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Circus in Australia – A way of life for 70 years, 1847–1917

Elsie May St Leon, Australian-born bareback rider, (1884-1976), with her brother Alfred (1890-1955), on horse, with ringmistress and clown in attendance, New York, c. 1914

Since the first complete circus performances were given in Launceston in 1847, Australians have enjoyed a good circus: the daring feats of ropewalkers, jugglers, acrobats, clowns and animal trainers, and especially feats of horsemanship, performed by men, women and children.

Since the first touring circus, Australians have enjoyed the sounds of the circus band playing on the back of a decorated wagon as a prelude to the performances on the circus lot in the evening. School principals used to grant a half-day holiday when the circus arrived in town – knowing that they would not be able to contain the curiosity of youngsters keen to watch the preparations for the evening's performance and the circus tent being erected.

The early modern circus, with equestrian feats and other physical skills performed within a circular arena, was conceived by Philip Astley (1742–1814), a former cavalry man, in London in the late 1700s. The diameter of Astley's ring, eventually a standard 12.8 metres, allowed the surrounding audience to see the show from all perspectives. Importantly, the ring was ideal

for generating the centrifugal force that helped trick riders balance when they stood on the backs of their galloping horses.
History of the Circus

Andrew Ducrow and his wife, Louisa Woolford, perform the equestrian pantomime, The Tyrolean Shepherd and The Swiss Milkmaid,>, in Astley's Amphitheatre, London, c.1829

Early performers in Astley's Amphitheatre, such as the pre-eminent horse-rider, Andrew Ducrow, displayed a variety of skills. In 1812 Ducrow demonstrated balancing, dancing, gymnastics, stilt-walking, tight-rope, mime, combat with a sword, music and horsemanship to create a new combined circus.

Riders performing feats in a grand style were known as equestrians. Later, the term equestrienne was given to female circus riders who performed acrobatics on horseback. In 1883, a visiting English writer, Richard Twopeny, wrote that

Australia produced perhaps the most critical and appreciative circus audiences in the world owing to the Australians' natural affinity for horses and horsemanship.
Town Life in Australia, 1883

A large, appreciative audience boosted the fortunes of a circus proprietor and the reputations of his performers. However, the fortunes of circus families were inclined to rise and fall with changing tastes and fluctuating prosperity.

St Leon Brothers Circus, Loxton, South Australia, 1911

The use of a circular canvas tent for a circus was introduced in Delaware, USA in the 1820s. This was improved with the development of additional canvas middle-pieces that could be inserted between two semi-circular ends and supported by two or more centre-poles.

By 1841, tents freed the circus from the restrictions imposed by permanent amphitheatres and cumbersome pavilions. A circus could now adjust its seating capacity to suit the size of its audience. The travelling circus was particularly suited to Australia as it was an economical way to deliver popular entertainment to a small and widely-distributed population.

Circus in Australia – the principal form of entertainment

Circus in Australia was the principal medium of entertainment for over a century in a 'golden age' of circus that lasted from the 1850s until the early 1960s. It was a major sector of a large industry of travelling shows of all descriptions. Australia's travelling show industry provided livelihoods for thousands of circus and other itinerant show people – entrepreneurs, performers and other employees – and freeloaders as well.

Wirth's Circus. Herr Paul, animal trainer with circus animals in Brisbane, 1903, courtesy of Oxley Library. State Library of Queensland.

Australian circus was marked by all manner of international and cross-cultural connections, such as acrobats who served their apprenticeships in Astley's; Japanese acrobatic troupes; American horse trainers; and German bandsmen.

Aboriginal performers were part of circus life. Billy Jones, began his circus career on the goldfields in 1851 as the infant bareback rider 'Little Nugget' and ended up as the ringmaster of the huge FitzGerald Brothers Circus in 1900. Most circuses in the colonial era carried at least one Aboriginal performer – their skill as acrobats and riders being widely praised.

The Colleano's All-Star Circus, starting in Lightening Ridge in 1907, was travelling NSW by 1910 and, after work in other circuses, toured Queensland by special train in 1918, presenting as 'The Royal Hawaiian Troupe'. Of the ten Colleano children, two worked as solo acts (Winnie on the trapeze and Con on the tight wire) while the remaining eight (Bonar, Maurice, Kate, Joyce, Victoria, May, Coral and Lindsay) worked as a combined acrobatic act.

