The History of the Circus
Circus can be dated to very early history, In fact to ancient Egypt. It started with the exhibiting of exotic animals. As armies conquered distant lands they would bring the animals back to entertain the masses. So the start of Circus went hand in glove with empire building.
The exhibiting of the animals degenerated to slaughter as the masses demanded more exciting events as displayed at the Circus Maximus and the Coliseum in Rome. The very early days of human Circus also came at this time with the bareback Riders and chariot races.
The origin of the name Circus derives from a “Ring” or “Circle” In there also performed rope-dancers-jugglers-acrobats and “Pliny” describes a strong man. These were particularly involved during the many festivals that were held. The displays were supplemented by fireworks, flaming torches and coloured ribbons.
With the fall of the Roman empire in 400AD Circus type entertainment did not disappear completely. Nothing that could be compared to the Roman Circus appeared until the end of the 18th Century, However jugglers, Horse trainers, Clowns and acrobats continued to entertain at fairs and castles, in fact anywhere that they could generate some extra cash. Many famous Circus families can trace their origins back to 1600. Such names as Blondin, Ravel and Knie, all fairground performers.
The first recognised Circus was established by Philip Astley at Ha’Penny Hatch, Lambeth in 1768. It started with exhibitions of riding. Astley soon recognised that his performance lacked variety so he introduced tumbling, slack wire and a clown named Burt.
A contemporary of Astley, Charles Hughes was responsible for the start of Circus in Russia. He took an equestrian display to the court of Catherine the great in 1790. It proved very popular but it was not until 1873 that the fist Russian Circus company was formed in St. Petersburg.
During the rule of communism, Circus in Russia was elevated to the highest of art forms along side Ballet and Opera on an equal footing. Due to extensive state funding, Circus schools arose throughout the Soviet Union with the result that Russian Circus artistes were the best in the World.
Around the time that Hughes took Circus to Russia, a pupil of his, John bill Rickets went to America and built a Circus building in Philadelphia. The performance in 1793 was attended by George Washington and a plaque now stands on the spot.
American Circus developed in a different way from English and Russian possibly due to the influence of P.T.Barnham the great showman. It was and still is Razzmatazz!
Unusual items like Jumbo the largest Elephant on earth, Tom Thumb the smallest man and many such things. American Circus overpowers the audience with spectacle, 3 Rings and 2 stages all featuring acts at the same time so the audience never has time to get bored, many of the skills can be missed by the audience at this time, This is not to say that American Circus skills are poor, they now have some of the best artistes in the world, but they tend to throw them all together for the sake of spectacle!
Circus in the Fylde did not start with The Tower Circus. The Tower featured a Circus when it was built due to the success of previous Circuses. The first Circus mentioned in connection with Blackpool was Pinders touring show in 1868. Raikes Hall gardens opened in 1871 with tented Circuses. Raikes Hall covered 40 acres and was bordered by Hornby Road and Whitegate drive and the only evidence of its past glory is the Raikes Hall public house.
Circuses at Raikes were huge affairs holding 5000 people at a time, Byers Hippodrome in 1880 boasted 90 horses, 40 ponies and chariot races. At one time 60 horses were driven by one man and the show had 100 performers. A cast today would be around 30. In 1881 Henglers Circus was the main attraction featured in the “Monstre! Hippodrome” at Raikes. They advertised the best troupe of artistes in the world, Riders Gymnasts. Leapers and Clowns, Horses Ponies and Grand cavalcades and spectacles.
Hengler had circus buildings in Liverpool, Glasgow, Dublin and Hull. The most notable was in London and is now the famous London Palladium. It started life as the Corinthian bazaar and was rebuilt as a Circus that featured an aquatic display in a flooded ring. One of these can still be seen at the Tower Circus. It is one of only 4 aquatic rings in the world, the others are in The Great Yarmouth Hippodrome Circus, The Cirque D,Hiver in Paris and The Bolshoi Moscow Circus in Russia.
Circus artistes did not only perform in Circuses. To this day they can be seen at almost every form of entertainment. At the time of Henglers at Raikes there was the Criterion Theatre of Varieties opposite Central station, featuring “STAR COMPANY of celebrated artistes” The Corporation Music hall on Bank Hey street had Variety entertainment. Street entertainers were also to be found on the beach alongside Donkeys and Punch and Judy.
The first known Circus building was at Hounds Hill in 1882. It was run by Mr Weldon who proclaimed that he would “Introduce other entertainments into the arena” This was because most shows at this time featured equestrian displays and had not moved on from the early days of Circus.
