Great Yarmouth’s long history of circus fun
PUBLISHED: 07:00 20 January 2019
Nellie the Elephant might well have packed her trunk and gone to work in a circus while another ditty urged listeners to “Be a clown!”, but the Big Top has limited appeal for job-seekers.
Today’s magnetic lure for budding entertainers is being a pop star, attracting adulation and wealth without risking injury.
Circus was once described as “The Greatest Show on Earth” - the title of a 1952 Hollywood movie - but an outsider today might be luke-warm about it.
The era has long gone of a travelling show setting up on a common to entertain folk deprived of cinemas and theatres.
Permanent circuses are few, although the rival resorts of Great Yarmouth and Blackpool still have one.
Our Hippodrome, immensely popular in summer, has ended a hugely successful winter production blending circus and aqua-show, while Blackpool staged a Christmas pantomime at the Tower.
For both venues, it was a time of major celebration, because their shows spanned the end of the 250th anniversary of international circus and the beginning of its 251st year!
I was unaware of that milestone until circus aficionado and chronicler Don Stacey, of Albert Gate Road in Yarmouth, informed me of it.
He penned a detailed feature about the 250-year history of this form of entertainment for the European Circus Association, only months after he received positive proof that one of his ancestors had formed a circus in Sheffield in the 1890s.
It might surprise some folk who assumed that circus was imported here from the Continent to learn that it was probably a British invention although that was not unanimous among researchers.
I would be surprised if Britain pioneering circus – which spread across Europe and worldwide – has been a bargaining factor in current fractious Brexit negotiations...
Indeed, Don writes that even the truculent European leaders negotiating with the UK over our withdrawal “cannot dispute that the modern-day concept of circus – as opposed to its distant ancestry, with barbaric displays of animal and human sacrifices of Ancient Rome - originated in London in 1768, according to popular lore, and subsequently spread to Europe and eventually to every country of the civilised world.”
The “father of the modern circus” was Philip Astley whose legacy was that a quarter of a millennium later it would remain “the only truly international entertainment in existence, provided by performers of every race, creed and nation on earth for every country of the world to enjoy.”
Astley never called his entertainment “circus” but “amphitheatre.” But, says Don Stacey, “he could claim to be the originator of many aspects or features of what became circus.”
He was thought to be the first person to introduce comic acts and to establish the size of the circus ring, and to play a great part in developing the displays of horsemanship combined with clowns, rope dancers and acrobats who had featured over the years in funfairs and on village greens, bringing such acts together into the widely popular and internationally known entertainment - circus!
Astley, a former soldier, specialised in horsemanship in its various forms and what today we could term stunts, ideal for entertaining audiences.
The writer explains: “The essence of circus is that it is a display of undoubted real physical skills, with no trickery or pretence, whereas the theatre is essentially a world of pretence, deceit and illusion.”
Later Astley’s shows acquired royal patronage.
Yarmouth hosted many travelling circuses over the years, but one which aroused peak public enthusiasm was in 1898-99 when the huge United States-based Barnum and Bailey show touring Europe set up on Southtown Marshes off Gordon Road.
As for Don Stacey, he ran away from his bank job at 17 to join a circus, becoming closely involved with those of Bertram Mills, Billy Smart, Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey.
He edited circus periodicals, has written for circus publications worldwide, and served on juries of international circus festivals.