Frost’s Circus Life and Circus Celebrities
Thomas Frost, Circus Life and Circus Celebrities, London: Chatto and Windus, 1881.
Ducrow at Covent Garden -Engagement at Astley's - Double Acts in the circle - Ducrow at Manchester - Rapid Act on Six Horses - 'Raphael's Dream' - Miss Woolford - Cross's performing Elephant - O'Donnel's Antipodean Feats - First year of Ducrow and West - Henry Adams - Ducrow at Hull - The Wild Horse of the Ukraine - Ducrow at Sheffield - Travelling Circuses - An Entree at Holloway's - Wild's Show - Constantine, the Posturer - Circus Horses - Tenting at Fairs - The Mountebanks.
WHEN Elliston produced the spectacle of the Cataract of the Ganges at Drury Lane Theatre, in 1823, Bunn, who was then lessee of Covent Garden Theatre, was induced by its success to engage Ducrow, who made his first appearance at that theatre on Easter Monday, 1824, in the lyrical and spectacular drama of Cortez. Davis, fearing a rival in the famous equestrian, offered him an engagement at Astley's, where be soon became the chief attraction.
The double act of Cupid and Zephyr, now represented by himself and his wife, was received with as much applause as it had elicited at Franconi's; and a perfect furore was created when be appeared on two bare-back horses, as an Indian hunter. Cline's rope-walking feats varied the programme of the circle in 1826, and in the following year Ducrow, having first given the performance with immense success at Manchester, introduced his great feat, then unparalleled, of riding six horses at the same time, in his rapid act as a Russian courier.
Fresh novelties were produced in 1828, the most attractive being the equestrian act called 'Raphael's Dream,' in which Ducrow reproduced, on horseback, the finest conceptions of the sculptors of ancient Greece, receiving immense applause at every exhibition. Miss Woolford and George Cooke made their first appearance at Astley's in this year, in a double performance on the tight-rope, in which the former artiste was for a long time without a rival. Aptitude for this exhibition seems, as in other branches of circus business, to be hereditary; and a Miss Woolford may have been found as a tight-rope performer in some circus or other any time within the last half-century. I remember seeing a tight-rope performer of this name in a little show which attended the July fair at Croydon about thirty years ago.
Ducrow's stud was engaged this year for Vauxhall Gardens, where the hippo-dramatic spectacle of The Battle of Waterloo was revived, and proved as attractive as it had been some years previously at Astley's. The year 1828 is also memorable for the first introduction of an elephant into the arena, a colossal performing animal of that genus being brought, with its keeper, from Cross's menagerie, which many readers, even old residents in the metropolis, may require to be informed had its location on the site of what afterwards became Exeter Arcade, in the rear of the houses on the north side of the Strand, between Exeter Street and Catherine Street. The elephant was also led in the bridal procession which constituted one of the displays of the quadrupedal resources of the establishment in the spectacular drama of Bluebeard.
In travelling over the records of saw-dust performances, we are frequently reminded of the saying of the wise monarch of Israel, that there is no new thing under the sun. The bills of Astley's, the advertisements of the Royal Circus and the Olympic Pavilion, the traditions of travelling circuses, present us with the originals of almost every feat that the acrobats and posturers of the present day have ever attempted. Ducrow, it has been seen, was the originator of the poses plastiques, revived and made famous a quarter of a century ago by Madame Wharton and troupe, at the Walhalla, in Leicester Square, and subsequently by Harry Boleno, the clown, at the Alhambra. Another instance comes under notice in 1829, when a performer named O'Donnel exhibited at Astley's the antipodean feats performed a few years ago at the London Pavilion, and other music-halls, by Jean Bond. O'Donnel mounted a ladder, stood on his head on the top of one of the uprights, kicked away the other, with all its rungs, and in that position drank a glass of wine, and performed several tricks. The kicking away of the unfixed portion of the ladder invariably creates a sensation among the spectators, but adds nothing to the difficulty or danger of the performance.