The origins of circus

Ancient Roman circus

Two thousand years ago, the Romans had their version of 'circus' in the form of gladiatorial combats, chariot races, and human and animal sacrifices presented in venues such as the Colosseum and the Circus Maximus. Indeed, the word 'circus' was derived from the Latin word for 'circle', circenses.

After the collapse of Rome, performers, known as histriones, including animal trainers, ropewalkers, jugglers and acrobats, were thrown out of work and forced to wander Europe in search of audiences. They organised into small troupes and learned, through trial and error, that it was easier to change audience than program. To change audience, they had to change location.

By the Middle Ages, a roving community of ropewalkers, acrobats and animal trainers performed at fairs, in markets and on village greens throughout Europe. From their ranks came the minstrels – nimble entertainers who embraced a wide variety of skills such as juggling, acrobatics and music. The minstrels were patronised by the nobility and their skills would eventually find expression in the circus of modern times.

Modern foundations of circus

James Ashton supports his protégé, Master Gaynor, Ashton's Amphitheatre, Sydney 1855. Image from Illustrated Sydney News, 9 June 1855, courtesy of the State Library of NSW

The 'circus' was revived in an updated form in London as a series of performances, mostly by horses and their riders, given within a ring to large audiences. In 1859, the invention of the trapeze gave rise to a new type of performer, the trapeze artist.  By the late 1800s, most large circuses presented wild and exotic animals in accompanying menageries, from which some – especially lions, tigers and elephants – were trained to exhibit and perform within the circus ring.

Radford's Royal Circus, Launceston, 1847 and the first equestrians

Although circus-like exhibitions were given in Sydney in 1833, Launceston in 1842 and in Brisbane in 1847, it was jockey and trainer Robert Avis Radford (1814–65) who organised Australia's first successful circus. A 'limited scale' version of Astley's in London, Radford's Royal Circus opened in Launceston on Boxing Day, 1847.

Three evenings a week, in the yard of Radford's Horse & Jockey Inn, Radford's company presented feats of horsemanship, dancing, vaulting, gymnastics, acrobatics, singing and clowning.

The younger James Ashton (1861-1918), an equestrian and son of the founder of Ashton's Circus, photographed in Melbourne about 1884. Courtesy of the Inverell Historical Society

Radford's Royal Circus launched the careers of Australia's early circus performers: Golding Ashton, later known as 'James Henry' Ashton (1820–89), and John Jones, who later adopted the professional name of 'Matthew St Leon' (c.1824–1903), both founding fathers of major Australian circus families. As a result, nearly every Australian circus established in the following 150 years, including several in existence today, can trace its origins to Radford's circus.

First mainland circuses

Golding Ashton crosses to the mainland, 1849

In 1849, Golding Ashton and his troupe sailed from Launceston for Port Phillip (now Melbourne), to perform in a circus at the rear of a hotel in Lonsdale Street organised by Thomas Henry Hayes. However, the authorities refused Hayes permission to open, fearful of the mischief and vagrancy that might ensue.

Thus, Ashton and his troupe headed northwards, making their way through the bush and the scrub with packhorses and the help of an Aboriginal tracker. Eventually they reached the outskirts of Sydney where they gave equestrian exhibitions in a makeshift ring in a reserve near the present-day Central Station.

John Jones opens first circus in Sydney, 1850

Robert Taylor foot-juggling a large ball in Ashton's Amphitheatre, Sydney 1855. In 1873 he entered into partnership with Henry Burton to tour Burton and Taylor's Grand United Circus. Image from Illustrated Sydney News, 9 June 1855, courtesy State Library of NSW.

Early in 1850, John Jones brought his equestrian troupe from Hobart Town to Sydney. With an Irish ropewalker named Edward Hughes, Jones opened Sydney's first circus that October, the Royal Australian Equestrian Circus, in a building erected at the rear of the John Malcom's Adelphi Hotel in York Street. The circus thrived but, seeing an opportunity to enrich himself, Malcom evicted his tenants, took control of the enterprise and renamed it Malcom's Royal Australian Circus, advertising in 1851. 'Malcom's' – as it became known – remained Sydney's most important venue for circus entertainments until 1856 when it was converted into a theatre.

