Frost’s Circus Life and Circus Celebrities
Thomas Frost, Circus Life and Circus Celebrities, London: Chatto and Windus, 1881.
Reminiscences of the Henglers - The Rope-dancing Henglers at Astley's - Circus of Price and Powell - Its Acquisition by the Henglers - Clerical Presentation to Frowde, the Clown - Circus Difficulties at Liverpool - Retirement of Edward Hengler - Rivalry of Howes and Cushing - Discontinuance of the Tenting System - Miss Jenny Louise Hengler - Conversion of the Palais Royal into an Amphitheatre - Felix Rivolti, the Ring-master.
CONSCIOUS as I am of the imperfections of the foregoing record of circus performances in this country, it is a relief to my mind to be enabled to supplement the history with some further particulars concerning the establishments so long, and with such well-deserved success, conducted by the gentlemen who bear the renowned names of Hengler and Sanger. I am indebted for the following memoir of the Henglers to a gentleman well known in the equestrian profession, and who has for many years held the important position of acting-manager in one of the best-appointed and most admirably-conducted circuses in this country.
Mr Charles Hengler, the proprietor of the cirque in Argyle Street, may be said to have been born to the equestrian profession, his father having been a celebrated tight-rope dancer with Ducrow, in whose service he remained for several years; and thus had an opportunity of teaching his sons his own profession.
Edward Henry Hengler, the eldest, became famous in England and on the Continent under the title of Herr Hengler, and was the most celebrated professor of that art in his day. He died a few years since. John Milton Hengler, a younger son, inherited the family talent, and also became famous in America, and on the Continent. He came to England on the retirement of his elder brother, and was considered a worthy successor. A few years ago he retired from active service, and opened a riding school in Liverpool, where he is still residing, highly respected and esteemed by all who know him. Charles Hengler was, fortunately for him, too tall to follow in the footsteps of his brothers, so his father determined to make him the business man of the family, and his present position is ample proof of his father's success in so doing.
After leaving Ducrow, Hengler, with his sons, joined the circus of Price and Powell - Powell having married one of his daughters. Here they remained some time, Charles attending to the business department, and his father and brothers performing in the ring. As the showman's life is, at the best, a very precarious one, Price and Powell got into difficulties while performing at Greenwich, and were consequently obliged to dispose of their concern, which was purchased by Charles and Edward Hengler. Price went abroad, and Powell, who was an excellent equestrian, accepted an engagement with the new proprietors, who carried on the business for several years with varied success, sometimes making money, and as frequently losing what they had worked so hard to obtain. It must be remarked that in those days equestrianism was not so popular as it has since become, and there were two men in the business who carried all before them, namely, Ducrow and Batty; so young and struggling beginners had a hard battle to fight, the best towns in England being in the possession of the former. But, as usual in all such cases, courage and perseverance, combined with honesty of purpose and strict attention to business, ultimately met its reward; for Henglers' circus at last made a name for itself, being the most respectably conducted establishment of that class travelling the provinces.
During the summer months they 'tented,' and in the winter erected temporary wooden buildings in populous towns, in which the second visit was invariably more remunerative than the previous one - a sufficient proof of the high estimation in which the company were held. This is not to be wondered at, when it is stated that several performers, who were then with Mr Hengler, are yet on his establishment; notably, Mr James Franks, one of the best clowns in his line of business of this or any other day. Also Mr Bridges, Mr Powell, and a few others. Of course, with the exception of Mr Powell, they were very young men when they first joined him. There was also another very clever clown on the establishment, of whom I must say a few words. This was James Frowde, a nephew of the proprietors. This gentleman, who several years since retired from the equestrian profession, was an immense favourite with all classes. His appearance in the ring was invariably greeted with acclamations, and in private life his company was sought by many of the most respectable members of the community. To give some idea of the popularity of this gentleman, I may state that while the company were located in Chester in 1856, several clergymen presented him with a very valuable Bible. This was made the subject of an eulogistic paragraph in Punch, in which the recipient and the donors were equally complimented - the one for deserving such a testimonial, the others for their liberal appreciation of his conduct as clown, Christian, and gentleman. It would be well if more of our divines followed so excellent an example; not necessarily by presenting Bibles, for the poor player not only possesses the book, but in most instances acts up to its teachings.
