Frost’s Circus Life and Circus Celebrities
Thomas Frost, Circus Life and Circus Celebrities, London: Chatto and Windus, 1881.
Lions and Lion-tamers -Manchester Jack - Van Amburgh - Carter's Feats - What is a Tiger? - Lion-driving and Tiger-fighting - Van Amburgh and the Duke of Wellington - Vaulting Competition between Price and North - Burning of the Amphitheatre - Death of Ducrow - Equestrian Performances at the Surrey Theatre - Travelling Circuses - Wells and Miller - Thomas Cooke -Van Amburgh - Edwin Hughes - Williaim Batty - Pablo Fanque.
HE Must have been a bold man who first undertook to tame and train a lion. It has been jocosely remarked that he must have been a courageous man who first ventured to eat an oyster; but a very different degree of courage must have been possessed by the man who first ventured upon familiarities with the tawny monarch of the African forests. The distinction is attributed to Hanno, the Carthaginian general; but the first public exhibition of trained lions was given in the Amphitheatre at Rome, where Mark Antony, seated in a car, with a lady by his side, drove a pair of lions round the arena. But we must come down to modern times for the first exhibition of tamed and trained lions and tigers in this country. Van Amburgh is generally credited with the distinction of having been the first lion-tamer of modern times; but I remember seeing, when a very small boy, the keeper of the lions in Wombwell's menagerie enter the cage of a fine old lion, Nero, and sit on the animal's back, open his mouth, &c. As this was more than forty years ago, the performer must have been 'Manchester Jack,’ who was enacting the part of 'lion king' in Wombwell's menagerie when Van Amburgh, an American of Dutch descent, arrived in England with his trained lions, tigers, and leopards.
It has been said that arrangements were made for a trial of skill and daring between the American and Manchester Jack, and that it was to have taken place at Southampton, but fell through in consequence of Van Amburgh showing the white feather. The story seems improbable, for Van Amburgh's daring in his performances has never been exceeded.
' Were you ever afraid?' the Duke of Wellington once asked him.
'The first time I am afraid, your Grace,’ replied the lion-tamer, 'or that I fancy my pupils are no longer afraid of me, I shall retire from the wild beast line.'
After having been killed in the newspapers half a dozen times, his back broken twice, and his head once bitten off by a tiger, Van did retire, undevoured, and died quietly in his bed about five years ago. Manchester Jack also retired from the profession, and kept an inn at Taunton for many years afterwards, dying in 1865.
Van Amburgh and his trained animals were engaged by Ducrow and West during the season of 1838 at Astley's, and proved a great attraction. Then came Carter, another lion-tamer, who appeared with his animals, in a drama specially written for them, as Afghar, a lion-tamer, in which part he drove a lion in harness and maintained a mimic fight with an animal called in the bills a tiger. I have not been able to ascertain whether this animal was really a tiger, a point upon which doubt arises from the fact of Carter's collection being announced as containing a fine 'Brazilian tiger,’ and from the application of the name by travellers and colonists imperfectly acquainted with zoology to every feline animal which is larger than a cat, and does not possess a mane. The beautiful striped animal properly called a tiger has a very circumscribed range, being found only in the hot regions of Asia, south of the Himalayan mountains and east of the Indus. But the South African colonists call the leopard a tiger, and many travellers in the tropical regions of America speak of the jaguar by that name. Carter's ‘Brazilian tiger' was, of course, a jaguar; but his collection may have contained a veritable tiger, and it may have been the latter animal that he engaged in mimic conflict with on the stage. Tigers are not usually sufficiently docile to be trusted in such performances; but the possibility of their being so trained is proved by the fact that I saw a struggle between a man and a tiger, about five and thirty years ago, in a small show pitched on a piece of waste ground at Norwood. It was a rather tame affair, however, and, coupled with the fact that the tiger was the sole representative of the 'group of trained animals' announced in the bills, caused my boyish disappointment to vent itself, as I passed out of the show, in a remark on the discrepancy between the promise and the performance. 'What can you expect for a penny?' was the rejoinder of the shabby woman who acted as money-taker; and, though I felt that I ought to have seen at least another animal, I passed on, silently wondering how a tiger and several human beings could be fed upon the scanty receipts of a little penny show; for there was a drama produced, the hero of which was an English traveller, who underwent harrowing adventures among savages and wild beasts in Central Africa.
