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Every young child's fantasy
The circus has always fascinated me since I saw Cecil B de Mille's The Greatest Show on Earth in 1953. I seem to recall when I was a boy that there were a number of shows touring the country. The big three were Billy Smarts, Chipperfields and Bertram Mills. There were a few smaller shows such as Robert Brothers, Lord George Sanger's and Robert Fossetts. But it was the big three that drew in the crowds.
The first time I saw a circus in the "flesh" was two years later when Chipperfields did a one-week stand in the town. The show played on the Dragon Recreation Ground and it was the only one ever to have played there. The likes of Billy Smarts and Bertram Mills used Victoria Recreation Ground. I vividly remember that visit of Chipperfields. My Dad took me to see the big top being erected on the Sunday morning and after lunch, we returned once more to the Dragon to see the circus parade. I'd never seen anything like it, the place was thronged with people and my Dad had to carry me on his shoulders so I could see everything. I loved the animals and I had a very soft spot for the big cats, especially the tigers. The elephants, however, scared me to death especially when they came so close.
My Mum took me to see the show on the Monday evening; my jaw must have dropped several notches as I soaked up the atmosphere. The first thing I could sense was the smell of the sawdust and the steady throb of the diesel generators outside. Then the band started playing and the show commenced with the parade. My Mum said if I got frightened then all I needed to do was look away. How could I have got frightened, I loved every minute of it? On the evening of the following Sunday my Dad and I were walking over the Dragon and much of the circus had gone, but the massive king poles that support the big top were still standing, the grass was damp and it had this smell of being newly cut and every time I smell newly cut grass, I'm transported back in time to that evening. Chipperfields would not return to the town until sometime in the 1970s. Even then it caused controversy, people's opinion regarding the use of animals in circuses had changed. During that visit the 'antis' made their feelings known about the cruelty toward the animals and held demonstrations at the circus ground in Cropton Lane. The council had refused Chipperfields permission to use any of its land and so the circus got a site on private land. I've often wondered about people who protest at the use of animals in circuses if they eat meat?
My next visit to a circus was in 1957 when Billy Smart did a one-week stand on Victoria Recreation Ground. Once more my Dad took me to see the build-up on Sunday morning and again the parade on the afternoon. As the show was playing Victoria, the parade came up Duke Street and the Grange roundabout. I had a good view of the parade as we viewed it from the balcony of my Aunt's house, which was just above Martin's Bank, where the sandwich shop now is. I had to wait until the final show on Saturday before I saw the performance. My Dad took me to see it and we stayed at the ground so I could watch the pull-down. That was the last show I ever saw with my parents as the next time I would be old enough to see it on my own.
I was coming home from school one lunchtime in June 1959 when my eye caught sight of a poster announcing that Bertram Mills Circus was coming to do a three-day stand at Victoria. At school that afternoon I got told off quite a few times for not paying attention. My thoughts were elsewhere, namely Victoria Recreation Ground. When I got home that evening I bolted down my tea as quick as I could, then I told my folks about the visit of the circus. I got on my bike and headed straight for Victoria. Circuses were very much like Pied Pipers in that they attracted kids like flypapers attracting, well you know. When I got to Victoria all that was there apart from millions of kids was the advance booking office. This was red and green in colour and it resembled one of those American Greyhound busses. There was a small caravan also painted red and green and that was it. Some of us stayed for an hour or so then we headed home.
As I cycled home an idea came into my head, I had this vision of having my own circus, well a model of one. I could see it in my mind's eye, my Dinky and Corgi toys sprawled out on the living room carpet, but what about the tents? It's surprising what a child's imagination can do. It can transform a box that once held a few cans of Heinz Baked Beans into a big top, two old shoe boxes into a tent for the animals and the main entrance to the big top itself. The living room carpet was green so that took care of the grass. I only had one caravan so my saloon cars had to double up as both caravans and cars. You can see how vivid an imagination I had.
If you're wondering where I put my model circus on the living room carpet, it went between the sofa, which was in the middle of the room and the piano at the back. It was always identically laid out to one of the big three circuses, depending on how I felt. On Saturday night I would move my model circus from one part of the room to the next and reassemble it again on the Sunday morning just like they did in the real circuses.
