heritage of the Australian Circus

In colonial and early 20th century Australia, the show that travelled was the practical solution to the economic problem of providing a widely distributed population with access to popular entertainment.

For more than a century and in increasing numbers, from the 1850s until the introduction of television in the 1950s, travelling shows brought to Australian people an extraordinary diversity of popular culture. Among the gÈnrÈs of entertainment purveyed at various times were opera, variety acts, minstrels, moving pictures, magicians, magic lanterns, waxworks, bellringers, negro gospel singers, bands of musicians, marionettes, boxing, merry-go-rounds, menageries and carnivals.

However, the earliest example of an Australian travelling show was the circus. Universal in its appeal, it combined many of the elements that other travelling entertainments had to offer, together with the additional attraction of displays of fine horses and horsemanship. The colonial popularity of horses and horsemanship produced 'perhaps the most critical and appreciative circus audiences in the world'.

Astley's Riding School The modern circus crystallised in London during the years 1768 - 1773. Open-air displays of horsemanship given in the fields on London's southern outskirts began to assume the form that we today associate with the circus. Crucial to the these developments was a former cavalryman, Sergeant-Major Philip Astley, whose natural instincts for showmanship lead him to combine displays of horsemanship with those of clowns, ropewalkers and gymnasts. Astley's famous circus in London began a long and eventful history as an open air riding school in the 1770s and soon developed into and a permanent venue, which he named Astley's Amphitheatre.

the modern form of circus

The genesis of the circus in its modern form occurred in London toward the end of the eighteenth century, as the Industrial Revolution began to gather momentum and as the foundations of modern Australian civilisation were about to be laid. The concept of the modern circus - the presentation of a variety of equestrian, comic and other entertainments within a ring, enclosed and roofed over - was still a new gÈnrÈ of entertainment when Australia was first settled by the British in 1788.

Mr Ducrow as The Roman Gladiator, c1840

Some 60 years after the first British settlement would pass before the elements necessary to launch a colonial circus industry - performers, entrepreneurs, audiences and prosperity - fell into place. Initially, colonial circus troupes were presented in immovable "amphitheatres". An English-born publican, raconteur and expert horseman, Robert Avis Radford (born Broad Clyst, Exeter, Devon c1814) built and pioneered the first successful circus in Australia.

Radford's was a timber building adjoining his drinking house, the Horse & Jockey Inn, Launceston, and opened on the evening of Monday, 27 December 1847. With a fine little company of performers, Radford presented feats of horsemanship, dancing, vaulting, gymnastics, acrobatics, clowning, and pieces of equestrian burlesque. James Henry Ashton, in equestrian attire, c1875

Here were the essential points of the English circus and the equestrian art of Andrew Ducrow transposed, albeit on a miniature and probably rougher scale, to one of the most distant parts of the globe. From this point, it is contended, arose a continuous Australian circus tradition. The content of Radford's bills confirms his - and Australias' - debt to Astley's Amphitheatre of London.

Almost every Australian circus may trace its origins directly or indirectly to Radford's pioneering enterprise. James Henry Ashton, who gave his first Australian appearances as 'the renowned British horseman' in Radford's in 1848, founded his own touring circus a few years later.

His circus is still going strong today, seven generations later, arguably making it the oldest circus company in the English speaking-world.

Matthew St Leon, Brisbane, 1882

A contemporary of Ashton, and a former employee of Radford, was the London-born acrobat and equestrian Matthew St Leon (c1826-1903), who established one of Australias' famous circus companies in the 1850s.

Very soon, however, the Australian circus acquired the characteristics of mobility with which they are today identified - tents, touring circuits and transportability. The first great Australian gold rushes, beginning in 1851, provided an impetus for the spread and growing popularity of circus entertainments throughout the Australian colonies.

In search of both an audience and a share of the new found wealth, early circus people followed the miners onto the goldfields. Performers won fortunes and lost them too. When gold fever was at its height, gold dust or a nugget was sufficient to admit the 'diggers' to a circus tent. As tributes to their charms and talents, female riders received showers of nuggets tossed in their direction by enraptured diggers.