The Circus featured was “ Ohmys” He got his name from his outdoor display at Raikes when he used to perform daring stunts on the high wire. The audience used to exclaim Oh My! Out door displays were common at Raikes, the most famous of all was Blondin the Tightrope walker, he was a great attraction and featured there for a number of years, eventually he fell and was nursed by the landlady of the Station hotel. He did not perform very much after this and soon died.
Ohmys Circus was also the show featured on the site of the future and present Grand Theatre. A Mr Serguson an entrepreneur of that time bought the site on the corner of Church street and corporation street. His intention was to build the cosiest and prettiest theatre possible. He commissioned the famous theatre architect Frank Matcham to do the design. Before this could take place however Matcham took on the commission to design the New Opera house in the Winter Gardens.
Left with a building plot he could not use, Serguson put up a wood and tin building on the site. As he did this without the permission of the council he was very nearly ordered to pull it down. A strong debate took place with the Mayor supporting Serguson. It was claimed that if he had to pull it down there would be a great loss of earnings, not only to himself but to Ohmy and his troupe who he had engaged for the 1889 summer season. On the last day of the season Ohmy did his famous leap from the top of the building being pulled up at only 3 feet from the ground by two ropes attached to his ankles. (The forerunner of bungee jumping maybe?) The Circus ran until the Grand Theatre was finally built in 1894 at the same time as the Tower Circus Opened its doors to the public.
We mentioned the Winter Gardens and this also featured a Circus for a number of years. It was Newsome’s Hippodrome and was situated on the corner of Leopold Grove and Adelaide street. Newsome also had Circuses in Glasgow, Edinburgh and Dundee. This building opened in 1884 and was mostly equestrian but had acrobats and clowns. You could go from the Circus to the Winter Gardens for no additional cost.
1894 Arguably the greatest Circus building in the world opens on the site of the Aquarium and menagerie on Blackpool’s sea front. The auditorium was a sparse affair with the legs of the Tower appearing like railway arches. Something had to be done and it was, Frank Matcham was hired to transform the appearance and he made it what it is today with its beautiful Moorish effect.
Due to the success of the Circus, In 1889 a company bought the Prince of Wales baths next door to the tower and built the Alhambra, it featured a Circus, Ballroom and theatre. It did not have a water feature in the ring so was unable to compete with the Tower. It was bought by the Tower company in 1903 and changed to the Palace and this was also redesigned by Frank Matcham.
As mentioned before, Circus buildings were not the only place for Circus acts to perform.
I remember my parents telling me that while at the Tower they went by tunnel to the Palace Theatre to perform there on the same night!
The Palace complex, one of the most wonderful entertainment centres in the world was pulled down to make way for Lewis’s department store which in turn made way for Woolworth’s. The original Woolworth building is now Price busters!
The Empire theatre on Church street was built in 1895 and was bought by the Alhambra company in 1900, it changed its name to the Hippodrome and featured a Circus. It was demolished in 1962 and opened as the ABC in 1963 with the Cliff Richard show. It is still there as a night club.
Before the Queens theatre was demolished in 1974 to make way for the C&A store it always had a top Circus act in its summer show such as Rudy Horn, Francis Brun and Rudy Cardenas, who were three of the very best Jugglers at that time. Before it became the Queens it had been Feldman’s music hall, before that the Borough Theatre and even earlier Banisters bazaar. You can see the site now, it is TK Max.
Amongst the many other changes that have taken place in Blackpool, the Central station is now the Coral Island complex and the old Palatine hotel is now the Palace discothèque.
We must be thankful that buildings like the Tower, the Winter Gardens and the Grand theatre have survived the constant rebuilding and regenration that Blackpool has seen over the last 120 years
Members of our own company have links with the entertainment industry in Blackpool.
Allen McPherson once managed the Tower Circus, Roger Mirales was in one of the best Flying acts ever, The Alizes. My parents were at the Tower for 3 years during world war 2. I worked in my parents act at the Palace, and with my wife Tonya at the Queens Theatre in 1964. We have also worked at the Opera house with the Magic convention.
Blackpool Circus school taught at the M.A.Y.C conference at the Winter Gardens in July this year. We also conducted a workshop in the Tower ring for our Summer Foster children. We are confident that some of our present students will feature in Blackpool in the not too distant future.
Helped by the Lottery Heritage our company can make possible the impossible for our own youngsters in Blackpool and the Fylde.
Circus has always been strong here and with help it will continue to be so.
To bring things up to date, Blackpool Circus school has taught at the Winter Gardens and the Tower Circus. Students have performed at the Grand Theatre and the Tower Circus.