In 2018 Circus celebrated 250 years since Philip Astley created the artform. A partnership between Time and Tide Museum, Museums Sheffield, Tyne and Wear Museums and the University of Sheffield celebrated this important anniversary with a series of exhibitions supported by Circus 250 and funded through a generous grant from the National Lottery Heritage Fund. This is an online record of the exhibition held at Time and Tide Museum along with some relevant artworks in other museum collections and videos which help tell the amazing story of circus.
Roll Up! Roll Up!
Phillip Astley presented a show at Ha’penny Hatch
in London in 1768 which combined equestrianism,
clowning and acrobatics in a now iconic 42 foot ring.
Modern Circus was born!
Circus continues to amaze and astound audiences 250 years later
by showcasing the talents of highly skilled performers in shows
around the world. Circus! Show of Shows takes you into the ring to
explore some of the hidden stories and most fascinating characters
in circus history both locally in Great Yarmouth and throughout the rest of the circus world.
Animals and Circus
The presence of animals in Circus dates back to its origins in Philip Astley’s riding school and equestrian performances. Over the course of its 250 year history, trained animals have been used to amaze crowds through both skill and novelty. The use of wild and exotic animals within circuses is interlinked with the development of public menageries, early forms of zoos. By the 1840s animal acts in circuses far outnumbered human performers. The popularity of animal circuses remained throughout the early 20th century but public attitude gradually changed and now it is a rare sight to see animals, other than perhaps horses, performing in a circus ring.
By the 1990s, the majority of British circuses stopped the use of animals, a new circus movement of human-skill based performances began sparking public curiosity. Whereas the arrival of an animal circus would have once attracted throngs of eager spectators, it now more frequently attracts picket lines. Although circus is often branded as a whole with a stigma for animal cruelty, like all areas of animal husbandry there have been individual cases of mistreatment as well as those of dedicated care and a deep love and respect for their animals. It is a contentious subject with both of sides of the debate passionate about how animals are treated in Circus.
Billy Russell's Circus Spectacular at the Great Yarmouth Hippodrome (1950/1970) by Billy Russell's CircusTime and Tide Museum
Women in Circus
They flew through the air, straddled their steeds, tamed wild beasts and accomplished feats of astonishing bravery and skill. Many thousands of women have entered the circus ring since trick rider Patty Astley first performed her equestrian act shrouded in a swarm of bees in 1768. These women challenged social conventions and pushed boundaries. The circus provided both an opportunity and a refuge from society’s expectations. Here women’s limbs could be shown, their bodies could be strong and athletic, and fortunes could be made. The ability of women to command and impress large crowds with high expectations shattered beliefs of female fragility and dependence upon men.
Suzette Mixed Bird Act, 1963
Having grown up in circus, Sue Yelding encountered the Italian artiste Fabiola who performed an act with trained doves at Great Yarmouth Hippodrome. Inspired, Yelding trained pigeons and parrots for herself to perform, replacing the act from 1962. Yelding went on to marry animal trainer Rudy Lenz, performing for many years with a chimpanzee act in the famous Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus in the United States. Sue and Rudy were both inducted into the 'circus ring of fame' one of the most prestigious honours that can be bestowed on circus stars retiring soon after to the circus epicentre that is Sarasota in Florida.
Life-size cutout of Sue Yelding performing at the Great Yarmouth Hippodrome. (2018) by Norfolk Museums ServiceTime and Tide Museum
Women in Circus, Circus 250 film (2018) by University of Sheffield, Tom Barrance, and Dea BirkettTime and Tide Museum
Great Yarmouth Suspension Bridge Disaster
The Suspension Bridge disaster of May 1845, was one of the most tragic losses of life in Great Yarmouth’s history. Posters had appeared around the town advertising an amazing stunt to be performed by Nelson the Clown, as he sailed down the river in a washtub pulled by four geese. Upon hearing the shout “Here come the geese!” the dense crowd packed upon the bridge rushed in unison to the south side, eager to catch a glimpse of the Clown’s approach. Without warning, a suspension chain gave way and the bridge collapsed into the river. 78 were drowned, with half of the victims below the age of 15. A memorial stone now stands on the river bank marking the spot where the bridge once stood and a clown once performed.