It was while residing in Chester that Mr Hengler obtained the patronage of the Marquis of Westminster; of course on previous occasions he had been patronized by many distinguished personages, and this particular instance is mentioned only because it was the source of Mr Hengler's gaining a footing in Liverpool. I may here be allowed to quote a short paragraph which appeared in the Chester Observer:
'HENGLER'S CIRQUE. - The patronage and presence of the Mayor at this admirably-conducted place of entertainment on Tuesday last filled the building to overflowing. . . Last night the performances were under the patronage of Earl Grosvenor, M. P. In the morning the Marquis of Westminster honoured the establishment with his patronage and presence, the noble lord kindly and duly appreciating the just claim that Mr Hengler has on the public as regards talent, attraction, and propriety, and so, with his usual discretion and sound judgment, took this opportunity to signify to Mr Henry, the manager, his conscientious approval of Mr Hengler's admirably-conducted establishment.' Mr Hengler also received a letter from the Marquis conveying a similar opinion.
For several years it had been the desire of Mr Hengler and other equestrian managers to obtain permission from the authorities of Liverpool to erect a temporary circus in that town. Applications were frequently made, and as frequently refused. The invariable answer was, 'If you wish to perform in this town, you must make an arrangement with Mr Copeland; he has the Amphitheatre, and we cannot allow any one to oppose him.' Now although the Amphitheatre, as its name imports, had been originally built for equestrian performances, they had with one or two exceptions, and these in its earliest days, proved failures. Of course no manager possessing the knowledge of Mr Hengler would risk going there, especially as the best arrangement it was possible to make with the then proprietor was something like 'Heads I win, tails you lose.' I think I am not far wrong in stating that Mr Hengler had made seven or eight applications; and invariably received a similar reply, 'You can't be allowed to build here. The Amphitheatre is open to you; go there, or go away.' Armed with the Marquis of Westminster's letter, and several other valuable testimonials, Mr Hengler determined to make one more trial; with what success I shall presently show.
A piece of ground, the property of the corporation, was vacant in Dale Street, and was a capital site for the erection of a temporary circus.
Mr Hengler, and his architect, Mr O'Hara, went to Liverpool, and obtained an interview with the then Mayor, a celebrated builder and a liberal-minded gentleman.
The testimonials were shown and a promise was made, that, at the next meeting of the Council, Mr Hengler's request should be brought forward, and that the Mayor would assist him by using his influence. With this Mr Hengler was compelled to be satisfied.
From Chester, Mr Hengler went to Bradford, on which occasion the following paragraph appeared in the Leeds Mercury, of January 10, 1857 -
'Mr Hengler's Establishment receives, as it deserves, the patronage of immense audiences. The performances are so unique and varied, that they cannot fail to please; while it is gratifying to perceive the strict care that is taken to prevent anything that could offend the most fastidious. The generality of such entertainments are more or less loose in their morality; but the able and correct manner in which these performances are conducted is testified by the fact, that they have met with the approbation of the local clergy. The Rev. Vicar patronizes the performance on Monday next. And on that occasion Mr Hengler affords free admission to the day-schools connected with the Church of England.' This, of course, was of great value to Mr Hengler; and the authorities at Liverpool were duly apprised of it; and, in a few days, the welcome intelligence was conveyed to Mr Hengler that his request had been complied with, and Mr O'Hara was started off to make arrangements for the erection of the circus. This he soon succeeded in doing, Messrs Holmes and Nicol, the eminent builders, undertaking its erection.
This circus was opened by Mr Hengler on March the 15th, 1857. To give some idea of its style and appointments, I cannot do better than quote the following description from the Liverpool Daily Mail of March 20th, 1857.
