Frost’s Circus Life and Circus Celebrities
Thomas Frost, Circus Life and Circus Celebrities, London: Chatto and Windus, 1881.
A few words about Menageries - George Wombwell - The Lion Baitings at Warwick - Atkins's Lion and Tigress at Astley's - A Bull-fight and a Zebra Hunt -Ducrow at the Pavilion - The Stud at Drury Lane - Letter from Wooler to Elliston - Ducrow and the Drury ‘Supers' - Zebras on the Stage - The first Arab Troupe - Contention between Ducrow and Clarkson Stanfield - Deaths of John Ducrow and Madame Ducrow - Miss Woolford.
CIRCUSES and menageries are now so frequently associated, and the inmates of the latter have at all times been so frequently brought into connection with the former, that it becomes desirable, at this stage of the record, to say a few words about the zoological collections of former times. Without going back to the formation of the royal menagerie in the Tower of London in the thirteenth century, it may be stated that, when that appendage of regal state was abolished, most of the animals were purchased by an enterprising speculator named Cross, who located them at Exeter Change. The want of sufficient space there subsequently induced Cross to remove the collection to the site afterwards known as the Surrey Gardens, where, under the more favourable conditions as to space, light, and air afforded by that locality, it long rivalled that of the Royal Zoological Society, which had, in the mean time, grown up on the north side of Regent's Park.
The travelling menageries probably grew, on a small scale, side by side, as it were, with the royal collection at the Tower, until they developed into such exhibitions as, half a century ago, travelled from fair to fair, in company with Richardson's and Gyngell's theatres, Cooke's and Samwell's circuses, Algar's dancing booth, and the pig-faced lady. Wombwell's menagerie was formed about 1805, and Atkins's must have begun travelling soon afterwards. These two shows were for many years among the chief attractions of the great fairs, in the days when fairs were annual red-letter days in the calendar of the young, and even the upper classes of society did not deem it beneath their dignity to patronize the itinerant menagerie and the tenting circus.
'Wombwell's,’ said the reporter of a London morning journal, about three years ago, by way of introducing a report of the sale of Fairgrieves's menagerie, 'had its great show traditions; for its founder was a showman of no ordinary enterprise and skill. He built up the menagerie, so to speak, and he made it by far the finest travelling collection of wild animals in the country. His heart was in his work, and he spared nothing that could help it forward. Tales of his enterprise are many. He never missed Bartlemy fair as long as it was held; once, however, he was very near doing so. His show was at Newcastle within a fortnight of Bartlemy's, and there were no railways. He had given up all intention of going to the fair, but, being in London buying specimens, he found that his rival - a man named Atkins - was advertising that his would be the only wild beast show at the fair.
‘Forthwith Wombwell posted down to Newcastle, struck his tent, and began to move southward. By dint of extraordinary exertions he reached London on the morning of the fair. But a terrible. loss was his. The one elephant in the collection - a fine brute - had so over-exerted itself on the journey that it died just as it arrived at the fair. Atkins thought to make capital of this, and placarded at once that he had "the only live elephant in the fair." Wombwell saw his chance, and had a huge canvas painted, bearing the words that within his show was to be seen "the only dead elephant in the fair." There never was a greater success; a live elephant was not a great rarity, but the chance of seeing a dead elephant came only once now and then. Atkins's was deserted; Wombwell's was crowded.'
It is not easy to reconcile the keen rivalry between the two shows which this story is intended to illustrate with the fact that they never visited Croydon fair together, but always agreed to take that popular resort in their tours in alternate years. The story may be true, or it may be as apocryphal as that of the lion and dog fights with which the readers of another London morning journal were entertained three months previously, when the tragical incident of the death of the lion-tamer, Macarthy, had invested leonine matters with more than ordinary interest.
'Did you ever hear of old Wallace's fight with the dogs?' an ex-lion-tamer was reported as having said to the gentleman by whom the conversation was communicated to the journal.
'George Wombwell was at very low water, and not knowing how to get his head up again, he thought of a fight between an old lion he had sometimes called Wallace, sometimes Nero, and a dozen of mastiff dogs. Wallace was tame as a sheep - I knew him well - I wish all lions were like him. The prices of admission ranged from a guinea up to five guineas, and had the menagerie been three times as large it would have been full. It was a queer go, and no mistake! Sometimes the old lion would scratch a lump out of a dog, and sometimes the dogs would make as if they were going to worry the old lion, but neither side showed any serious fight; and at length the patience of the audience got exhausted and they went away in disgust. George's excuse was, "We can't make 'em fight, can we, if they won't?" There was no getting over this; and George cleared over two thousand pounds by the night's work.'