The next day we did the same; we just hung about the ground and annoyed the man in the box office. A few days later my Mum gave me the money for my ticket to see the show and I opted for the Tuesday so I could see the pull-down on Wednesday evening. One thing I must tell you is my Mum told me not to sit too near the front as they took all the kids from there and fed them to the animals. She had a wicked sense of humour!
Saturday 14th June dawned fine and sunny and after my breakfast and a bit of shopping for my nana, I headed for Victoria to watch the arrival of the circus. For much of the day nothing happened and it wasn't until mid-evening that the first of the circus transportation pulled onto the ground. Reluctantly I had to leave around 9.30 for home, but I was back next morning, bright eyed and bushy tailed for the build-up. In the afternoon came the parade from the station to Victoria. Chipperfields had a giraffe, but Bertram Mills had an elephant that drove a car. Well it looked as though the elephant who was named Kam drove it, but it was all an illusion. Kam sat upon a specially converted Land Rover and if you looked very carefully, you could see where the real driver was sitting.
I'm sure that I've been born with a sixth sense, as there was always something that told me when a circus was about to visit the town. I remember when Billy Smarts Circus came in 1960 I was drawn to Victoria even before I'd seen the first poster advertising the circus's visit to the town. Once again after tea on Monday evening I felt the urge to ride over to Victoria and was greeted by the sight of the advance booking office in the circus colours of emerald and white. The following night I booked my seat for the show, I can still remember someone with the name of Valentine F. Hagger signed my ticket.
There were two advance units with Billy Smarts Circus as there were with the other two of the big three. Usually the first unit handles the publicity this involves billing the town and ensuring an advert in the local press. It also arranges for food and groceries to be delivered and fodder for the animals as well as the laying on of water from the nearest water authority. The second advance party arrives a week later and carries on the work done by the first unit.
Sometime during mid-week the spare set of king poles would arrive and these would be erected in readiness for the big top, which would be put up on the Sunday morning. Simon Walford had a Latin look about him and his role was that of Advance Construction Manager with Billy Smarts Circus. His job and the men under him was to erect the 85 foot steel king poles. Affectionately known as 'Smokey' he was with the show for many years. Also During the second week, a ton of loam and sawdust for the ring together with wood chippings for the outer perimeter track would arrive together with hay for the animals. The Evening Post had done a feature on 'Smokey' and one of the advance staff told me that he ate kids for breakfast. Yet another one with a wicked sense of humour.
Thanks to a very intense depression that hovered over the country heavy rain fell on the town two days before the circus was due to roll on to Victoria. As a result, most of the ground was waterlogged. The day was Friday and the evening was remarkably fine and sunny considering the amount of rain that fell earlier in the day. I remember cycling to Victoria to find the four 40 foot long living wagons of the Smart family had already arrived. One of these was the 'Royal Windsor', which was the mobile home of Billy (The Guv'nor) Smart himself.
Saturday was also fine and sunny and around lunchtime three caravans pulled onto Victoria. Unfortunately for one of these it became a victim of the previous day's rain as it got itself bogged down to the axel and there it would remain until Sunday when one of the heavy trucks would try and extricated it from the mire. It tried and it tried and it tried but the caravan was stuck fast. A second truck had little success until someone thought of muscle power in the form of Birma, one of the shows elephants. Where the trucks failed, Birma succeeded. For years the ruts of that caravan's wheels were visible if you knew where to look.
Moving a circus has now become a logistical nightmare, in the 1950s and 60s the cost of moving a circus from one town to the next was in the hundreds, now it's well into thousands of pounds. Most of the British circuses travelled by road, only the animals were transported by rail. Apart from Bertram Mills Circus as the entire show travelled by rail.
During the week when I had to go to school my Mum had to literally drag me out of bed in the morning. But when a circus visited the town it was a different matter, especially on Sunday morning as I would be up very early bright eyed and bushy tailed ready to go over to Victoria to watch them erect the big top. Circus visits were also a good way to earn an extra copper or two by running errands for the some of the circus staff. I earned quite a bit that Sunday cycling to-and-fro from the ground to the shops in Grantly Road.