Jane Kendall, apprenticed as first equestrienne: Madamoiselle La Rosiere, 1850

Jane Kendall's daughter, Vernon Ida St Leon nee Cousins, Circus equestrienne, melbourne, 1882

Upon arriving in Sydney, John Jones and Edward La Rosiere were joined by sisters Ann and Jane Kendall who became apprentice equestriennes. At this time female circus riders were few. Jane later married Reuben Cousins and they established a company that showed in Melbourne and then toured south east Asia. As a widow in 1867, Kendall married Harry Coles, a 'comedian with Burton' and became a star of Burton's circus. Widowed again in 1879, Kendall married William Woodyear and they later took over Burton's Circus, touring the Pacific, the Far East, Southeast Asia and India.

She was one of the few lady riders who could perform the difficult and demanding 'bounding jockey' act, an example of the voltige riding for so long exhibited at Astley's and other equestrian establishments in London.
Madamoiselle La Rosiere, (c.1841-1915) equestrienne and circus proprietress

Kendall's daughter, Vernon Ida Cousins (1863–1935) married the equestrian Alfred St Leon (1859–1909), a son of Mathew.

Melbourne – the 'boss show place', from beginnings in 1852

Rowe's North American Circus in Melbourne, in Arm-Chair, 25 February 1854. Courtesy of Dixson Library

An American circus man, Joseph A. Rowe, who arrived in Port Phillip in 1852, built a pavilion of timber sidewalls and a roof of canvas, in Lonsdale Street, naming it Rowe's North American Circus. The circus created 'no little sensation throughout the city'. Upwards of 1500 people crowded into the 800-seat structure when it opened in June 1852. Rowe returned to San Francisco late in 1854, laden with £40,000 in cash and treasure.

Gold, diggers and travelling entertainment

The first travelling circus and first performance given on an Australian goldfield was in 1851. Henry Burton, an English circus man, organized Australia's first travelling circus and departed Sydney for Parramatta. Several months later, having travelled over the 'corduroy' and 'gluepot' roads, Burton and his troupe reached Maitland. The news of the discovery of gold on the Turon River, near Bathurst, soon deprived him of audiences. Not to be defeated, Burton, his troupe and packhorses followed a difficult track by way of Mudgee to reach the new goldfields.

The gold diggings at Ophir, near Sofala, NSW 1851, lithograph based on sketch on the spot by Thomas Balcombe, courtesy of the National Library of Australia.

At a river bank called Wallaby Rocks, near Sofala, they found a party of diggers, brimming with excitement over newly-found gold but tired and eager for an evening's relaxation and entertainment. A makeshift, open-air circus ring was hastily prepared, a campfire lit, dinner made and then, under a roof of stars, the first circus performance was given on an Australian goldfield.

Burton and his troupe returned to Sydney the following year and joined the traffic heading overland – by horse, cart or foot – for the new Victorian diggings, eventually to reach Bendigo. (Burton's 'National Circus' later had success in Adelaide in 1873.)

Each Saturday night, the central Bendigo 'flat' was transformed into a noisy fairground. Music was simultaneously delivered by fiddlers, 'German' brass bands and 'blackface' minstrels. Rowdy diggers crowded the circus and tent theatres. Gold was so plentiful for a time that the diggers paid for admission with gold dust or nuggets. They tossed coins and nuggets into the ring as accolades for the equestriennes they most admired.

John Jones circus training for Aboriginal boys and at Eureka

While performing on the goldfields around Bathurst early in 1852, the circus proprietor John Jones recruited two local Aboriginal boys for training as bareback riders, presenting them in Sydney. One of the boys, who adopted the name Billy Jones, then went on to Nobles circus in Melbourne in 1853 before joining Henry Burton's circus performing as an acrobat, tightrope walker, horse trainer, and equestrian. Jones became the ringmaster of St Leon's Circus in 1884 and came out of retirement to appear again with the great FitzGerald Circus at Sydney in 1905.

