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.
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.
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.
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’.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.