In this account two different animals are confounded; the old lion, whose name was Nero, and a younger, but full-grown one, named Wallace. The blunder is strange and unaccountable in one who professes to have known the animals and their keeper, and renders it probable that he is altogether in error about the fight he describes. The newspapers and sporting magazines of the period - about fifty years ago - describe two lion-baitings, which took place in Wombwell's menagerie in the Old Factory Yard, at Warwick; and some vague report or dim recollection of them seems to have been in the mind of the 'ex-lion-king,' when he dictated the graphic narrative for the morning journal. The fights were said to have originated in a bet between two sporting gentlemen, and the dogs were not mastiffs, but bull-dogs. The first fight, the incidents of which were similar in character to those described by the 'ex-lion-king,' was between Nero and the dogs; and, this not being considered satisfactory, a second encounter was arranged, in which Wallace was substituted for the old lion, with very different results. Every dog that faced the lion was killed or disabled, the last that did so being carried about in the lion's mouth as a rat is by a terrier or a cat.
I may add, that I have a perfect recollection of both the lions, having made their acquaintance at Croydon fair when a very small boy. I remember the excitement which was once created amongst the visitors to that fair by Wombwell's announcement that he had on exhibition that most wonderful animal, the 'bonassus,' being the first specimen which bad ever been brought to Europe. As no one had ever seen, heard, or read of such an animal before, the curious flocked in crowds to see the beast, which proved to be a very fine male specimen of the bison, or American buffalo. Under the name given to it by Wombwell, it found its way into the epilogue of the Westminster play as one of the wonders of the day. It was afterwards purchased by the Zoological Society; but it had been enfeebled by confinement and disease, and died soon after its removal to the Society's gardens in the Regent's Park. The Hudson's Bay Company supplied its place by presenting a young cow, which lived there for many years.
Atkins had a very fine collection of the feline genus, and was famous for the production of hybrids between the lion and the tigress. The cubs so produced united some of the external characteristics of both parents, their colour being tawny, marked while they were young with dark stripes, such as may be observed in the fur of black kittens, the progeny of a tabby cat. These markings disappeared, however, as they do in the cat, as the lion-tigers attained maturity, at which time the males had the mane entirely deficient, or very little developed. I remember seeing a male puma and a leopardess in the same cage in this menagerie, but am unable to state whether the union was fruitful.
Atkins's lion and tigress, with their playful cubs, were engaged by Ducrow and West as one of the attractions of the season of 1832, and were introduced to the frequenters of Astley's by their keeper, Winney. A zebra hunt was also exhibited in the circle, in which four zebras appeared; and with this novel spectacle was combined, on the occasion of Ducrow's benefit, a mimic representation of a Spanish bull-fight, in which the great equestrian enacted the part of the matador. When a similar exhibition was got up, many years afterwards, at the Alhambra, during the time when it was temporarily converted into a circus, a horse was trained to wear the horns and hide of an ox, and do duty for Toro; and, though I have not been able to verify the fact, this was probably the case at Astley's.
It was during this season that Ducrow had the honour of performing before William IV., who ordered a temporary amphitheatre to be erected within the grounds of the Pavilion at Brighton, in order that he might witness the performances of this celebrated equestrian, which included several of his most admired feats of horsemanship.
In the following year the bull-fight was repeated, and the zebras re-appeared in the spectacle of Aladdin. After the Amphitheatre was closed the stud appeared at Drury Lane, instead of going into the provinces; and this arrangement between Elliston and the lessees of Astley's was repeated in more than one season. Elliston's biographer relates that when the stud was engaged for Croly's Enchanted Courser, the horses and their grooms were at the stage door of Drury Lane Theatre, at the time fixed for the first rehearsal, but there was no one to direct the important share which they were to take in the performance. A note was sent to Ducrow, who replied that his agreement with Elliston only related to the horses. This was found to be correct, though undoubtedly an oversight on the part of Elliston, the Drury Lane manager, who had to make a second agreement with Ducrow for his personal services in superintending the training of the horses, and the general arrangement of the scenes in which they were to be introduced.
The introduction of horses on the stage of Drury Lane was the subject of a letter to Elliston from Thomas Wooler, of Yellow Dwarf fame, from which the following passages are extracted, as bearing upon the long subsequent production of Richard III. at Astley's, while under the management of William Cooke.
'What think you of mounting Shakespeare's heroes, as the bard himself would rejoice they should be? Why not allow the wand of Ducrow to aid the representation of his dramas, as well as the pencil of Stanfield? "Saddle White Surrey" in good earnest, and, as from The Surrey you once banished these animals, and have taken them up at Drury Lane, think of doing them justice. I fancy your giving up the circle in St George's Fields, and bringing your stable into a Theatre Royal, a little inconsistent; but no matter, it is done, and reminds me of a friend of mine, who swept away his poultry-yard from his suitable villa at Fulham, and yet kept cocks and hens in Fleet Street.
'But to return; instead of niggardly furnishing Richard and Richmond with armies that do not muster the force of a serjeant's guard, give them an efficient force of horse and foot. Your two-legged actors would be in arms against this project, but disregard their jealousy, and remember that four to two are two to one in your favour. Richard should march to the field in the full panoply of all your cavalry, and not trudge like a poor pedlar, whom no one would dream of "interrupting in his expedition." He might impressively dismount in compliment to the ladies; and when in the field he cries, "My kingdom for a horse!" the audience might fairly deem such a price only a fair offer for the recovery of so noble an animal. The audience would wish Hotspur to manage his roan as well as his lady, and though amongst your spectators there might be perhaps a grey mare, yet she would be content that Hotspur should be the "better horse" for her night's amusement.'