A scene of the Ballarat diggings with the large, circular tent of Jones & Noble's Circus by Eugene von Guerard in the painting 'Old Ballarat as It Was in the Summer of 1853 to 1854 (cropped) - sketched in February 1853. Courtesy of Art Gallery of Ballarat.

At Ballarat towards the end of 1854, rebellious diggers called upon the circus of John Jones. With guns and pistols levelled, the diggers ordered the German bandsmen of the circus to march to a site where a makeshift stockade was under construction.

At gunpoint, the musicians serenaded the diggers all day until, at last, the crude fortress was completed and they were permitted to return to the circus. That evening, the fortress was overrun by several hundred soldiers and police sent from Melbourne – an incident that has gone down in Australia's history as the 'Eureka Stockade'.

An itinerant life – tents and new routes

Circus routes

After the gold rush, a greater diversity of entertainment, such as theatre, music and variety, was available to entertain Sydney and Melbourne. As a result, the circus routes began to extend beyond these cities and the interior goldfields, to find new audiences in the newly-emerging towns of the interior, as well as Tasmania, South Australia and New Zealand.

Philip Wirth and his educated horses in Brisbane,1903. Courtesy of the State Library of Queensland

Tented colonial circuses reached Moreton Bay (now Brisbane) in 1855 and Adelaide in 1856. It took longer for the circus to reach Fremantle (1869), Cooktown (1876) and Darwin (1886). It was not until the 1890s, in the wake of its fabulous gold rushes, that the larger circus companies of Australia's eastern seaboard regularly visited Western Australia.

The circus reached not only distant towns but remote shearing sheds, mining camps and railway construction gangs. The early circus proprietors identified with the people of the bush, generously supporting the construction of schools, hospitals, churches, orphanages and other buildings of civic importance.

Even the outlawed bushrangers tended to take a kinder view of a circus on the road, preferring to wave it through rather than bail it up, as was the case with Thunderbolt and the Wirth Brothers. However, like other people in outback Australia, the circus people faced the dangers of drought, fire and flood and the challenges of crude roads, rivers without bridges and limited communications.

Performing on ponies, Hyland's Circus at Katanning, WA, 1907.  Image Western Mail 16 March 1907, courtesy of the State Library of Western Australia

By the early 1900s, one of the most financially rewarding show routes ran almost the entire length of Australia's eastern seaboard, from Bega on the south coast of New South Wales as far as Cairns, on the coast of far north Queensland. Shows of all descriptions – circus, variety, buck-jumping and so on – gathered in Bega during the summer and then rolled together northwards up the coast of New South Wales and into Queensland, before turning southwards to return to Melbourne.

The warmer climates of Queensland and, in later years, Western Australia were preferred for touring during the winter months. Otherwise, the circus hibernated into winter camp in any convenient location. But it was not a holiday. The circus people became a hive of industry. New costumes were made, others repaired; new acts were broken in and young performers trained; music was rehearsed, wagons and other equipment repaired for another year of travelling and the coming year's route was planned.

Circus life on the road

An American wild west troupe travelling in Maryborough, 1913. Courtesy of the State Library of Queensland.

Variations in climate, population and accessibility across Australia influenced circus routes and travelling directions. Yet, circus life on the road developed a certain rhythmical quality. The roads were dusty and poorly made – sometimes little more than bullock and horse tracks. A distance of 20 to 30 kilometres was therefore a good day's travelling in the horse and wagon era.

The day's work in a horse-drawn circus began before dawn, when the circus men rose to feed the horses and other animals. A circus hand unable to rise for the day was liable to be roused with a bucket of cold water. The circus women prepared breakfast over a campfire.

Bert Houten painting Gus St Leon’s circus wagon 1914, image Philip St Leon

After breakfast, with everyone fed and everything packed, as many as 20 circus wagons pulled out at intervals of 200 metres so as to avoid the dust churned up by the wagons ahead. Circus horses and dogs ran freely behind or alongside the wagons. The more valuable ring horses were rugged and tethered to the wagons for the journey. As the circus travelled along, even kangaroos emerged from the bush to join the procession.