Eventually, the travelling circus played an important role in the entertainment of Australia in the latter part of the nineteenth century and the earlier part of the twentieth. From the middle of the 19th century until well into the present century, the circus was one of Australia's most popular forms of entertainment. From the first circus exhibitions of the 1840s and 1850s, flowered the travelling circus troupes that traversed the length and breadth of the settled areas of the eastern colonies. These companies proudly presented their equestrian, acrobatic, tumbling, clowning and tightwire performances, to appreciative audiences in city, town and bush as the interior was opened up for settlement. The circuses of Australia became itinerant affairs that rolled from town to town in covered wagons and showed in large tents. Lengthening circus routes linked settlements and, as on the American frontier, mirrored their commercial expansion and emerging values. Each circus carried its own brass band, comprised whenever possible of authentic German musicians. In the bush, the great Australian family circuses - Ashton's, St Leon's, Sole Bros, Perry Bros and others - plied their trade well into the present century.

In horse-oriented nineteenth century colonial Australia, circus troupes rose, travelled and fell with the social and economic tides. Companies waxed and waned. Continually on the move, the circus people formed only peripheral ties with the settled population. The Australian circus reached its zenith of popularity, scale and complexity during the first half of the twentieth century. The circus reflected some of the most pervasive features of Australian life: it eschewed matters of intellect on the one hand, yet packaged and presented athletic and equine skills as artistry on the other. Despite the ascendancy of the electronic entertainment media, the ethos of our native bush circus tradition survives in a leaner form and in various guises to the present day.

Overland trips could be both tedious and difficult, although perhaps no traveller along the road met with as much kindness and hospitality as the circus. Every station owner made the circus people his guests and 'it was a point of honour not even to ask for a song in return'. When the size of the population warranted a stay, everyone in the district would turn out to see the circus, some having a three-day journey in bullock teams and making a week's picnic excursion for the show. Sometimes as well as the circus, there would be the extra excitement of bushrangers in town. Once, outside Queanbeyan (NSW), bushrangers stopped Burton's Circus and asked for a special performance. They expressed pleasure at the feats of the equestrians and equestriennes and complimented the ladies of the company upon their beautiful spangled skirts. After the show a collection was taken up by the gang and handed to 'the king of the ring', Burton, with many thanks and much praise. On another occasion, as Burton and his troupe travelled along the Lachlan River, the takings from the previous night's performances were carried in the front buggy. They were bailed up by two bushrangers lying in wait for a gold escort. With a laugh, one called to his mate, 'It's only the circus' and ordered it to proceed.

It was customary, particularly if a travelling circus had been well attended in a country town, to give the last night's stay for a 'benefit' performance to assist in the building of a school, masonic hall, school of arts, hospital, town hall or church. In view of the healthy revenues generated by the old time circus men on their visits to the isolated bush townships, it was probably the least they could do. What better way for a circus to protect its reputation than by being identified in name as a patron of a country town's emergence into respectability? The generosity of the early circus proprietors, however, was usually of the unsolicited kind. 'Free and open handed with his money' was the old man St Leon, while Ashton rarely missed a chance to play a benefit in aid of a local charity, flood relief or building fund.

It might be fanciful to expect to find a genuine, detailed first-hand eyewitness account of some aspect or other of Australian circus. Yet, we do know from contemporary reports that several such accounts were compiled, only to disappear with the passage of time. Not all circus people were encumbered by a lack of education or literacy. In many respects, the itinerant circus people of the late 19th and early 20th century were explorers who constantly pushed at the frontiers of human settlement. In the process, they gathered an unequalled breadth of knowledge of the way life and social conditions developed and prevailed throughout the settled parts of Australia in their travels. As one contemporary account put it:

We have talked with employees of these nomad[ic] troupes and their experiences form quite a romance of the gold diggings, bush townships, inns, roads and no roads, forests, streams, and mountains. Imperial Review, July 1884

May Wirth & Troupe

Given Australia's agreeable climate, the people's proclivity for anything athletic and the country's breakneck economic development, a vigorous travelling circus industry had produced performers of world class by the early 1900s, when FitzGerald Bros Circus and Wirth Bros Circus were the largest circus companies in Australia.

Their use of standardised routes, imported companies of artistes, lavish promotion and programming, large circus bands of professional musicians and electric lighting distinguished this great era of Australian circus. Touring by rail and steamship, the FitzGeralds and Wirths vied for the circus premiership of Australasia, a contest eventually won by the Wirths when brothers Dan and Tom FitzGerald died in 1906, months and continents apart from each other.Four Australians who gave American circus audiences plenty to cheer in the 1910s and 1920s. From left to right: Mrs Marizles Martin (nee Wirth), May Wirth [Zinga], Phillip St Leon, Stella Martin. These four, with a few others, comprised the Wirth Troupe of Riders with May, an acroabtic bareback rider, as its maiin attraction. Photographed somewhere in Australia near the Wirth circus train about 1908 As a result, Wirth Bros was firmly established as Australia's largest and most prestigious circus company until challenged by Bullen Bros Circus in the 1950s.