‘HENGLER'S CIRQUE VARIETIES. - During the present week Mr Charles Hengler has opened, in Dale Street, a handsome, commodious, and spacious theatre, devoted to equestrian performances, which has been constructed by Messrs Holmes and Nicol of this town, on the model of Franconi's famous Cirque, in the Champs Elysees, Paris. The building, though of a temporary character, is most admirably suited for the purpose for which it is designed; and while accommodating an immense number of spectators, who can all easily witness the performances, the ventilation is perfect, and with an entire absence of draughts. There is nothing to offend the senses of smell or sight. The audience is placed in compartments round the circle; the frequenters of the boxes being seated on cushioned chairs, with a carpeted flooring under their feet. The compartments entitled pit and gallery are also very comfortable, while round the whole building runs a spacious promenade. The ceiling is covered with coloured folds of chintz, which give a brilliant and cleanly appearance; and the pillars supporting the roof are neatly papered, and ornamented with flags and shields. The whole aspect is, in fact, what has long been a desideratum in this country, and we regret it will have to be pulled down again in a few months.
'With respect to the performances, we can only speak most highly; they are decidedly the best we have witnessed here since the appearance of the French Company.
'The horses are beautiful and well trained, the grooms smart and natty, and the dresses of all connected with the establishment new and tasteful. We have not space to mention a tithe of the performances, which present many novelties, and display the varied talent of the company to great advantage; the gentlemen being all daring and skilful, and the ladies, equally clever, yet modest and charming. In fact, we can strongly recommend our readers to pay a visit to Mr Hengler's circus; for, as we were surprised and delighted ourselves, we feel assured that no one can regret patronizing an entertainment so harmless, pleasing, and exciting!’
In one respect, the writer of the above paragraph made a mistake, for, although the circus was originally intended to be a temporary building, the success was so great that it remained standing for five years, Mr Hengler visiting Liverpool for four months each winter. At this time the company comprised William Powell, Anthony and John Bridges, the Brothers Francisco, the clowns Frowde, Hogini, and Bibb, Ferdinand and Eugene, Madame Bridges, Miss Adrian, etc. The performing horses were introduced by Mr Hengler. Previous to Mr Hengler visiting Liverpool, the partnership terminated between him and his brother Edward, the latter having realized sufficient to retire from the profession.
The ground in Dale Street being wanted by the corporation for building purposes, Mr Hengler obtained a site for the erection of a building in Newington, and a lease of the ground for seven years. He here built a very fine and capacious cirque, the builders who erected the one in Dale Street undertaking the contract. It was to be a brick building; and they were under heavy penalties to get it completed by a certain time. Unfortunately for them, they had no sooner commenced, than a strike took place amongst the brick-makers; and the builders had to appeal to Mr Hengler, who allowed them to erect a wooden structure, they agreeing to erect, at the expiration of the strike brick walls around it, which was done.
Here Mr Hengler remained for seven years, the term of his lease. The ground was then required for a new railway, and he had to leave Liverpool, not being able to find a site adapted to his purpose. While Mr Hengler remained here, several other circuses attempted to oppose him, the authorities, who had remained inflexible for so many years, granting indiscriminate permission to whoever applied to them. All of them failed, and soon left the town. A notable example occurred in one especial case.
Howes and Cushing, the American equestrian managers, chartered a vessel, and landed at Liverpool with the largest company and stud that had ever visited these shores. They obtained the best position in Liverpool for the erection of their tent: and this, only after Mr Hengler had been open in Dale Street about one month. They inundated the town with their large pictorial posters, paid fabulous sums for fronts and sides of houses on which to have them affixed. Liverpool really went Howes and Cushing mad. The American colours were flying from every house in which any of the company lodged. Columns of advertisements were in all the Liverpool newspapers; and the day upon which they advertised to parade the town every house in the line of procession was closed. The streets were crowded; all Liverpool seemed to have congregated on the line of route. Special trains came from the surrounding districts.