The ex-lion king, whose reminiscences and experiences were recorded three years ago in a London morning journal, computes the number of lions in this country at about fifty; but this seems erroneous, as there were ten in Fairgrieve's menagerie, and probably as many in each of the other two shows into which Wombwell's collection was divided at his death, five in Manders's, and five attached to Sanger's circus, besides those in Hilton's, Day's, and other menageries, Bell and Myers's circus, and the Zoological Gardens of London, Bristol, and Manchester. The greater number of them have been bred in cages. These are cheaper than the imported lions, but seldom attain so large a size as the latter. Jamrach, of Ratcliffe Highway, is the agent through whom most of the imported lions are procured. He has agents abroad, and also buys from captains and stewards of ships, who sometimes bring home wild animals as a commercial speculation. As I lay claim to no practical knowledge of the business of lion-taming and lion-training, I quote here what the 'ex-lion king' said on the subject two years ago, in preference to writing at random about it.
'The lion-tamer,' we are told, 'likes to get his beasts as young as he can, because then they are more easily brought into order, although, no doubt, there are many instances where a full-grown forest lion has been trained to high perfection. The lion-tamer begins by taking the feeding of them into his own hands, and so gets them to know him. He commences feeding them from the outside of the den, then ventures inside to one at a time, always carefully keeping his face to the animal, and avoiding any violence, which is a mistake whenever it can be avoided, as it rouses the dormant devil in the beasts. Getting to handle the lion, the tamer begins by stroking him down the back, gradually working up to the head, which he begins to scratch, and the lion, which, like a cat, likes friction, begins to rub his head against the hand. When this familiarity is well established, a board is handed in to the trainer, which be places across the den, and teaches the lion to jump over it, using a whip with a thong, but not for the purpose of punishment. Gradually this board is heightened, the lion jumping over it at every stage; and then come the hoops, &c., held on the top of the board to quicken the beast's understanding. To teach the animal to jump over the trainer, the latter stoops alongside the board, so that when the lion clears one he clears the other, and half a dozen lessons are ordinarily about sufficient to teach this. To get a lion to lie down, and allow the tamer to stand on him, is more difficult. It is done by flicking the beast over the back with a small tickling whip, and at the same time pressing him down with one hand. By raising his head, and taking hold of the nostril with the right hand, and the under lip and lower jaw with the left, the lion, by this pressure on the nostril and lip, loses greatly the power of his jaws, so that a man can pull them open, and put his head inside the beast's mouth, the feat with which Van Amburgh's name was so much associated. The only danger is, lest the animal should raise one of its fore-paws, and stick his talons in; and if he does, the tamer must stand fast for his life till he has shifted the paw.'
This is a fool-hardy feat, in which a considerable amount of risk is incurred, without exhibiting any intelligence, grace, or docility on the part of the lion. But the concluding bit of advice is noteworthy, as lions and tigers, like cats, sometimes extend their claws without intending any mischief, and many injuries from them might be prevented, by presence of mind on the part of the exhibitor.
Stickney re-appeared at Astley's during the season of Van Amburgh and Carter, and the vaulting performances of Price were supplemented by the engagement of an American vaulter named North. Between these two famous vaulters a competition took place in the circle, when the unprecedented number of one hundred and twenty somersaults were turned by each man.
Ducrow's stud appeared, for a short season, in the summer of 1841, at Vauxhall Gardens, returning to the Amphitheatre for the winter. His last production was the Dumb Man of Manchester, and the performance of the principal character in that drama was one of the most successful efforts as a pantomimist which he ever exhibited. The conflagration by which the Amphitheatre was destroyed for the third time gave such a shock to his system that mental aberration and physical paralysis resulted, and he died on the 27th of January 1842. His remains were interred in Kensal Green cemetery, where the monument erected to his memory is one of the most remarkable objects which arrest the eye of the visitor.
The performers at Astley's, biped and quadruped, found a temporary refuge, after the conflagration, at the Surrey theatre, which, having been originally an amphitheatre, admitted of ready adaptation to circus requirements. The dramatic company being retained, a melo-drama was first presented, and then the orchestra and a portion of the benches of the pit were removed, and a ring formed in its place. During the performance of the scenes in the circle the orchestra and the displaced spectators occupied seats amphitheatrically arranged on the stage. The original status was then restored and the performances concluded with the popular hippo-dramatic spectacle of Mazeppa.