On the lease of the Amphitheatre expiring in 1830, the owner of the premises raised the rent so much that Davis relinquished the undertaking. Ducrow, who possessed much of the energy and enterprise by which Philip Astley had been distinguished, saw his opportunity at once, and, obtaining a partner in William West, took the lease on the terms which his less enterprising predecessor had shrunk from. He produced a gorgeous Eastern spectacle, and engaged Stickney and young Bridges for the circle. Stickney was an admirable equestrian, the first of the many famous riders who have learned their art on the other side of the Atlantic, where he had already achieved a considerable reputation. Bridges was a rope-dancer, and gained great applause by turning a somersault on the rope, a feat which he appears to have been the first to perform. Later in the season, Henry Adams (the father of Charles Adams) made his appearance as a performer of rapid acts of equitation, the travelling circus which he had lately owned having passed into the possession of his late groom, John Milton.
During the portion of this year when Astley's was closed, Ducrow and his company, bipeds and quadrupeds, performed for a short time at Hull. Returning to the metropolis, he opened the Amphitheatre for the season of 1831 with the spectacular drama of Mazeppa, the only enduring performance of the kind with which Astley's was for so many years associated. Most of them, elaborately as they were got up, - for Ducrow never spared expense, - and attractive as they proved at the time of their production, owed their popularity to recent military events; but the fortunes of the daring youth immortalized by the genius of Byron, and the headlong flight of the wild horse of the Ukraine, have proved an unfailing source of attraction, and made Mazeppa the trump-card of every hippo-dramatic manager who possesses or can borrow a white horse qualified to enact the part of the 'fiery, untamed steed' upon whose bare back the hero is borne into the steppes of the Don Cossack country.
Adams and Stickney continued to attract in the circle, but Ducrow engaged in addition an acrobatic performer named Williams, who turned tourbillions at the height of twelve feet from the ground, and repeated them through hoops at the same height, over a tilted waggon, over eight horses, and, finally, over a troop of mounted cavalry. The famous performing elephant, Mdlle Jeck, also made its appearance during this season. When the Amphitheatre closed, Ducrow took his company and stud to Sheffield, where he had had an immense structure of a temporary character erected for their performances. He ruined the prospect of a successful provincial season, however, by indulgence of his overbearing disposition, which manifested itself on all occasions, in and out of the arena. The Master Cutler and Town Council determined to patronize the circus officially, and appeared at the head of a cortege of between forty and fifty carriages, containing the principal manufacturers and their families. But, on the Master Cutler sending his card to Ducrow, in the anticipation of being personally received, Ducrow replied, through one of his subordinates, that he only waited upon crowned heads, and not upon a set of dirty knife grinders. The astounded and indignant chief magistrate immediately ordered his coachman to turn about, and the entire cavalcade returned to the Town Hall, where a ball was improvised, instead of the intended visit to the circus. Thus Ducrow's prospects in the hardware borough were ruined by his own hasty temper and overbearing disposition.
It is now time to say a few words about the travelling circuses that had been springing into existence during the preceding fifteen or sixteen years, and some of which have already been mentioned. The northern and midland counties were travelled at this time by Holloway's, Milton's, Wild's, and Bannister's; the eastern, southern, and western by Saunders's, Cooke's, Samwell's, and Clarke's. We find Holloway in possession of the circus at Sheffield after its vacation by Ducrow. Wallett, who first comes into observation about this time, was one of Holloway's clowns, and also did posturing, and played Simkin in saw-dust ballets. He states, in his autobiography, that they opened with a powerful company and a numerous stud; but it seems that there were not a dozen of the troupe, including grooms, who could ride. The first item in the programme for the opening night was an entree of twelve, five of whom were thrown off their horses before the round of the circle had been made, one of them having three of his fingers broken. The horses do not appear to have been in fault, for they continued their progress as steadily as if nothing had happened. Wallett accounts for this untoward incident by stating that the dismounted cavaliers were clowns and acrobats, and that few members of those sections of the profession can ride; but, considering that grooms could have been made available, a 'powerful company' should have been able to mount twelve horses for an entree without putting into the saddle men who could not ride.
