Excitement as the circus folk rolled into Great Yarmouth
- Credit: Clifford Temple Collection
Coincidence Rules OK! Sounds like a political slogan or a television game show, but it is simply my view on the times the coincidence factor has shaped columns.
Recently it was reported that the internationally famous Ringling Bros and Barnum & Bailey Circus is closing after 146 years, one factor being declining ticket sales resulting from the dropping of elephant acts after pressure from animal rights campaigners.
The Barnum and Bailey Circus came to Great Yarmouth long before amalgamation with Ringling Bros. In 1899 Barnum and Bailey staged its so-called Greatest Show on Earth here, a massive logistical feat considering the number of human and animal performers and support workers involved and the amount of equipment needing to be brought in, assembled, used for only one day, dismantled, repacked and taken to the next venue.
The following day a letter arrived from Mrs Peggotty’s sister in Sheffield, enclosing a cutting from the city’s evening newspaper she thought might interest me. It did. A local historian wrote that as the Burgoyne Arms public house was going to be replaced by flats, “it’s time to recollect perhaps the most spectacular pub landlord in the history of Sheffield pubs!”
That was Robert Hales (1813-1863), dubbed the Norfolk Giant and born and buried in West Somerton. He weighed 32 stone, stood 7ft 8in tall, was a favourite of Queen Victoria and Napoleon III...and toured with Barnum.
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Sadly, Hales’ career with Barnum was as an exhibit in his freak show. He retired long before the Barnum/Bailey amalgamation with Ringling which gained international renown as a touring circus.
Most of 1898 and 1899 were spent in the UK and Europe by the circus, a whistle-stop tour of non-stop travelling interrupted by one or two-days of performance. I assume it travelled by rail from Lowestoft, its previous venue, to Yarmouth, as it had the previous year when four trains were required to convey it all to Norwich.
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Here in Yarmouth, the July gig was located on the Southtown marshes, accessible from Gordon Road. But our townsfolk and summer visitors were treated to a spectacular street parade, capturing their imaginations to persuade them to pay to see the live performances taking place in three rings, on two stages and a race-track!
“Two hours in Wonderland,” promised the Yarmouth Mercury headline previewing the visit. Highlights of the street parade were to be “a wonderful 40-horse team, a reproduction of the Return of Columbus to Barcelona, and other interesting features.”
Prospective patrons learned that one area would be lined with “living human curiosities, such as the big giantess, midget, bearded lady, dog-faced boy, armless and legless people, sword-swallower, moss-haired girl, expansionist (whatever that was) and all the high-class speciality artists whose vaudeville entertainment of itself is a whole show for which there is no extra charge whatsoever.”
Among the caged animals was Johanna, “a gorilla, a wonderful human-like creature, the like of which was never seen before.”
Arena performances would feature 16 champion bare-back riders of both sexes - “a revelation in equestrian feats, scores and scores of the best aerialists of Europe and America.” An international equestrian tournament featuring “high leaping and long distance jumping horses” was programmed, plus “scores of athletes and acrobats contesting in leaping and tumbling tournaments.”
The Mercury added: “Seventy trained horses perform in one ring at one time, and three herds of elephants in three rings at another period. Giant and pigmy animals, and curious animal freaks, will also prove interesting objects to our rural friends, and the children will be delighted with the extent of the eye-feasts provided for them in the antics of clowns and the capers of tiny trained animals, birds and other creatures.”
How attitudes have changed...
I could find no report of the visit in the following week’s Mercury, probably because it was by then old news, the entire spectacle having moved on to Lincolnshire.