Australia nurtured some of the great stars of the international circus in this era. Two artists in particular deserve mention. These were the superlative equestrienne, May Wirth (1894-1978), an adopted daughter of the Wirth circus family, and the Aboriginal tightwire dancer and acrobat, Con Colleano (1899-1973), whose family started out with its own circus in 1910.

Con Colleano, tightwire, c1924

Both performers are honoured in the annals of the European and American circus. Other Australian circus artists "made good" in the international arena in this era. The acrobatic troupe, The Five St Leons, toured the United States in circus and vaudeville during the early 1900s. Formed in 1917, Sole Bros Circus successfully toured Africa for 3 years during the 1920s. The Seven Ashtons were a popular acrobatic act in the United States, England and Europe in the post-war period.

Throughout the nineteenth and the greater part of the present century the circus was a highly popular entertainment from throughout the United States. From the 1860's the American circuses were organised on an ever grander scale. Circus proprietors impressed their companies on the public, not by politely announcing their varied talents or the beauty and sagacity of their horses, but by publicising the thousands of square feet the circus covered, the thousands of dollars to which their weekly expenses amounted and the number of miles which their parades extended. Americans held an admiration for everything 'big' and the colossal circus establishments which crossed the States of the Union did justice to the popular sentiment.

But developments in circus art and management that had unfolded so rapidly in America and Europe were slow to reach Australia. A frequent exchange of circus performers between England and the United States had existed from the earliest days and audiences on both sides of the Atlantic thus feasted their eyes on a greater variety of skills. Australian audiences were for a long time less fortunate, but for twenty years - from 1873 to 1892 - Australia was visited by a steady stream of the largest of American circuses, among them some America's largest. The unification, by rail, of the eastern and western states of the USA in 1869 enabled more companies to reach California and, once there, to contemplate the shores of Australia, the 'fabled land'. The development of colonial rail systems facilitated their tours.

Chiarini's Royal Italian Circus - Signor Chiarini & 'President', Melbourne, 1873

During the latter half of the nineteenth century at least ten American circuses made the long but placid voyage across the Pacific to tour the Australian colonies.

These circuses and the years of their visits were as follows -

  • J.S.Noble's Olympic Circus (1851-4)
  • J. A. Rowe's North American Circus (1852-4 and 1858-9)
  • Cooke, Zoyara and Wilson's (1866-7)
  • Chiarini's Royal Italian Circus (1873, 1880-1, 1884-5)
  • Wilson's San Francisco Palace Circus (1876, 1881-2)
  • Promotional card for D.M.Bristol's Circus & Equescurriculum
  • Cooper and Bailey's Great International Circus (1876-7, 1877-8)
  • W. W. Cole's Concorporated Shows (1880-1)
  • Fryer's (1885-6)
  • Sells Brothers' (1891-2)
  • D. M. Bristol's Circus and Equescurriculum (1897-8)

The parade of Cooper, Bailey & Co's Great International Allied Shows - the lineal ancestor of today's famous Ringling Bros and Barnum & Bailey's Combined Shows - through the streets of Melbourne, carnival style, aroused a sensation in 1877.Cooper Bailey&Co's Circus in USA, 1876, shortly before shipping for its first Australian tour.

In Sydney, its two ring exhibitions attracted as many as 5,000 spectators to each performance. Although many English performers found their way to the colonies, only two circuses of English origin visited Australia. These were Harmston's (in 1890-1 and again in 1897-8) and Bostock & Wombell's in 1906. All of these circuses were a continuous source of fresh talent and ideas for the local circus scene and therefore an impetus to the development and diversification of the local product.