The procession was certainly a noble one. A huge car, in which the band was seated, was drawn by forty horses, driven in hand. The whole of the company, a very extensive one, was placed in the other cars, which were elaborately carved and gilt. The pageant terminated with a procession of Indians, and a huge musical instrument which was played by steam power. And what was the result? The morning after their first performance the papers were unanimous in saying Mr Hengler's entertainment was far superior. One of them stated that 'the greatest circus in America has met more than its match in Liverpool.' They remained but two weeks; the business falling off very considerably, while Mr Hengler's increased nightly.
After a few very successful seasons in Liverpool Mr Hengler discontinued the tenting business in the summer months, - never to him a very congenial occupation, and erected large buildings in several important towns, notably, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Dublin, and Hull. Those in Glasgow and Hull are still in existence; and, when not occupied by the proprietor, are let for concerts, and entertainments of a similar character.
In 1865 Mr Hengler was offered an engagement at Cremorne Gardens, where there was a very fine building, originally erected for equestrian purposes, but used latterly for exhibiting a Stereorama, which proved a great failure, although the paintings were by those eminent artists, Grieve and Telbin. For several years Mr Hengler had been desirous of performing before a London audience, and thought this a good opportunity of feeling the pulse of the metropolitan public. He therefore came to terms with the then proprietor, Mr E. T. Smith; but, even in those days, Cremorne was in its decadence, and the engagement was neither pleasant to Mr Hengler nor his company. With the exception of one or two miserable attempts, circus performers bade a final adieu to a place which has lately gained such unenviable notoriety. After leaving Cremorne Mr Hengler went to Hull, where he had a most successful season.
It may be a matter of surprise to many people that Mr Hengler never brought any of his family (a very numerous one) up to the equestrian business, with the exception of his daughter, Miss Jenny Louise. He was always desirous that they should receive a good education. Now it would be almost an impossibility to combine the two things, for, at the very time children should be studying their lessons in school, they would be compelled to be practising in the ring, and performing at night, as Infant Prodigies, Lightning Lilliputians, or Bounding Brothers. Then how about Miss Jenny Louise? it may be asked. That young lady did not commence riding before the public until she was eighteen years of age; but she had such an intense desire to become an equestrienne, that she learned, under her father's tuition, more in one year, than many others would have learned in a lifetime. She was naturally graceful, very feminine, and she possessed the necessary nerve and firmness. She was always most deservedly an immense favourite with the public, her skilful horsemanship and charmingly graceful appearance never failing to secure her hosts of admirers of both sexes.
I now come to Mr Hengler's second appearance in London, which had such a different result to the previous one, as will be shown in the sequel. In 1871, a gutta percha merchant, who had made several ventures in the equestrian business, obtained possession of the Palais Royal in Argyle Street, the site of the present cirque, and wished Mr Hengler to join him. Mr Hengler took time to consider the proposal, which after due consideration he declined, the previous experiments of the gutta percha merchant in the equestrian business having invariably proved so unsuccessful that his shows became known amongst equestrians as the Gutta Percha Circus, an appropriate title, they having in most instances so suddenly collapsed.
After some difficulty, Mr Hengler succeeded in obtaining possession of the Palais Royal, as it was then called, and speedily converted it into the elegant theatre, so admirably adapted for its present purposes, which was opened in the autumn of 1871. His first season was not a profitable one, in a pecuniary sense; and this, in a great measure, is to be accounted for by the fact, that circus entertainments in London had become very unpopular. In the first place, the circus in Holborn had been badly managed, the proprietors not understanding the business. In this year it was again opened by one of the former proprietors, and the season not having proved profitable, the place was soon closed.
In 1872 it was opened under the auspices of the gutta percha merchant, though his name did not appear publicly in the matter. Astley's also opened under the management of the Brothers Sanger, gentlemen of great experience in the profession, and who, as a matter of course, were formidable rivals. There were now 'three Richmonds in the field,' and, as Mr Hengler, although popular in the provinces, was not known to any great extent in London, he had to bide his time, until the superiority of his entertainments became known and appreciated. At any rate he had sown the seed; the harvest was to be gathered hereafter. All who visited the place were delighted with the high character of the entertainments. Everything was neat and elegant; the horses were considered, by good judges, to be far superior to those usually exhibited in places of this description. Miss Jenny Louise Hengler had already become a great favourite with lovers of high-class riding.