The profound effect of this horrific event was recognised nationwide. The show, however, still went ahead that evening. It is worth remembering that Circus was originally was designed for middle class audiences, with the cost of a ticket often being out of reach of the ordinary working population. These stunts were sometimes the only chance that the general public would have of seeing acts from the circus. So too were the elaborate posters with their hundreds of words which were inaccessible to the illiterate masses.
Pablo Fanque Darby - The First Black Circus Owner
Born William Darby in Norwich, Fanque was apprenticed to Circus owner William Batty and made his first appearance in a circus ring aged 11. He originally trained as an acrobat, but it was his exceptional skills with horses that led to lifelong fame. He ran his own circus which toured across the country for over 30 years, becoming one of the most successful circus proprietors of the 19th century. During Fanque’s early career, slavery in the UK was yet to be completely abolished and in light of the social and political attitudes of the day, his success is hugely significant. Fanque travelled the country throughout his lifetime, occasionally returning to Norfolk but largely settling in the north of the country, He was known for taking on young apprentices for his shows, in a similar fashion to how he originally entered the ring as a boy.
Clowns make people laugh, some make people cry. There is so much more to the history of Circus than clowning, but this is an integral part of the history of circus. Modern circus has started moving away from the traditional clown acts, in a similar way to how animals appear less. Originally believed to be based on court jesters, they were introduced as time-filling acts to keep the audience amused while sets were changed, animals moved and equipment was prepared.
Clown Roma - A Norfolk Clown
The story of Clown Roma is a complex one. Born ‘Arthur Edward La Touche Aston’ in Swaffham, Norfolk, the story of this ‘happy clown’ and accomplished animal trainer has many twists and turns. His story and adventures during his life transcend many important themes of this exhibition and Circus folklore, from running away with the Hungarian Circus as a child, to training animals and to suffering tragedy when his fiancée died in an acrobatic stunt. Upon his death in the 1980’s he had specified that his costume and a few of his personal items be donated to Norfolk Museums Service. A number of his show posters have also ended up in the Victoria and Albert Museum.
Clown Roma EDP article (1976-03-13) by Eastern Daily PressTime and Tide Museum
If Walls Could Talk
Before circuses began to tour the country in tents, it was common for towns and resorts to have their own permanent circus building. Built in 1903 by George Gilbert, the Great Yarmouth Hippodrome is now the only surviving purpose built circus building in the UK that is still regularly used for its original function. When a knee injury ended his circus performing career, Gilbert turned to management, opening Great Yarmouth’s first Hippodrome in 1898, a wooden and corrugated iron building on St Georges Road. The current building has survived bombings during the two word wars, a decline in audience numbers in the 1990's to record attendance today in circuses 250th year.
Inside the Great Yarmouth Hippodrome (1905/1939) by Percy Trett Photographic ArchiveTime and Tide Museum
Its unique central ring is designed so that it can be lowered into a 60,000 gallon tank of water for aquatic displays. The ghost of George Gilbert is said to walk the upper balcony of the Hippodrome.
The Hippodrome today
Today the Great Yarmouth Hippodrome is a family operation run by Peter and Christine Jay and their sons. Peter and his father saved the building from demolition in the 1970's and decided to continue operating the building as a Circus. A successful musician, Peter Jay radically modernised British circus by producing his shows using modern music and combined lighting. He reinstated the water circus element of the shows after repairing and refurbishing the water area of the Hippodrome circus ring which hadn't been used for a number of years. Peter continues to adapt circus today, adjusting his role to one of Curator of a dedicated museum of the history of the Hippodrome and worldwide Circus housed beneath the hippodrome seating where the animals used to be kept.
The Ringmaster - Behind the Scenes in Great Yarmouth (2017) by Visit Great YarmouthTime and Tide Museum
Original exhibition shown at Time and Tide Museum Winter 2018/19.
With thanks to:
National Lottery Heritage Fund
Tyne and Wear Museums
University of Sheffield
Peter Jay and The Great Yarmouth Hippodrome
National Fairground and Circus Archive, University of Sheffield Library
Professor Vanessa Toulmin
Dr Dea Birkett
Norfolk Library Service (Picture Norfolk).
All of the Circus acts past and present who continue to entertain, delight and inspire with everything that they do.