What Wallett says of the absence of a good seat on horseback from the list of the qualifications of clowns and acrobats is true of actors, and in a greater degree, in the sense, I mean, that is attached to riding by professional entertainers of the public. The number of actors who can ride at all is comparatively small; and among those who can, and who make a decent figure in Rotten Row, there are probably not two who would venture to gallop across a stage, and much less to take part in an equestrian combat or joust. Hence it is only in the arena of a circus that Richmond wins his crown as he did at Bosworth; and, though horses were again introduced on the stage of Drury Lane in the drama of Rebecca, they were not ridden by the actors whose names appeared in the bills. The horses belonged to a circus company, and were ridden by the practised equestrians accustomed to bestride them - 'doubles' of the Knight of Ivanhoe and Sir Brian Bois-Guilbert.
When Bernard's hippo-dramatic spectacle of St George and the Dragon was produced at Drury Lane, under the superintendence of Ducrow, who had acquired great experience in the arrangement of equestrian cavalcades, pageants, and tableaux, there was a great deal of trouble with the supernumeraries, who were not accustomed to doing their business in the manner expected from them by so accomplished a pantomimist as the lessee of Astley's. While the scene was being rehearsed in which the people appear excitedly before the Egyptian king, with the news of the devastation and dismay caused by the dragon, the 'supers' exhausted Ducrow's not very large stock of patience, and, after making them go through their business two or three times, without any improvement, his temper burst out, in his characteristic manner.
'Look here, you damned fools!' he exclaimed. 'You should rush up to the King, - that chap there - and say, "Old fellow, the dragon has come, and we are in a mess, and you must get us out of it." The King says, "Go to Brougham," and you all go off to Brougham; and he says, "What the devil do I know about the dragon? Go to your gods," and your gods is that lump of tow burning on that block of timber.'
This strange address was accompanied by an exhibition of the pantomimic skill of which Ducrow possessed a greater degree than any man of his day, and which was intended to impress the subordinate actors and supernumeraries of the theatre with a correct idea of the manner in which their business should be performed.
This was Ducrow's manner on all occasions. One morning, during the season of 1833, he was on the stage, in his dressing-gown and slippers, to witness the first rehearsal of a new feat by the German rope-walker, Cline. The rope was stretched from the stage to the gallery, and the performer was to ascend it, and return. Cline was a little nervous; perhaps the rope had been arranged more in accordance with Ducrow's ideas than with his own. Whatever the cause, he hesitated to ascend the rope, when Ducrow snatched the balancing-pole from his hands, and walked up the rope in his slippers, his dressing-gown flapping about his legs in the draught from the stage in a manner that caused his ascent to be watched with no small amount of anxiety, though he did not appear to feel the slightest trepidation himself.
The special attractions in the circle during the season of 1834 were the Vintner family, who presented a novel performance on two and three ropes, with double and single ascensions, which had been much applauded the year before at Franconi's; and a troupe of Arab vaulters and acrobats, who seem to have been the first of their race who had visited Europe in that capacity. On the conclusion of the season at Astley's, the stud went again to Drury Lane, where Pocock's spectacle of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table was produced. The production of this piece was the occasion of an unfortunate contention between Ducrow and Clarkson Stanfield, who was then scene-painter to Drury Lane. The scenic artist had painted a beautiful view of Carlisle, which he wished to be seen by the spectators before their attention was diverted from it by the entry of Arthur and his knights. Ducrow crowded the stage with men and horses, and wished the curtain to rise upon this animated spectacle - knights caracoling, banners waving, trumpets blaring, people shouting their welcome. Bunn sided with Ducrow, and Stanfield retired from his post, mortified and offended.
Queen Adelaide witnessed the performance of this spectacle, as she had that of the preceding season, and was so much gratified that she ordered a hundred pounds to be distributed among the company. Count D'Orsay was so pleased with it, that he presented Ducrow with a gold and ivory-mounted dirk, and a pair of pistols inlaid with gold, which had been worn by Lord Byron, and presented by him to the Count.
Henry Adams was again a prominent member of Ducrow's company in 1835, when he appeared in the circle as the Mexican lasso-thrower, a part which he performed with great dexterity. In the following year, the Vintners and the Arabs were found a source of undiminished attraction, but were joined with Price, called the Bounding Ball, who exhibited the then unparalleled feat of throwing thirty somersaults.
John Ducrow, brother of the renowned equestrian, who had been the principal clown of the Amphitheatre during the preceding ten years, died in 1834; and Andrew Ducrow's first wife, the companion of his early triumphs, died about two years afterwards. Widdicomb, who bad been ring-master of the establishment for many years, died the same year, at the age of sixty-seven. Ducrow subsequently married Miss Woolford, who had for several years been one of the leading attractions of his establishment, and various members of whose family helped to supply the travelling circuses with equestrians and tight-rope performers for a long period.
No part of this publication may be reproduced in any form or means
without written permission of the author and the Circus Historical Society, Inc.
Last modified November 2005.