11 Things You Should Know About British Circus History

Trapeze artists in Circus, lithograph by Calvert Litho. Co., 1890
Trapeze artists in Circus, lithograph by Calvert Litho. Co., 1890 | © Calvert Litho. Co. / Wikimedia Commons
Stephanie Potts

The greatest show on earth has been entertaining people around the world for 250 years with its performers demonstrating amazing feats of skill and daring to entertain the public. However, the circus we know and love—with its variety of circus ring acts—is a mere quarter of a millennium old. Read on to discover how Britain became the birthplace of the modern circus.

The modern circus’s founder never used the word circus

In 1768, after leaving the army, cavalry officer Philip Astley opened a riding school in London. He began putting on displays to demonstrate his equestrian skills, performing his trick riding in a circular arena that measured 13 metres (42 feet), which remains the standard size of circus rings used around the world today. Astley expanded his repertoire, bringing in other skilled entertainers such as acrobats, jugglers and clowns to create crowd-pleasing variety shows. He toured widely and also built wooden amphitheatres with seating around the circus ring, later adding a roof. When he could no longer perform his trick riding, he created the role of Ringmaster for himself and though he’s internationally credited as the circus’s founding father, he didn’t like the word ‘circus’ and never used it himself.

“Astley’s Amphitheatre” colored plate from Microcosm of London, 1808

The oldest working circus dates from the early 1900s

The circus was extremely popular during the Victorian era and purpose-built structures, called hippodromes, were erected across the country, though by the end of the 19th century, with increasing competition from music halls, they started to face a decline. Today, there is only one surviving dedicated circus building in Britain—the Hippodrome in Great Yarmouth, Norfolk. Built in 1903 by circus showman Gilbert George, the Art Nouveau Hippodrome was fitted with a mechanism that allowed the circus ring to be filled with water, which was a feature of the Blackpool Tower. Current owner Peter Jay reintroduced the water spectacular in 1981 and the shows continue to be a popular draw for visitors to Norfolk, with machinery that is over 100 years old.

The Hippodrome in Great Yarmouth

The first black British circus owner came from Norwich

Norwich-born Pablo Fanque is renowned as Britain’s first black circus owner and one of the most successful circus performers and proprietors ever. He is probably best known as the inspiration for the Beatles song, ‘Being for the Benefit of Mr Kite’ on the Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album.

Born William Darby in 1796, Fanque was orphaned at an early age and excelled at acrobatics, tightrope walking and especially horse training. In 1841 Fanque started his own circus and toured widely, especially in the north of England. Though he died penniless at the age of 76 in Stockport, he is well remembered and large crowds of onlookers lined the streets of Leeds for his funeral procession. Today, he is commemorated on a blue plaque on the John Lewis store in Norwich.

Pablo Fanque, the first recorded black British circus owner

Elephants bathed in the river in Leamington Spa

The genteel English town of Leamington Spa has a place in British circus history thanks to the famous Victorian elephant trainer Samuel Lockhart (1851-1933). Lockhart was an incredibly successful showman who toured the UK, Europe and the USA with his troupes of elephants. His most famous elephants were Wilhelmina, Trilby and Haddie, known as the Three Graces. It’s said that Lockhart would take his elephants to bathe in the River Leam in Leamington. A 19th-century slipway down to the river near the suspension bridge in Jephson Gardens is known as ‘Elephant Walk’.

The first human cannonball was a teenage girl

On 2 April 1877, acrobat and tightrope walker Rossa Richter, whose stage-name was Zazel, became the first person to be blasted out of a cannonball. The spectacular finale to her aerial act saw the 16-year-old lowering herself into the cannon to be propelled 21 metres (70 feet) into the air over the heads of an astounded audience. Explosions and smoke gave the illusion that she was being fired from the cannon, when it was actually a mechanism of springs and tension that launched her into the air. However, the cannonball act was one of the most dangerous because of the lack of control the performer had over her trajectory and movement. After undertaking the stunt successfully many times, Zazel one day flew over the safety net and broke her back, which forced her into retirement.

Rossa Matilda Richter, also known as Zazel, the first human cannonball performer (who started when she was 14, in 1887)

The exotic female mystic who earned more than the Prime Minister

Walking on broken glass, or over the heads of hypnotised crocodiles with live serpents around her neck, was a specialty of Koringa (1913-1976), the most notorious female magician of the 1940s. Koringa’s was an orphaned Indian native who learned magic from the fakirs that raised her. She was born Renée Bernard in Bordeaux, France, and was discovered by the Mills Brothers in 1937. A year later, she was one of the circus’s headline acts, performing at top venues like Blackpool Tower and, at one time, she (allegedly) was even being paid more than the Prime Minister. With her green tinted face make-up, afro-style hair and flamboyant stage presence, ‘the only female fakir in the world’ conjured up visions of the exotic and the unknown.