About midday, a break was made for 'dinner', the circus term for lunch. In the 1890s, the well-organised FitzGerald Bros Circus sent a wagon ahead to choose a camp near running water, pitch a dining tent, build a campfire and ready a meal for the company people following. Billy boiled, cooking accomplished, men, women and horses fed, an hour's chat and once again, the circus moved onwards.

Town parades

Bandwagon of Sole Bros Circus, c. 1918, courtesy Performing Arts Centre, Circus Collection, Melbourne.

If the outskirt of a major town was reached early enough in the afternoon, the circus might pull up to prepare for a town parade.

The wagons were washed of dust and mud, the reins, collars and leathers oiled. The horses were brushed down and cleaned and the best looking horses matched and harnessed to their wagons.
'Dust and Spangles' in Circus: the Australian Story

Then, dressed in sparkling uniforms and seated in a stylish bandwagon, the band led the parade down the main street. The circus band gave an open-air concert in the hour before the performance commenced at eight o'clock.

In the 1870s, the performances of Ashton's Circus were known to last over four hours until after midnight. Usually, though, circus proprietors trimmed their programs to finish about 10.30 pm knowing that they were catering mostly for rural people who needed to rise early for work.

Children and a circus education

Young Mary Sole, a member of the Perry family, Courtesy of Performing Arts Centre, Circus Collection, Melbourne.

Marriage between circus people gave some assurance that any resulting children were 'circus types', suitably proportioned for a future career as a performer. Under-privileged children, like Mervyn King, were also apprenticed or simply given away to circus families and thereby inducted into circus life. King later started Silver's Circus in 1946.

The larger circuses employed school teachers to educate the children of the circus on the road. In the smaller circuses, a circus musician might teach the circus children to read and write. Although some of the circus people could point to a fair standard of education for their day, many were deprived of a complete education.

Everyone worked hard in circus and had to be a jack-of-all-trades. Some earned a little extra income working as boxers or jockeys. Others were cooks, signwriters, blacksmiths or mechanics. Some were 'good rough engineers' who could improvise makeshift but effective solutions to difficult problems such as moving a circus across an unbridged river, erecting a tent in windy conditions, or setting up tiered seating on sloping ground.

Within their transitory world, Australia's circus people inevitably developed their own vernacular. From recorded interviews and contemporary accounts, we know it was peppered with locally-generated circus words as well as words already in currency throughout the international circus community: a somersault was called a 'flip-flap' in Australia just as it was in England and a horse was called a 'resinback' just as it was in the United States.

Horses and horsemanship

Phyllis Perry riding Dolly in Perry Bros Circus, Sydney, 1937. Courtesy of Performing Arts Centre, Circus Collection.

Young circus riders learned to vault and tumble, like acrobats, on horseback. By 1875, Ashton's Circus featured 'Signor Wilson' who could turn a somersault on the back of his horse as it cantered around the circus ring.

By 1883, the 24-year-old Alfred St Leon, the youngest son of the circus proprietor, Matthew St Leon, could execute six back somersaults in quick succession on his horse as it moved swiftly around the family circus ring.

By 1900 the Eroni Brothers circus, run by Bill Perry had over 150 horses – more horses than any other circus. This was part of a growing business after he engaged the Sole family who provided 'a good brass band' in 1891. Later James Perry, a son of Bill, established the Perry Brothers Circus which, by the late 1920s, was the largest in Australia after Wirth's Circus. The Perry and Sole Brother circuses were still active in the 1980s. Phyllis Perry was trained as young girl and became a star performer, leading the principal ride in the 1930s and was regarded as a brilliant raconteur and wit.

Clowns and clowning – from Shakespeare to the banal

The Jandaschewskys, musical clowns, c1903, image by Talma Studio, courtesy of the Powerhouse Museum, Sydney.

Among the earliest clowns to tour the colonies were Englishmen, not only skilled in purveying 'jests, wits and bon mots' but adept at mimicking Shakespeare as well as members of Parliament.

The very best circus clowns could act, sing, tumble and even play musical instruments. To find all of these attainments in one person in London was difficult, in colonial Australia almost impossible. As a result, colonial circus proprietors were inclined to dress up anyone available and let them loose as a clown on an audience. Circus clowning soon descended towards the repetitive, the banal and the vulgar.