The size and splendour of the American circuses quite eclipsed their Australian contemporaries. They gave colonial audiences a taste of Yankee culture. The menageries, the boastful advertising, grand parades, circus trains and other trademarks of the American circus were adopted by the largest Australian circuses which gradually divested themselves of a staid British heritage. Menageries were attached to their companies; their advertising became increasingly boisterous; size became a virtue in itself; railways were increasingly used by them as a means of travel; where once their equestrians had mimicked the artful exhibitions of Andrew Ducrow, they now turned somersaults on horseback; restless and adventurous like their American contemporaries, some Australian circuses ventured from the 1880's onwards to destinations in the Pacific, Asia and beyond. In the 1890's and the early 1900's the large FitzGerald and Wirth circuses regularly engaged acts from America, England and the Continent.

Wirth's circus train, c1950.

With the adoption of motorised transport in the 1920s and 1930s, circuses were able to move faster and generate greater revenues than before. This development was perhaps fortunate, as the 1920's were the beginning of harrassing times for circus proprietors who had long been accustomed to the free spirited conduct of their business: municipal restrictions governing parades and the posting of bills became tighter, while the cost of star acts and musicians soared.

The picture shows began to reach the country districts from about 1908, this development did not affect the viability of the circus. Circuses had long put up with competing entertainments - buckjumping shows, vaudeville and variety shows to name but a few - and continued to do so. The construction of permanent cinemas in many country towns from about 1916 did mean a new source of competition.

During the Second World War, the activities of all travelling shows were curtailed. Most circuses closed up as staff and performers volunteered for the war effort. As a morale boosting measure, the authorities allowed Wirth's Circus to continue operations on a limited scale.

Miss Jane St Leon, outside Bullen Bros Circus, Wentworth Park, Sydney, 1959

Petrol and transport rationing severely limited its daily movement. The Bullens, with their travelling circus and menagerie laid up at Yeppoon (Qld). Stranded and unable to move their show, the Bullens played inside canvas sidewalls to the thousands of American G.I.'s based nearby. After the war, Bullen and his sons succeeded in building one of Australia's most exciting circuses of the post-war era.

After 1945, the circuses flowered once again, unfettered by wartime restrictions and able to ride upon the ever-increasing prosperity of post-war Australia. There were 17 circuses travelling the country by the mid-1950s, including Bullen Bros, Wirth Bros, Sole Bros, Perry Bros, Ridgway's, Ashton's and Silver's.

Then television was introduced. A decline in the number of circuses and the quality of the programs ensued. Wirth Bros Circus, Australia's largest and most prestigious, ceased operations in 1963. It had more than 80 years of continuous travel to its name. Its management placed blame for the demise squarely on television. The Bullen family, after more than twenty year's successful touring throughout Australia and New Zealand, pulled their large circus off the road in 1969.

In his remarkable book A Seat at the Circus, the late British circus historian, Anthony Hippisley Coxe, identified three broad historical stages in the development of the circus since Astley's day. For the first century or so after 1768, the dominant features of any circus in the world were horses and horsemanship. By the latter decades of the 19th century, however, a second stage commenced when acts drawn from the music hall - jugglers, trapeze artists and specialties such as mind readers, high divers and talking horses - became popular in circus. A third stage was initiated with the economic and social disruption caused by the Great War and the Great Depression that followed. Animal-based acts now become the mainstay of the circus performance. While none of these three stages were mutually exclusive of each other, they were also, allowing for the inevitable time lag, broadly illustrative of the development of the Australian circus - until now!

The newest circuses to make their mark in Australia arguably add a fourth stage to Hippisley Coxe's hypothesis and describe something of a renaissance of the Australian circus and with it, the re-creation of a tradition of performing skills. Today, Australian circus is finding a new meaning and relevance. The use of circus based skills in contemporary Australian performance has expanded exponentially in recent years. An almost exponential growth in activity has been enjoyed since the late 1970s with some 20 or more companies now attracting annual audiences of an estimated 3 million and generating some AUD $57 million (US $ 45 million) in annual revenues. Not such a bad effort in a nation of 20 million souls that is about the size of the continental USA.

The year 1997 marked 150 continuous years of the Australian circus tradition. The sesqui-centenary was quietly celebrated in several quarters. Australia Post issued a charming set of stamps to mark the occasion. Sydney's Powerhouse Museum mounted a major exhibition based on its Jandaschewsky collection which was then toured around Australia's state capitals.

Broadly speaking, the field today is divided between contemporary groups on the one hand, happily devoid of all but the human species, and the traditional family-based itinerant companies on the other. Some of the latter have been active for well over one hundred years, their programs dependant to varying degrees upon the presentation of animals, whether domesticated, exotic or wild.