There’s a clown church service held in London every year

Every year on the first Sunday in February, hundreds of clowns from all over the world gather for a church service to remember Joseph Grimaldi (1778-1837), the father of modern clowning though he always worked in the theatre and never in the circus. Dating back to 1946, the service was held for many years at Holy Trinity Church in Dalston, but in recent years, the event has moved to All Saints Church in Haggerston. Grimaldi, an English actor, comedian and dancer created the image that we still associate with clowns today and was the first to apply white face paint and use make-up to emphasise his facial expressions.

Joseph Grimaldi as Clown Joey

You can see thousands of pieces of British circus history in Sheffield

Based at the University of Sheffield, the National Fairground and Circus Archive has over 150,000 photographs, 4,000 books and journals and over 20,000 items of ephemera to do with popular culture from the 17th century onwards. Inaugurated in 1994, the archive was born out of the PhD research and lifelong passion of Professor Vanessa Toulmin, who comes from a long-established fairground dynasty. It’s a fantastic resource and repository for all things circus and a living archive that actively works to preserve the circus’s cultural history.

The use of animals in circuses is dying out

Traditional circuses with troupes of elephants, big cats and dancing horses are, thankfully, becoming a thing of the past. Because society is more aware of animal rights today and believes it is cruel to force wild animals to perform for entertainment, most modern circuses no longer use animals and instead focus on human performers demonstrating feats of skill, strength and daring. More than 40 countries around the world have already outlawed the use of animals. Scotland passed legislation to ban wild animals in 2017, and English parliament is expected to do the same this year.

A lion tamer at Bertram Mills Touring Circus, Ascot. Edward G Malindine

Some people actually have run away with the circus

Though many people dream of escaping their humdrum lives to run away with the circus, not many actually do it. Three notable people who did were Bertram Mills, who formed a circus company after making a wager with a friend; Gerry Cottle, a stockbroker’s son who joined a circus at the age of 16 and ended up with his own famous company; and Billy Smart who came from a fairground family and surprised everyone by buying a circus. More recently, Nell and Toti Gifford realised their dreams and in 2000 started Gifford’s Circus, which tours village greens in England every summer.

Nell Gifford, Gifford’s Circus

Six Cities of Circus host events to commemorate the anniversary

2018 is the 250th anniversary of the circus, which is being celebrated throughout the year in theatres, museums, archives and circuses across the country. Six Cities of Circus—a group that includes Belfast, Bristol, Norwich & Great Yarmouth, Blackpool, Newcastle-under-Lyme and London—is playing a key role in the celebrations by showcasing the circus heritage with present-day activities. Dea Birkett, the Ringmaster coordinating the event, ran away to join the circus at the age of 36, igniting a lifelong passion that has never left her.

Circus250 logo
culture trip left arrow
 culture trip brand logo

Volcanic Iceland Epic Trip

meet our Local Insider


women sitting on iceberg


2 years.


It's the personal contact, the personal experiences. I love meeting people from all over the world... I really like getting to know everyone and feeling like I'm traveling with a group of friends.


I have so many places on my list, but I would really lobe to go to Africa. I consider myself an “adventure girl” and Africa feels like the ULTIMATE adventure!

culture trip logo letter c
group posing for picture on iceberg
group posing for picture on iceberg

Every CULTURE TRIP Small-group adventure is led by a Local Insider just like Hanna.

map of volcanic iceland trip destination points
culture trip brand logo
culture trip right arrow
landscape with balloons floating in the air


Connect with like-minded people on our premium trips curated by local insiders and with care for the world

Since you are here, we would like to share our vision for the future of travel - and the direction Culture Trip is moving in.

Culture Trip launched in 2011 with a simple yet passionate mission: to inspire people to go beyond their boundaries and experience what makes a place, its people and its culture special and meaningful — and this is still in our DNA today. We are proud that, for more than a decade, millions like you have trusted our award-winning recommendations by people who deeply understand what makes certain places and communities so special.

Increasingly we believe the world needs more meaningful, real-life connections between curious travellers keen to explore the world in a more responsible way. That is why we have intensively curated a collection of premium small-group trips as an invitation to meet and connect with new, like-minded people for once-in-a-lifetime experiences in three categories: Culture Trips, Rail Trips and Private Trips. Our Trips are suitable for both solo travelers, couples and friends who want to explore the world together.

Culture Trips are deeply immersive 5 to 16 days itineraries, that combine authentic local experiences, exciting activities and 4-5* accommodation to look forward to at the end of each day. Our Rail Trips are our most planet-friendly itineraries that invite you to take the scenic route, relax whilst getting under the skin of a destination. Our Private Trips are fully tailored itineraries, curated by our Travel Experts specifically for you, your friends or your family.

We know that many of you worry about the environmental impact of travel and are looking for ways of expanding horizons in ways that do minimal harm - and may even bring benefits. We are committed to go as far as possible in curating our trips with care for the planet. That is why all of our trips are flightless in destination, fully carbon offset - and we have ambitious plans to be net zero in the very near future.