circus entertainment.
Many of the world’s leading performers have appeared at the Tower Circus, including legendary animal trainer Alfred Court in 1937, who performed with wild animals such as lions, tigers, black bears and even four polar bears. The 1940s favourite, Coco the Clown, also graced the circus.
Another of the Tower Circus’s most celebrated acts was Italian clown Charlie Cairoli, who first appeared at Blackpool in 1939 as part of the Cairoli Trio. Charlie starred in 32 consecutive seasons at the Tower Circus, his last engagement being the season of 1979 at the end of which he retired due to ill health. His red nose, bowler hat and eyebrow moustache made him one of the best-known clowns on British television and he became synonymous with the Tower Circus.
The Tower Circus boasts one of only two aquatic rings in Britain (there are only four in the world). The circus ring, when flooded, can hold up to 42,000 gallons of water to a depth of 4ft 6ins, allowing for stunning aquatic displays.
Blackpool Tower is one of Blackpool’s top visitor attractions, welcoming over 650,000 people every year, and its circus has never missed a season.
The Hippodrome, Great Yarmouth
Where visitors can see Britain’s oldest purpose-built circus building
Built in 1903 by legendary circus showman George Gilbert, Great Yarmouth’s hippodrome claims to be the oldest purpose-built circus building in Britain. Unlike venues such as Blackpool Tower, which incorporates a circus alongside other events and amusements, Great Yarmouth’s hippodrome was erected as a dedicated circus building. Houdini, Little Titch the clown and Charlie Chaplin have all performed at the hippodrome and, like the Tower Circus, its ring can be flooded for water spectacles.
Says Vanessa Toulmin: “Circuses were not confined solely to tents and big tops, and the Victorian period saw more and more buildings spring up to house them. Virtually every major city in Britain had a permanent circus building, usually known as ‘hippodromes’. The word is taken from the Latin hippos (horse) and dromos, meaning ‘race’ or ‘course’.”
The Great Yarmouth Hippodrome continues to host circuses and other entertainments throughout the year. The site is also home to the Hippodrome Circus Museum, which houses over a hundred years’ worth of circus memorabilia.
Hawley Street, Sheffield
Where visitors queued for exotic animals and human sideshows
Once home to a drum-playing elephant and 100 lions, as well as trained mice, llamas and camels, the Sheffield Jungle boasted a menagerie of exotic animals that delighted audiences when it opened in 1910.
The Sheffield Jungle was based on Hawley Street, now the site of HSBC bank’s administrative offices. It was brought to the city by Frank C Bostock, a man known to many as ‘the animal king’, who used the temporary spaces that had been opened up by slum clearances around the Crofts area of the city.
Although primarily a menagerie, the Jungle soon incorporated early fairground devices, bizarre shows and exhibitions, all for the price of one shilling. Skating bears, a mouse colliery and a snake charmer were just some of the attractions on display during its first visit to Sheffield between November 1910 and May 1911. But the displays were not only limited to animals: Anita the Living Doll, who stood at 26 inches tall, appeared at the Jungle for a one-off visit in April 1911, while hunger artist Victor Beaute underwent a 28-day fast in May the same year.
Bostock’s Jungle returned to Sheffield in late 1912 but the tradition was not continued after the First World War.
Words by Charlotte Hodgman. The historical advisor was Vanessa Toulmin, director of the National Fairground Archive at the University of Sheffield