Frost’s Circus Life and Circus Celebrities
Thomas Frost, Circus Life and Circus Celebrities, London: Chatto and Windus, 1881.
Reminiscences of a Gymnast - Training and Practising - A Professional Rendezvous - Circus Agencies - The First Engagement - Springthorp's Music-hall - Newsome's Circus - Reception in the Dressing-room - The Company and the Stud - The Newsome Family - Miss Newsome's Wonderful Leap across a green lane - The Handkerchief Trick - An Equine Veteran from the Crimea - Engagement to travel.
THE picture of Circus life and manners which I have endeavoured to portray would not be complete without a narrative of the professional experiences of the performers engaged in circuses. I shall next, therefore, present the reminiscences of a gymnast, as I heard them related a few years ago by one who has since retired from the avocation; and I shall endeavour to do so, as nearly as may be possible, in his own words.
'I was not born and bred a circus man, as most of them are - Alf Burgess, for instance, who was born, as I may say, in the saw-dust, and brought up on the back of a horse. Neither was my partner. He was a clerk in the advertising department of a London evening newspaper, and I was an apprentice in a London printing-office, and not quite out of my time, when we went in for gymnastics at the Alhambra gymnasium. My partner was practising the flying trapeze, and was just beginning to do his flights with confidence, when that poor fellow fell, and broke his back, at the Canterbury, and the proprietors of the London music-halls set their faces against the flying trapeze, and would not engage gymnasts for it. In consequence of that, he had to drop the flying trapeze, and practise for the fixed trapeze; and, as the single trapeze doesn't draw, he began to look out for a partner, to do it double. Price was looking out for a partner at the same time, but, as he was more advanced in his training than Fred was, and was not disposed to wait till he was proficient, he took Joe Welsh, - Alhambra Joe, as he used to be called, - and Fred had to look out for somebody else.
'The partnership of the Brothers Price, as they called themselves, did not last long; for Price dropped in for a slice of luck, in the shape of a thumping legacy, - twenty thousand pounds, I have heard, - and then he turned up the profession, and Joe Welsh went in for the long flight. In the mean time, I had made up my mind to follow Fred's example, and to be his partner; and, besides fixing up the ropes for the flying rings in my grandmother's orchard at Norwood, for practice on Sundays, we took our fakements nearly every evening to the "ruins," as they were called, in Victoria Street. Do you know where I mean?'
I did know the place, and remembered that it conveyed the idea that a Metropolitan Improvement Commission's notions of street improvements consisted in demolishing some three or four hundred houses, and creating a wilderness of unfinished houses, yawning chasms, and heaps of rubbish. The place remained in that condition for several years, and was the rendezvous and free gymnasium of most of the gymnasts, acrobats, rope-dancers, and other professors of muscular sensationalism in the metropolis.
'Well, we fixed our fakements up in the "ruins," and when the evenings began to get dark we had candles. A lot of us used to be there - Frank Berrington, and Costello, and Jemmy Lee, and Joe Welsh, and Bill George, and ever so many more. There used to be all kinds of gymnastic exercises going on there; and there my partner and I went, night after night, until we could do a tidy slang on the trapeze, the rings, or the bar. Then we went to Roberts; he used to live in Compton Street then, and he and Maynard, in York Road, Lambeth, were agents for all the circuses and music-halls in the three kingdoms, and often had commissions from foreign establishments to engage artistes for them. They get engagements for you, and you pay them a commission of fifteen per cent. on the salary they get for you; so it is their interest to get you as good a screw as they can, and it is your interest to keep the commission paid regularly, because if you don't, you will have to look out for yourselves when you want another engagement. If you don't act honourable, and you try to get another engagement without the intervention of an agent, the circus or music-hall proprietor or manager says, engage my people through Roberts," or Maynard, as the case may be; and there you are - flummoxed!
Well, we went to Roberts, and had to wait our turn, while he did business with other fellows who were before us. We looked at the framed collections of photographs of gymnasts, acrobats, clowns, riders, jugglers, singers, and dancers which hung against the wall, and then we looked about us. There was Hassan, the Arab, a wiry-looking tawny man, black bearded and moustached, and wearing a scarlet fez, a blue zouave jacket, and baggy crimson breeches; and old Zamezou, with a broad-brimmed felt hat overshadowing his face, and his portly figure enveloped in the folds of a large blue cloak; and George Christoff, the rope-dancer, buttoned up in his over-coat, and looking rather blue, as if he had just stepped up from the chilly fog in the street; and Luke Berrington, looking quite the swell, as he always does; and one or two more that I didn't know, or can't remember. One by one, they dropped out, and others came in, till at last our turn came.