James Wild's show was a small concern, combining a drama, a la Richardson, with the performances of a tight-rope dancer and a fortune-telling pony. Wallett, who had made his first appearance before the public as a 'super' at the theatre of his native town, Hull, when Ducrow was there, and had afterwards clowned on the outside of Charles Yeoman's Royal Pavilion at Gainsborough fair, joined Wild's show at Leeds, but soon transferred his talent to a rival establishment. Both shows were soon afterwards at Keighley fair, for which occasion Wild had engaged four acrobats from London, named Constantine, Heng, Morris, and Whitton. The popularity of Ducrow's representations of Grecian statuary had induced Constantine to study them, and having provided himself with the requisite properties, he exhibited them very successfully in Wild's show.
The proprietor of the rival establishment was in agony, for his loudest braying through a speaking trumpet, and the wildest beating of his gong, did not avail to stop the rush to Wild's which left the front of his own show deserted. Wallett ruminated over the situation, and at night sought Constantine, and made overtures to him for the purchase of his tights and 'props.' The acrobat entertained them, perhaps the bargain was very liberally wetted, and Wallett became the triumphant possessor of the means of personating Ajax and Achilles, and all the gods and heroes of Homer's classic pages. Next day, the show in which he was engaged was crowded to see him 'do the Grecian statues,' while Wild's was deserted, Constantine dejected, and his employer despairing.
Bannister's circus travelled Scotland and the northern counties of England, and it is a noteworthy point in his history that David Roberts was engaged by its proprietor as scene painter when he added a stage and a company of pantomimists to the attractions of the ring. This was in 1817, when the circus was located in Edinburgh, and the future R. A. had just completed his apprenticeship to a house-painter. Roberts says, in his diary, that he could never forget the tremor he felt, the faintness that came over him, when he ascended to the second floor of the house in Nicholson Street in which Banister lodged, and, after much hesitation, mustered courage to ring the bell. Bannister received him very kindly, looked at his drawings, and engaged him to paint a set of wings for a palace. The canvas was brought, and laid down on the floor, and Roberts began to work there and then. At the close of the circus season, he was engaged at a salary of twenty-five shillings a week to travel with the company into England, paint all the scenery and properties that might be required, and make himself generally useful. Roberts says that he found that the last clause of the contract involved the necessity of taking small parts in pantomimes, which, he says, he rather over-did than under-did. His circus experiences were brief, however, for Bannister became bankrupt before long, and Roberts betook himself to house-painting again until he was engaged by Corri to paint scenery for the Pantheon, at Edinburgh. It may be remarked that he received no higher salary from Corri than from Bannister, and did not reach thirty shillings a week until he was engaged as scene-painter to the theatre at Glasgow.
The tenting circuses of those days were on a more limited scale than those of the present-time, and were met with chiefly at fairs. They had seldom more than three or four horses, of which perhaps only two appeared in the circle. Their proprietors were not so regardless of colour as Philip Astley was, and favoured cream-coloured, pied, and spotted horses. While the acrobats performed 'flips' and hand springs, and the clown cracked his 'wheezes,' on the outside, while the proprietor beat his gong, or bawled through a speaking-trumpet his invitations to the spectators to 'walk up,' the horses stood in a row on the platform and when the proprietor shouted 'all in, to begin!’ the animals were led or ridden down the steps in front, and taken round to the entrance at the side, whence they emerged on the conclusion of the performance, to ascend the steps, and resume their position on the platform. The performances were short, consisting of two or three acts of horsemanship, some tumbling, and a tight-rope performance; but they were repeated from noon till near midnight as often as the seats could be filled.