The contemporary groups can be further divided between the avant-garde 'new wave' companies, which are constantly pushing the meaning of circus to (and even beyond) conventional limits, and the youth-focussed community circus groups which are flowering all over the country in various forms and guises. The jewel in the contemporary circus crown belongs firmly to avant-garde group Circus Oz, based in Melbourne. Launched in 1978, this company now ranks as one of Australia's major performing arts organisations. In such esteem is Circus Oz held in its home state, Victoria, that a decommissioned navy drill hall as a home and rehearsal space was purchased for the company.

Of the youth-based groups, the Flying Fruit Fly Circus is pre-eminent. Founded in 1979, it owes its name to a ubiquitous but rarely observed local agricultural pest. With strong roots throughout the Riverina community, the 'Fruit Flies' (as they are lovingly known) conduct a full time training program for some 100 local children. The company has performed at the Edinburgh Festival, and at Italy's Veneto Festival, while its aerialists have appeared with the Great Moscow Circus during its Australian tours. These new circuses have won acclaim in recent years, not only in Australia but internationally and will assure the continuity of Australian circus into the new millennium.

Today, there are at least 25 alternative circus groups scattered throughout Australia. Many of them owe their initial inspiration to such groups as Circus Oz and the Flying Fruit Fly Circus. Circus skills are actively promoted in several state education systems while the next few years should see the first generation of tertiary educated circus performers. The National Institute of Circus Arts (NICA) - Australia's first permanent professional circus training institution - opened its doors in Melbourne in 2001.

The circus is of course by no means unique to Australia. In its modern form, it has been a worldwide phenomenon over the last 200 years or so. But Australia does possess an immensely rich circus heritage of its own, one that may proudly be compared with those of te United Kingdom, the countries of Europe and the United States. In this day and age, contemporary 'new wave' Australian circus are cleverly redefining the arts of the circus. And so Australia's circus heritage continues to develop and unfold before our eyes.

Highlights of Australia's circus history

1768 Sergeant-Major Philip Astley 'invents' circus in a modern form at Ha'penny Hatch, Lambeth
1841 Luigi Dalle Case gives gymnastic entertainments in Sydney
1847 Exeter-born horseman, Robert Avis Radford, establishes Australia's first successful circus, Radford's Royal Circus, in Launceston Tasmania.
1851 Ashton's Circus, still going strong today, founded by renowned British horseman, James Henry Ashton.
1852 Joseph A. Rowe's North American Circus arrives from California to play a two year long Melbourne season
1875 St Leon's Royal Victoria Circus organised near Kilmore, Victoria
1876 Cooper & Bailey's Circus (the ancestor of the present day Ringling Bros Barnum & Bailey) makes the first of two Antipodean tours.
1882 The Wirth family, of German origin, launch what became Australia's largest and most prestigious circus company. Disbanded 1963
1898 Wirth's Circus tours England, the first Australian circus to do so.
1912 May Wirth, famed acrobatic equestrienne, makes her debut for Ringling in New York.
1924 Con Colleano, Australian tightwire artist, launches his international career at the New York Hippodrome before an audience of 6000
1942 Circus activity restricted due to war
1960 17 circuses on the road, the year television introduced
1963 Wirth Bros Circus, Australia's pre-eminent circus, folds after 80 years of operation
1969 Bullen Bros Circus, Australia's largest circus, folds after 46 years operation
1978 Circus Oz launched and with it the Australian contemporary circus movement
1979 Flying Fruit Fly Circus launched
1990 Circus Summit held in Melbourne, Australia's first national conference of circus people
1997 Sesqui-centenary of Australian circus celebrated
2001 National Institute of Circus Arts opens in Melbourne

Some reading

Books by Mark St Leon

Take a drum and beat It: The story of the astonishing Ashtons 1848 - 1990s. Sydney: Tytherleigh Press. [With Judy Cannon, 1997]

The wizard of the wire: The story of Con Colleano. Canberra: Aboriginal Studies Press. [1993]

Children of the circus: The Australian experience. Springwood, NSW: Butterfly Books. [With John Ramsland, 1993]

The silver road: The life of Mervyn King, circus man. Springwood, NSW: Butterfly Books. [1990]

Spangles & sawdust: The circus in Australia. Melbourne: Greenhouse Publications. [1983]

For further reading, please consult the References page.