' "Well," says Roberts, who is a nice sort of fellow - a smart dark-complexioned man, with gold rings in his ears, "I want a couple of good gymnasts for Springthorp's, at Hull; but, you see, I don't know you: where have you been?"
'That was a floorer; but, before my partner could answer, a young fellow who had just come in, and who had seen us practising at the "ruins," and knew what we could do, says, "I know them; they have just come from the Cirque Imperiale."
' "Oh!" says Roberts, "if you have been at the Cirque Imperiale, you will do for Springthorp's. The engagement will be for six nights, commencing on Saturday next; and you will have five pounds."
'That was gorgeous, we thought. There was I, getting, as an apprentice, a pound a week, with three-and-thirty shillings, or six-and-thirty at the most, in perspective; and my partner, out of collar for months, and receiving the munificent salary of twelve bob a week when in: and we had jumped into fifty shillings a week each, for a nightly performance of ten minutes or a quarter of an hour! It is no wonder that we fell to work, building castles in the air, as soon as we got into the street. We should go to the Cirque Imperiale some day, though we had not been there yet, and then to Madrid or St Petersburg, and come back to England, and be engaged for the Alhambra at fifty pounds a week. From the lofty height to which we had soared before we reached the Haymarket we were brought to the ground by considerations of finance. We were both at low-water mark, and the denarlies had to be found for our tights and trunks, and our expenses down to Hull. We got over that little difficulty, however, and started for Hull with hearts as light as our purses.
'Do you know Springthorp's? You were never in Hull, perhaps; but, if you should ever happen to be there, and should lose yourself, as you are very likely to do, in the neighbourhood of the docks, and should wander into the dullest part of the town, towards Sculcoates, you will come upon a dreary-looking building, which was once a chapel, and afterwards a wax-work exhibition. That is Springthorp's; and there, in the dreariest, dingiest hall that was ever mocked with the name of a place of amusement, we gave our first performance. The Vokes family were performing there at the same time, and very agreeable people we found them. The six nights came to an end too soon, - before we had got used to seeing our name in the bills, in the largest type and the reddest ink. Then we came back to London, and presented ourselves again before our agent. We had given entire satisfaction at Springthorp's, he told us; but he couldn't offer us another engagement just then. He should put our name on his list, and, if anything should turn up, he would let us know.
'The first offer came from a music-hall at Plymouth, but the screw was too low for the distance, unless we had had other engagements in the western towns to follow, and we didn't take it. The next chance was at the Hippodrome, in Paris, and we should have gone there, but another brace of gymnasts, whose terms were lower than ours, cut us out of it. As if to confirm the vulgar superstition about times, the third time was lucky. Newsome wanted a couple of good gymnasts for his circus, and offered the same terms we had had at Springthorp's, and for twelve nights. The distance was a drawback, for the circus was then at Greenock; but we both desired a circus engagement, and hoped that Newsome might be disposed to engage us to travel with him. So we accepted the offer, and, reaching Edinburgh by steamer to Granton, went on by rail to Greenock.
'We had never seen any other circus than Hengler's, except Astley's, and, as we did not expect to see a theatre, we expected to find a tent. To our surprise, we found a large wooden building, well and substantially built, though without any pretensions to elegance or beauty of architecture; and we were still more surprised when we went into the ring to fix up our trapeze. The boxes and balcony were as prettily painted and gilded as in any theatre, and the ring-fence was covered with red cloth, and a handsome chandelier hung from a canopy such as Charman had at the Amphi. in Holborn.
‘ “This is better than Hengler's by a lump," says my partner, as we looked about us. "Why, it must look like Astley's, when the chandelier and those gas jets all round the balcony are lighted."
'We did not see many of the company till we presented ourselves in the dressing-room on the first night of our engagement. As we walked in an old clown was applying the last touch of vermilion to his whitened face, and a younger one was balancing a feather on the tip of his nose. There were seven or eight fellows in tights and trunks, ready for the vaulting act, and two or three in the gilt-buttoned blue tunic and gold-striped trousers which constituted the uniform in which the male members of the company stood at the ring-doors when not engaged in their several performances in the ring. They all stared at us as we went in, and I heard one of them say, "Here are the star gymnasts from London!" One or two said. "good evening," and one gave us a glance Of inquiry as he pronounced our professional name.
‘ “That's us," returned my partner.
‘ “Haven't I seen your face before ?" said another, looking hard at him.
‘ “Very likely," said Fred. "Were you ever at the Circe Price, in Madrid?"
‘ “No," answered the other fellow, still looking hard at him.
‘ "Then it couldn't have been there," said my partner, without a muscle of his face moving, though I had to bite my lips to keep from laughing.