In the remote town of Gundagai in 1879, a newspaper editor found it necessary to admonish a visiting circus with the remark that 'the public do not care to listen to the one thing over and over again'. Again in 1926, a reviewer in Gundagai was not impressed by the clown jokes. However there had been favourable reviews of the Danish clowns in Bostock and Wombwell's Novelty Circus in 1906 and Lloyd's Circus clowns in 1922.

The Jandaschewsky family were a remarkable troupe of clowns who first arrived in Australia in the 1890s. They drew on a rich European tradition that reflected their Russian, Greek, French and Spanish origins.

Their original and eccentric acts entertained Australian audiences on the vaudeville stage and in the circus ring, including Wirth's and Fitzgerald's, well into the 1950s.
Kimberley Webber (editor), Circus: The Jandaschewsky Story, Museum of Applied Arts & Sciences, 1996.

Circus animals and trainers – Matthew St Leon

The circus proprietor Matthew St Leon in Brisbane in 1882, courtesy of Mark St Leon and the State Library of New South Wales.

Matthew St Leon (John Jones) was described as one of the finest horse trainers in the world. His obituary in 1903 described him as a 'man whom animals instinctively respected and in whom they found a particular empathy'. St Leon once turned up with his circus in a northern Victorian town at a time that allowed him to put this talent to special effect.

A pair of big bears, owned by a couple of Russian showmen, were left in a hotel stable after their owners had committed some crime and fled the township to avoid the law. The bears had been kept in the stable so long that they became famished and quite unmanageable, and made furious dashes at anyone approaching the stable door.
A great terror prevailed in the neighbourhood and it was feared the bears would break out. The police were sent for and preparations were made to destroy the animals. St Leon arriving was timely.
He offered to quieten the brutes and feed them. He opened the door and went in and presently came out with a big brown bear on each arm and conducted the animals into the circus cage that had been brought for their reception exactly as if they had been ladies. Then he rode in the cage with the bears through the street to his circus where the bears were fed.
Melbourne, Punch, 23 April 1903

Wirth's Circus

The proprietors, performers and staff of Wirth Bros Circus, Adelaide,1900, courtesy National Archives of Australia, D4477, 443.

The original Wirth family, four musical brothers from Bavaria, landed in Australia during the gold rush era. A popular 'German Band', they serenaded the diggers on the goldfields and played at balls and concerts and outdoor events such as picnics and race meetings. Two of the brothers, Peter and Johannes, settled for a time on the Darling Downs in the mid 1860s. They built a dance hall, made almost entirely from bark and advertised as Wirth's Music Hall, at Dalby.

They also found work with the early travelling circuses since, in these days before recorded electronic music, each circus carried its own band to accompany the performance. As they travelled along, the Wirth family taught the circus people how to play brass and woodwind instruments. In return, the Wirths learned the secrets of bareback riding and acrobatics. In 1882, they formed their own circus.

Wirth Brothers elephants carting circus gear from Roma Street railway station, Brisbane, 1905. Courtesy of State Library of Queensland.

In 1888, the Wirth brothers permanently adopted rail as their preferred mode of transport, Australia's incomplete rail networks and inconsistent rail gauges notwithstanding. Rail was the prerogative of only the largest circuses, Wirth's and, from time to time, one or two others.

The Wirth brothers were superb athletes and talented and versatile circus performers.

The sensational period of American circuses 1872-92

The American circus of Cooper, Bailey & Co, 1877 set up on the corner of College and William Streets Sydney, courtesy Fred D. Pfening, Columbus, Ohio.

From 1870, Australia became a destination for American circus, despite a transit time of some 30 days. This followed the end of the American Civil War in 1865, the completion of the transcontinental railway linking the eastern and western seaboards of the United States in 1869 and the regularisation of trans-Pacific shipping services. Between 1873 and 1892, a steady stream of large American circuses visited Australia and New Zealand.

