Next club meeting Monday 6th March 2017.
· Subject - Club Auction
Monday 3rd April 2017.
Monday 8th May 2017.
At the February meeting we welcomed David Young to speak about the history of the Circus and the tickets issued by the proprietors.
David both spoke about and illustrated the various characters and premises associated with the Circus. We were shown many fine pictures of the various premises, tableau’s, performers, the fine wagons used in parades and the brass tickets issued by the promoters.
What fired David’s passion for this topic are the many interesting stories associated with the characters of the circus - and the buildings which frequently changed hands and often burnt down.
Over a 300 year period there were very many enterprises. The successful ones were usually managed by a dynasty, while other proprietors with grandiose schemes lasted but a few years, often ending in bankruptcy.
It probably all started in Anglo Saxon times with wandering groups of acrobats, jugglers and rope-walkers. Later by the Middle Ages animals were being taught to perform tricks, the most famous in Elizabethan times being a horse called Morocco who could count dice and would dance with his owner. Gradually the ever moving circus as we know today grew from the attendance of wandering performers at the many local fairs that took place throughout the country. In the larger cities these fairs would be quite large undertakings. Over time these shows gradually became more sophisticated and during the 18th century displays of horsemanship were introduced. Performers with their spectacular riding skills became ever more popular and several of these horsemen became well known stars that developed into some of the dynastic circus families.
One such family was founded in the late 17th century by Philip Astley. He was renowned for his horsemanship and spent much time teaching others. He set up an arena just outside London and gave wonderful shows featuring displays and trick riding with horses. His shows travelled outside London and also to Continental European. David went into considerable detail with the exploits of the Astley’s and followed on with the history of the many other circus promoters and enterprises. For each enterprise we were shown pictures of the venues and the various tickets issued by the proprietors, the use of which is generally unknown. What came across from this talk was how frequently the circus theatres change hands and the grandiose schemes the promoters had, often lasting but a few years. Some of the tableaus and shows can only be described as spectacular.
One of the first real 17th Century circus families were the Cooke’s. Thomas Cooke was descended from travelling players and was an accomplished rider and acrobat. His son Thomas had at least a dozen children all of whom appeared in their father’s circus, along with their wives or husbands and all became accomplished performers. Thomas’s son William Cooke put on elaborate equestrian displays including adaptations of Macbeth and Richard III performed on horseback. His spectacular shows, such as “The Battle of the Alma”, were very popular and are said to have made him a rich man.
Another very famous circus dynasty was started by James Sanger whose later descendants developed the type of circus that many of us would have seen in the mid 20th Century. After being invalided out of the Navy, James purchased a peepshow and started touring the country. After marrying in 1827 he went on to have ten children all helping with the show. Around 1848 two sons George & John started a small show themselves with trained canaries and mice to perform conjuring tricks. Later they had a show called the Wonderful Performing Fish that pushed small ships around a tank and a Tame Oyster that smoked a pipe. These and other shows were very popular and over the years it prospered and as other acts and artists were added it became one of the largest travelling circuses. With wild beasts added to the show they soon had one of the largest travelling menageries. Later they purchased Astley’s run down Amphitheatre which they enlarged and lavishly decorated to become, Sanger’s Grand National Amphitheatre. Here spectacular shows and pantomimes were put on. One such show entitled Gulliver’s Travels had a cast of over 700 men and women along with 13 elephants, 9 camels, over 50 horses and a huge variety of other assorted animals. Eventually the brothers divided the company, with John touring in the north and George in the south.
During his talk David gave many anecdotes and stories related to the circus, far too many to relate in this précis, but here are three. In 1877 William Cody brought his Wild West show to London and when George put on a similar show Cody took him to court and won the case. But what annoyed George more was the continued reference to the Honourable William Cody at court and in the papers. George eventually said if he’s an honourable then I’m a Lord and immediately arranged for all the wagons and flyers to be repainted with Lord George Sanger. Not to be out done his brother became Lord John and some of the other circus proprietors took the title “Sir”, another went one better and became King Ohmy.
In June Lord George received a request from the Queen Victoria to take his show to Windsor, which she enjoyed so much that she requested a repeat performance. Knowing that George was a ‘fake’ Lord she seemed very amused by his impudence in assuming the title.
One evening in 1888 there were cries that the wolves had escaped from Astleys. Actually the wolves were quite tame and although not in their cages, were contained within the stables. The whole affair was a publicity stunt arranged by George, which proved to be very successful as audiences increased - there were even questions in Parliament.
Throughout his talk David showed the tickets of the very many circus owners that blossomed in the Victorian & early 20th century, together with many illustrations of their premises, advertisements and the spectacular cavalcades that preceded the circus entering the town. One particular person renowned for his spectacular entries was William Manders. Starting with eight wagons he continued adding others until he had sixteen. At the front of the procession he had highly decorated 30 ft long golden wagon complete with a famous tableau scene which required nine horses to pull it. William always had the most magnificent teams of matched draught horses to pull his wagons, but curiously the band carriage was pulled by two elephants and three camels.
There were so many characters in the early circuses all with interesting associated stories and with his talk David has given us an insight into a few. Many thanks to our speaker.
· In 1987 was a club coin fair.
· In 2007 the February meeting was the annual auction.