‘We found all of them very good fellows to pal with when we knew them. There was Webster Vernon the ring-master; Alf Burgess, the head vaulter and revolving globe performer, who had been all over the continent, and was supposed to have accumulated some coin; Coleman, the bareback rider, a brother, I believe, of the theatrical manager of that name, well known in the north; Charlie Ducrow, a direct descendant of the great successor of Astley, and emulating him in his rapid act on six horses; old Zamezou and his boys; the Brothers Ridley, also acrobats, and very good in their chair act and at hand-balancing - Joe Ridley's one-arm balance was the best I ever saw; Franks, the first clown, with a fund of dry, quiet humour that earned his salary, which was higher than any other man's in the company, except Burgess's; Joe Hogini, singing clown, and better at comic singing than at clowning, though he could do some clever balancing tricks; and old Adams, clown and property-man, whose wife was money-taker at the gallery entrance, and whose daughter took small parts in the ballets when required.
'If I mention the gentlemen before the ladies, which isn't manners, it is because I saw them first, and saw them oftenest. The ladies, as is often the case in a circus, were all members of the proprietor's family. Madame Newsome only appeared in the ring when her clever manege horse, Brunette, was introduced. Miss Adele was great in leaping acts, and has been repeatedly acknowledged by the leading gentlemen of the north country hunts to be the finest horsewoman across country in England. One of the wonderful stories related of her is, that a splendid black hunter which she was riding leaped, in the excitement of the chase, over two hedges, with a narrow lane between them, landing safely in the field beyond. Miss Emma did double acts with Burgess, who is as good a rider as he is a vaulter and a juggler on the globe. Miss Marie only appeared in ballets at that time, but she is famous now for her daring acts of horsemanship, without saddle or bridle, like Beatrice Chiarini, whom you may have seen at the Amphitheatre. But there was Lizzie Keys, a bold and graceful rider, who used to take her hoops and balloons beautifully; they called her the Little Wonder, and she was said to be only fourteen years of age, but she looked more like a diminutive girl of eighteen.
'There was a capital stud. Newsome selected his horses as they say Astley did, without caring much for the colour of them; they were not chosen for show, like the cream-coloured, and spotted, and piebald horses you see in circuses that do a parade, but every horse was a good one in the ring, and had been selected for docility and intelligence. There was Emperor, the handsome black horse which the governor, and sometimes Miss Adele, used to ride; he was worth a hundred guineas, at the very least, as a hunter, and was a clever trick horse besides. It was a treat to see that horse find, with his eyes bandaged, a handkerchief which was buried in the saw-dust; you might bury it as deep as you could, and be as careful as you liked to make the saw-dust look as if it had not been disturbed, but he would be sure to find it. He would step slowly round the ring till he came to the place, and then he would scrape the saw-dust away with his hoof, pick up the handkerchief with his teeth, and carry it to Newsome. One night Franks took the handkerchief out of the saw-dust, ran over to the other side of the ring, and buried it in another place, chuckling and gesticulating in assumed anticipation of the horse's discomfiture. The horse found it as easily as usual. In fact, I never knew him miss it but once; he then passed the place, but Newsome said, "En arriere," - circus horses are always spoken to in the ring in French, - and be stepped back directly, and found it. Then there was Brunette, a brown mare, the most docile and intelligent creature that ever went on hoofs; and Balaklava, a sear-covered veteran that had served in the Scots Greys, and had received his name from having been wounded in the charge of the heavy cavalry at the battle of Balaklava. Lizzie Keys used to ride him.
'From the company and the stud, I must return to ourselves. The twelve nights we were engaged for, like the six at Hull, came to an end too soon; and my partner spoke to Henry, the manager, about our travelling with the circus, as we had set our minds upon doing. Henry, who was a very gentlemanly fellow, said he would mention it to the governor; and Newsome called us to him.
' " I am afraid," said he, “you wouldn't be of much use to me. You have not been used to circus business, and you know nothing about it. The general routine of a circus is very different to a starring engagement, or a turn at a music-hall. You can't vault, or hold a banner or a balloon."
' " We should soon learn," said Fred.
‘ "Well, look here," said the governor, "it's as I said just now, you are not of much use to me at present; but you are good on the trapeze, and, on the understanding that you are to make yourselves useful in the general business as soon as you can, I will put you on the establishment, the engagement to be terminable at any time by a week's notice on either side."
‘ " I should like travelling with a circus, of all things," said Fred.
' "Of course, I couldn't give you the salary you have been having as stars," said the governor. "The best man in the company doesn't get much more than I have been giving each of you. But if two pounds a week for you and your partner will satisfy you, you may consider yourself engaged."
'Of course, we thanked him, and we accepted the offer, thinking that we should be worth more some day, and that it would be better to have two pounds a week regular than to have five pounds for a week or a fortnight only, and then be for several weeks without an engagement.'
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