However, by the early 1890s, two large Australian circuses, Wirth Brothers and FitzGerald Brothers, had emerged to serve local audiences with locally-attuned programs of international quality. At this time, the large American circuses were consumed by their own 'territory wars' at home. Consequently, they no longer visited Australia.

the FitzGeralds' Circus came to broad colonial attention as a result of its huge first season in Melbourne in 1892 when it played for fourteen consecutive weeks at a city site, then performed through the suburbs for ten more weeks. Other circuses visiting Melbourne in the period 1890–92 – even large international companies such as Harmston's American and Continental Circus or the Sells Brothers' Circus from America – could sustain runs of no more than four consecutive weeks in the Victorian capital.
Gillian Arrighi, Negotiating national identity at the circus: the FitzGerald Brothers' Circus in Melbourne, 1892 in Australasian Drama Studies Vol. 54, 2009, p. 68-86

In 1906, the co-incidental deaths of the two highly-esteemed FitzGerald brothers, Dan and Tom, left the once mighty FitzGerald Brothers Circus bereft of leadership. The Australian circus scene was thereafter dominated for over half a century by the Wirth family.

International and cultural influences

Lukashima Troupe, a troupe of Japanese performing artists, toured Australia in 1906 with the English circus of Bostock & Wombell. courtesy Mark St Leon and State Library of NSW.

In Australia, the inherited English character of circus and subsequent American influences were augmented by many other national and cultural influences. There were German musicians, Mauritian gymnasts and Indian jugglers. Perhaps the most important, after the English and American circus performers, however, were the Japanese.

After the Japanese Government revoked an edict that had prohibited its subjects from leaving the country, Japanese jugglers and acrobats were the first to travel abroad. Late in 1867, the first troupes of Japanese acrobats landed in Melbourne and thus began several decades of Japanese involvement in Australian circus. The Japanese attracted attention as much for their appearance as for their graceful and exquisite feats, all of which were a novelty to Western eyes.

Blondin – the French ropewalker, 1874 and Henri L'Estrange, 1877

Henri (usually Harry) L'Estrange crossing Middle Harbour on a tightrope, April 1877, from Illustrated Sydney News, 28 April 1877, courtesy State Library of NSW.

A single visiting French circus artist proved to have as much drawing power as a major American circus. This was the ropewalker, Jean Francois Gravelet, better known as Blondin, who had secured international fame after walking a tightrope over Niagara Falls in 1859.

In 1874, Blondin was brought to Australia for the first of two highly successful tours. In Sydney, special excursion trains delivered people from country towns to see his performances on Sydney's Domain. It was said that Blondin cleared £18,000 pounds from his two Australian tours. (History of Australian Theatre, Blondin)

In April 1877, Henri L'Estrange, a Victorian, crossed Willoughby Bay, a section of Middle Harbour, part of Sydney Harbour, on a tightrope. He chartered nineteen steamers and invited the public to pay two shillings (return) to witness the feat. According to The Sydney Illustrated New:

He performed his truly wonderful feat with the greatest coolness and consummate ability, and went through a number of daring evolutions on the rope similar to some of those he affects when going through his daily entertainments.
Leann Richards, Henri L'Estrange

End of the wagon era

Goldwyn Bros Circus advance car, about 1938, courtesy Mark St Leon Collection, State Library of NSW.

In the early decades of the 1900s, Australian circus started to change in the way it travelled and performed.  Larger circus companies adopted new transportation methods of trucks, cars and trains and many attached a ‘travelling zoo’ of wild and exotic animals.

The wagon circus reached its peak in 1912 when the Eroni and Sole circus families combined to form a single company. The combined circus visited the large mining town of Broken Hill that year. With 180 people, 135 head of horses and an extensive menagerie, it was by far the largest ‘wagon’ circus seen in Australia.

Transformation of a way of life and permanent venues

By the closing decades of the 1800s, Melbourne was recognised as Australia's theatrical capital, the 'boss show place' of the colonies. Amongst its numerous entertainment venues was the Olympia, a circus and general entertainment complex occupied by the major circuses of the FitzGerald Bros from 1902 to 1905.

Their successors, the Wirth Bros (1906–53) re-named the Olympia complex as Wirth's Park. The complex was destroyed by fire in 1953 but its link with Australia's cultural history has been preserved as the Arts Centre now stands on the site.

