The Circus in Victorian Times

When we think of the circus today, we immediately conjure up images of elephants, lion tamers, clowns and other exotic animals. In 1768, England’s first circus was nothing like that; set up by an ex-cavalry man named Philip Astley, the circus was part of a Lambeth riding school. Astley taught horsemanship in the mornings and performed tricks on horseback in the afternoons. His wife provided musical accompaniment by beating on a large drum, and even went as far as circling the ring on horseback with a swarm of bees covering her hands!

1798 Circus Playbill

Circus Playbill from 1798

In 1843, the setting of The Horseman’s Desire, the circus itself bore some similarity to what it would become over the ensuing half decade. Long before Barnum and Bailey touted themselves in 1898 as the Greatest Show on Earth, bands of roving performers moved from village common to village common, entertaining the hoi polloi with the most rudimentary of fairground performances. In researching material for the book, I discovered that there was little structure to the circus of the time, with some merely a part of a larger fair, some performed in theatres and others were little more than a band of gypsies adept at horse riding tricks.

 The Big Top was yet to be included as part of the English circus in the mid 19th century, and it took 22 years for England to adopt the American use of canvas. In 1842, Richard Sand’s American Circus arrived in Liverpool, England and introduced something advertised as a Splendid and novel pavillion. Before it was imitated all over the country, most circuses consisted of an open air ring of rope in which performers displayed their talents. Those talents generally consisted of trick riding (Edmund Bartlemas, the male hero of The Horseman’s Desire was a trick rider), high wire walking, tumbling and comic tramps (the forebears of today’s clown). The clown was yet to be defined in name as part of the circus, and it was comic tramps who provided the amusement for onlookers. Little people were a large part of the comic tramp act, which was one of the most important aspects of the entertainment. The Keystone Cops, so popular in early American film, had their roots in the comic tramp act as they were chased by police and found themselves in all sorts of sticky situations before escaping to the cheers of the crowds.

Charlie keith abt 1840

Charlie Keith in about 1840

Very early circuses were dangerous places (as were most Victorian places of work), and death or serious injury was a frequent visitor. Pablo Fanque, a circus proprietor, took over a temporary wooden circus in Leeds in 1848. Unbeknownst to Fanque, the previous owners had removed beam-props when vacating the premises, and Fanque’s wife was killed when the gallery and pit of the wooden circus collapsed. Larger circuses announced their arrival in towns with a parade, and while very few circus proprietors had the luxury of staging such an event, Edwin Hughes of Batty’s London Circus went as far as using camels and an elephant in his parade as early as 1843. While rare, such displays were to set the scene for the future of the circus in the latter half of the century. Hughes also used chariots in his parades, which he later sold to an American. This single sale was the catalyst for the advent of the far more lavish American circus parades, and in 1880, Forepaugh’s circus parade took five hours to pass through the streets of New York!

Barnum and bailey parade Late 19th C

Barnum & Bailey Circus Parade in the late 19th Century

From the 1840’s to the 1880s, the circus emerged from raggle taggle roots to a magnificent, well managed and highly disciplined form of entertainment, bearing little similarity to what it had been and yet maintaining its trick riding, high wire walking and comic tramps throughout its history and into the modern day. It beggars belief that many early performers survived their rudimentary perils to emerge in the latter half of the century as great entrepreneurs such as Barnum & Bailey, Lord George Sanger and Charlie Keith. Today’s entertainments owe a lot to the Victorian Circus, and none more than a young Charlie Chaplin and the Keystone Cops!

As you read of Edmund Bartlemas‘ exploits as a circus horseman in The Horseman’s Desire, perhaps you can imagine a little more about the people and the time in which Circus was destined to become The Greatest Show on Earth!


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