The Sunday parade not only affords much valued publicity, it also serves as a means of enticing the public to follow it to the circus site. These parades were often held in the afternoon once the big top had been erected. The route of the parade took it from the goods yard on Station Road, along to Paternoster Square and up King Street, then Frobisher Street, Burdon Road, Devon Parade and finally Grantly Road to Victoria. Much of the parade of the 1960 visit of Billy Smarts Circus was given over to one of the two special attractions to be shown in the main performance, on this occasion it was the Wild West Spectacular. Being a somewhat naive twelve-year-old I honestly thought the Indians were real Indians, but if the truth be known Chief Eagle Eye probably came from Birmingham and had never seen the inside of a wigwam let alone slept in one.
In 1961 Robert Brothers circus came to the town. It was much smaller than the others and I was a little bit disappointed because of this. The more rolling-stock a circus had the more I liked it. As I much preferred the equipment of a circus than watching the performance. What was even more disappointing was that the show did a three-day stand as opposed to the week that Billy Smarts Circus had the year previously.
Also in that year I found out about the Circus Friends Association (CFA), whose motto was 'We pay as we go' and I joined it sometime in September. I also found out about a weekly publication called "World's Fair" and in it were a couple of pages dedicated to the world of circus. Now I was able to find out which town a circus was playing in. It was also the first time I saw my name in print as the CFA had a monthly slot in the paper. I was one of about six new members being welcomed into membership.
Bertram Mills Circus paid its final visit to the town in May 1962. By now I had acquired my first camera and I wrote a letter to the circus asking if it would be all right if I could take photographs during the show. I received a nice reply from Stanley Bird who was the show's general manager saying it would be OK provided I didn't use a flash gun. Armed with my camera I turned up to see the show and I took several photos during it. Next day I handed in my film to be processed and eagerly awaited my photographs. A few days later I went to collect them only to find that the whole film had been underexposed. You can imagine my disappointment.
I made many friends with the staff of Bertram Mills Circus that year and the night I went to see the show, I thought it would be a good idea to thank Mr Bird personally for his nice letter. I knocked on a caravan door and it was opened by someone who I later learned was Bernard Mills one of Bertram's sons. I explained who I was and what I had come for and he told me that Mr Bird was away and he would pass on my thanks.
One of the circus personnel I was friendly with was a guy called Frank who came from Derby. I chatted to him for hours and he told me one of the many tales he had regarding his life with the circus. Frank and his workmates would let me go and see the animals in the menagerie part of the circus.
Sadly that would be the last time I would see Bertram Mills Circus as the touring show struggled on for the next three years until the inevitable happened and it finally closed in 1965 due to dwindling audiences. Only Olympia remained and even then it lived on borrowed time, the final show being performed in 1967. Bertram Wagstaff Mills (1873-1933) was certainly a gentleman and he brought with him a quality show. It was patronised by Royalty as well as the likes of Winston Churchill and Ramsey McDonald. Mills left a wife and two sons Bernard and Cyril who ran the business until it closed.
As I grew older so my interest in circuses began to wane and other interests began to surface. In August 1964 I began a long association with hospital and amateur radio, which lasted many years. Then something happened in 1968, I saw a poster for Billy Smarts Circus. After an eight-year absence the show was returning to Victoria and yes the Pied Piper weaved his magic and I found myself being drawn once again to Victoria recreation ground. I was very, very tempted that year to ask for a job at the circus, but I resisted the temptation to do so. The circus came and went and my interest in circuses went with it or at least I thought.
In his book 'A Seat at the Circus', Antony Hippisley Coxe writes that once someone has an interest in a circus then that interest stays with him or her for the rest of their lives, even though they think the interest is no longer there. He goes onto say that years later you could turn a corner and there before you is a circus and the sight of seeing it rekindles that lost interest. There's some truth in this as that's what happened to me in 1999 when I found the Netherlands National Circus in Washington. It felt as though the clock had been turned back and seeing the circus brought back many memories of yesteryear.
What about me now, am I still interested in the circus? Two or three years ago I followed Uncle Sam's Great American Circus all over the Northeast. I even ventured as far as Scarborough to see it. That childish fantasy still remains and when I've a quiet moment I'll put on a CD and daydream about my own travelling circus. You can shake the sawdust off your shoes, but you can't shake it out of your heart.
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