Even in the palmy days of fairs, the vicissitudes of showmen were a marked feature of their lives, owing, in part at least, to their dependence upon the weather for success, and the variability of the English climate. A wet fair was a serious matter for them, and the October fair at Croydon, one of the best in the south, seldom passed over without rain, which sometimes reduced the field to such a state of quagmire that hurdles had to be laid down upon the mud for the pleasure-seekers to walk upon. Saunders, as we have seen, was seldom out of difficulties; and Clarke had not always even a tent, but pitched his ring in a field, or on a common, in the open air, after the manner of Philip Astley and his predecessors, Price and Sampson, in the early days of equestrian performances. He did not, however, make a collection - called in the slang of the profession, 'doing a nob,' - but made his gains by the sale, at a shilling each, of tickets for a kind of 'lucky-bag' speculation among the spectators whom the performances attracted to the spot. Sometimes additional eclat would be given to the event by the announcement that a greasy pole would be climbed by competitors for the leg of mutton affixed to the top, or a piece of printed cotton would be offered as a prize for the winner in a race, for which only girls were allowed to enter. Then, while the equestrian of the company enacted the Drunken Hussar, or the Sailor's Return, or Billy Button's ride to Brentford, the acrobats would walk round with the tickets; or the equestrian would condescend to do so, while the Polish Brothers tied themselves up in knots, or wriggled between the rungs of a ladder, or Miss Clarke delighted the spectators by her graceful movements upon the tight-rope. The business concluded with the drawing for prizes, which were few in proportion to the blanks, and consisted of plated tea-pots and milk jugs, work-boxes, japanned tea-trays, silk handkerchiefs, &c. This kind of entertainment was given within the last forty years; but Clarke was then an old man, and with his death the race of the mountebanks, as they were popularly called, became extinct.
The last section of a mock Act of Parliament published about this time gives a good idea of the clown's business five-and-thirty years ago, and affords the means of comparing the circus wit and humour of that period with the laughter-provocatives of the Merrymans of the present day. It runs as follows:
'And be it further enacted, that when the scenes in the circus commence, the Merriman, Grotesque, or Clown shall not, after the first equestrian feat, exclaim, "Now I'll have a turn to myself," previous to his toppling like a coach-wheel round the ring; nor shall he fall flat on his face, and then collecting some saw-dust in his hands drop it down from the level of his head, and say his nose bleeds; nor shall he attempt to make the rope-dancer's balance-pole stand on its end by propping it up with the said saw-dust; nor shall he, after chalking the performer's shoes, conclude by chalking his own nose, to prevent his foot from slipping when he treads on it; nor shall he take long pieces of striped cloth for Mr Stickney to jump over, while his horse goes under; previous to which he shall not pull the groom off the stool, who holds the other end of the same cloth, neither shall he find any difficulty in holding it at the proper level; nor, after having held it higher and lower, shall he ask, "Will that do?" and, on being answered in the affirmative, he shall not jump down, and put his hands in his pockets, saying, "I'm glad of it;" nor shall he pick up a small piece of straw, for fear he should fall over it, and afterwards balance the said straw on his chin as he runs about. Neither shall the Master of the Ring say to the Merriman, Grotesque, or Clown, when they are leaving the circus, "I never follow the fool, sir;" nor shall the fool reply, "Then I do,' and walk out after him; nor, moreover, shall the Clown say that “the horses are as clever as the barber who shaved bald magpies at twopence a dozen;" nor tell the groom in the red jacket and top boots, when he takes the said horses away, to "rub them well down with cabbage-puddings, for fear they should get the collywobbleums in their pandenoodles;" such speeches being manifestly very absurd and incomprehensible.
'Saving always, that the divers ladies and gentlemen, young ladies and young gentlemen, maidservants, apprentices, and little boys, who patronise the theatre, should see no reason why the above alterations should be made; under which circumstances, they had better remain as they are.'
Last modified November 2005.