In 1914, the world was plunged into war and inevitably this affected the operations of circus. Audiences thinned, circus men were lost to military service and the army even confiscated circus horses. Country towns insisted that a visiting circus give fundraising performances to support the war effort. Acts could not so easily be imported from overseas and certainly not from Germany, the world's major source of acrobatic troupes before 1914.

Agnes Hyland, giving an equestrian exhibition in London 1911 to mark the coronation of King George V, part of Hyland’s Circus, a major provincial circus based in WA from 1906 to the 1920s, touring as far as Broome, courtesy of the Battye Library.

But even during wartime, there were major 'circus' achievements, most importantly the construction of a permanent circus venue by the Sydney City Council, the Hippodrome, which was leased to Wirth's Circus from 1916. This edifice remains in use today as Sydney's only lyric theatre and is known as the Capitol Theatre.

Australian circus, as a way of life, helped shape Australia's cultural life across generations, from 1847 to 1918. For over half a century, tens of thousands of people had flocked to the circus each year.

This reflected the Australian character of appreciating feats of horsemanship, daring, derring-do, physical, artistic skills and adept building skills, the outdoors, being generous, accepting cultural influences, appreciation of the absurd, zero tolerance for bad jokes and seeking engaging entertainment. In addition, Australian circus performers stood their ground internationally.

From their inception to the First World War, circuses were much loved and admired as a defining part of the Australian way of life.

Useful links

Look listen and play

  • Play ABC TV, The story of the circus, book review, 19/05/2011, video
  • Play Caicedo, Columbian tightrope walker, 1894. Celebrated gymnast, Caicedo made his first appearance in Adelaide on 14 March 1894 fresh from his triumphs in Melbourne and Sydney, film clip, YouTube
  • Play Con Colleano, Australia's tight wire wizard. c.1929, United States, YouTube
  • Play Con Colleano, mini-documentary of tightwire artist, Australia, 1994, YouTube
  • Play The Colleano family, Australian acrobats and dancers, c.1939, UK, YouTube
  • Play Con Colleano on tightwire, silent film footage c1939
  • Play Winnie Colleano on trapeze, silent film footage c1939, wife of Con Colleano who taught her husband dance routines and was a celebrated performer in her own right, especially trapeze
  • Play Japanese Acrobats, Risley & foot juggling, Japan, 1904, YouTube
  • Play Leitzel, Lillian, extraordinary aerial gymnast, c.1929, USA, YouTube – The world's major source of acrobatic troupes before 1914 were from Germany. Leitzel was one of the stars performing in Ringling's Circus in 1914 and the Barnum and Bailey Circus from 1916.
  • Play Wirths Circus 1925, film, captures ringmaster and circus proprietor Philip Wirth rehearsing with his pony, Earl Dudley in a series of spectacular tricks
  • Play Wirths Circus, 1953, silent film footage inside and outside the tent.

Circus history and collections

Circus Life

Circus performers

Select Print references

  • John Ramsland with Mark St Leon, Children of the Circus: The Australian Experience, Butterfly Books, 1993
  • Mark St Leon, The Wizard of the Wire: the story of Con Colleano, Aboriginal Studies Press, 1993
  • Judy Cannon and Mark St Leon, Take a Drum and Beat it: The Story of the Astonishing Ashtons, 1848-1990s, Tytherleigh Press, 1997 based on the Records of Ashton's Circus
  • Gayle Maree Speight, Margaret Wright and Stephanie Wirth, The Travelling Wirth Family : a history of our ancestors as musicians, miners and Wirths' Circus including descendants, Bundaberg, Queensland, 2008
  • Kimberley Webber (editor), Circus: The Jandaschewsky Story, Museum of Applied Arts & Sciences, 1996
  • Philip West, The Last Horse and Wagon Circus Family: a Pictorial and Written History of the Last Horse and Wagon Circus Family in Australia, 2009


The publisher Melbourne Books is acknowledged in providing access to Circus: the Australian Story by Mark St Leon and relevant images.

Creators: Mark St Leon, Kathryn Wells
Last updated: 30 November 2013

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