At Christmas, Cinderella, with a host of juveniles, was for the first time produced in a London Cirque. Everybody who witnessed it left the place delighted; and it became the talk of London. The mid-day performances were invariably well attended, and by the best families in London and its suburbs; but Mr Hengler's expenses were very great, and the receipts, though good, were not commensurate with his outlay and risk. He remained in London until the beginning of May, and then went into the provinces, where he met with his usual success.
In November, 1872, he again opened the Cirque in Argyle Street, to which he brought a very clever company, the principal features being Miss Jenny Louise Hengler, 'Little Sandy,' who made his first appearance in London, and the performing horses. This season, the Prince and Princess of Wales and family honoured the Cirque with a visit, and expressed themselves highly delighted with the entertainment. Mr Joe Bibb, another very clever grotesque and clown, appeared during this season, and soon became popular. Mr H. B. Williams, a lyrical jester, was also a favourite. Mr Charles Fish, an American rider, made his first appearance in England, and created a sensation.
At Christmas', Jack the Giant Killer was produced, with an army of forty juveniles, whose evolutions were highly commended. This season was a very profitable one, although the circus in Holborn and Astley's were open at the same time. Mr Hengler remained until the beginning of March, when he left for Dublin.
After visiting several towns, he returned to London in November, 1873. This was a very successful season - several new engagements having been effected, notably Mr William Bell, one of the best, if not the very best, equestrians in the profession, and Mr Lloyd, another extraordinary rider. Little Sandy now became, if possible, more popular than before; and the portrait of Miss Jenny Louise Hengler was in all the photographers' windows, and in everybody's album.
Mr Felix Rivolti, the genial ring-master who had been with Mr Hengler, with the exception of a few months, about eighteen years, was still in great force. This gentleman had the happy knack of pleasing all audiences, as one half invariably laughed with him, the other half as certainly laughed at him. Very good judges considered him the best ring-master since the celebrated Widdicomb delighted his audiences at Astley's.
Observe with what a self-sufficient smirk Rivolti enters the arena, gracefully handing in the young lady; see how he places her on her horse, and then looks round the house, as much as to say, 'In one minute you will be delighted to see what I can make her do.' He cracks his whip, the horse starts into a canter, the young lady leaps from his back, over garlands, through hoops, etc., etc., when the horse stops, and while the audience are applauding, how happy Rivolti appears! He looks around as much as to say to the audience, 'I told you I could do it. But wait a minute. You see this clown; now I am going to make him do all manner of funny things.' Then 'Little Sandy' performs some of his quaint tricks as only 'Little Sandy' can, and while the audience are laughing and applauding, with what complacency Rivolti looks at them, every feature in his face beaming with gratification. His many admirers will be sorry to hear that he has for the present left the profession, to which, however, he will probably soon return.
Mr John Henry Cooke returned from America this year, and again joined Mr Hengler's Company. Cinderella was reproduced for the Christmas holidays, and with greater splendour than on the previous occasion. Large audiences visited the circus, and the season proved a very profitable one. The Prince and Princess of Wales and family again visited the cirque. From London Mr Hengler and his company went to Dublin, and from thence to Hull and Glasgow, returning to London to open for the fourth season in December 1874. The company was of the usual excellence, including a new importation from America, Mr Wooda Cook, a very clever equestrian; 'Little Sandy,' and Mr Barry, a very pleasing lyrical jester, a great favourite in America, where he has been located several years. The other performers are all excellent. The great feature for the Christmas holidays was a new pantomime, entitled Little Red Riding Hood, performed (with the exception of ‘Little Sandy,' who enacts the Wicked Wolf) entirely by children, original music being composed by Messieurs Riviere and Stanislaus. The idea of this piece is entirely original, nothing of a similar description having been produced in the arena. The cirque is crowded at every representation, and the present promises to be a greater success than either of Mr Hengler's previous seasons in Argyle Street.
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