As the taste for equestrian and acrobatic performances became more widely diffused, amphitheatres were erected at Liverpool by Copeland, and at Bristol, Birmingham, and Sheffield by James Ryan; while the travelling circuses increased yearly in number and repute. Samwell's was still travelling, but the rapid increase of wealth and population in the northern towns, consequent upon the development of manufactures, had induced its proprietor to leave the southern circuit, and pitch his show near the great industrial hives of Yorkshire and Lancashire.
New names are presented to us in Wells and Miller, in whose circus, then located at Wakefield, Wallett first assumed the distinctive designation of 'the Shakspearian Jester.' Tom Barry, afterwards so well known in connection with Astley's, was then clowning in Samwell's circus. Wells and Miller soon dissolved their partnership, and the former started a separate concern, opening a very fine circus at Dewsbury.
Thomas Cooke, after a professional tour in the United States, returned to England and opened at Hull, afterwards visiting the principal towns in the northern and midland counties. Van Amburgh also, obtaining a partner with capital, started a circus with his performing lions, tigers, and leopards as an adjunct of no inconsiderable attractiveness. One of John Clarke's daughters was his principal equestrienne, and he engaged Wallett as clown.
Edwin Hughes brought out one of the largest establishments of the kind which, at that time, had ever been seen; but he could not make headway against William Batty, who now came into notice, and to ample means joined the indomitable energy and enterprise of Astley and Ducrow. We find Batty in 1836 at Nottingham, with a company which included Pablo Fanque, a negro rope-dancer, whose real name was William Darby; Powell and Polaski, for principal equestrians; Mulligan, as head vaulter; and Dewhurst, as chief clown, with capacities for every branch of the profession, being an admirable vaulter and acrobat, and a good rider. The stud was as good as the company, and included a pair of zebras, a wild ass, and an elephant, all of which, with a contempt of local colouring worthy of Ducrow, Batty introduced on the stage in Mazeppa!
Batty did not limit his movements to any part of the United Kingdom. In 1838 we find him at Newcastle and Edinburgh, and in 1840 at Portsmouth and Southampton. Some changes had been made in the company, of which James Newsome, now proprietor of one of the best of the provincial circuses, Lavater Lee, the vaulter, and Plege, the French rope-dancer, were prominent members. At the time when Astley's was burnt for the third time, Batty's circus was in Dublin, where a good stroke of business had been done. On hearing of the conflagration, Batty started for London by the next steamer, made arrangements for the immediate rebuilding of the Amphitheatre, and returned to Dublin. The receipts were beginning to decline there, and, pending the completion of the new Amphitheatre in Westminster Road, Batty resolved to construct a temporary circus at Oxford. To that city he accordingly proceeded, leaving the circus under the management of Wallett, who, after travelling for several years with Cooke, and two years with Van Amburgh, had joined Batty in Dublin. On the termination of the season in the Irish capital, Wallett took the company and the stud to Liverpool, and, as the circus at Oxford was not yet ready for opening, arranged with Copeland for twelve nights at the Amphitheatre. This engagement, being made without the knowledge and sanction of Batty, caused a warm dispute between the latter and Wallett, which did not, however, have the immediate effect of terminating the clown's engagement.
Wallett tells a humorous story of Pablo Fanque, with whom he became intimately acquainted, and who used to fish in the Isis. The black was a very successful angler, and would pull the golden chub, the silvery roach, and the bearded barbel out of the river by the dozen when Oxonian disciples of Walton could not get a nibble. One intelligent undergraduate came to the conclusion that the circus man's success must be due to his dusky complexion, and astonished his brothers of the rod by appearing one morning on the bank of the stream with a face suggestive of the surmise that he must have been playing Othello or Zanga at some private theatricals the preceding night, and have gone to bed, as Thornton - well known in the annals of provincial theatres at the beginning of the present century - once did, without wiping the, black off. The Oxonian caught no more fish, however, than he had done before.
While Batty's circus was still at Oxford, Pablo Fanque terminated his engagement, and started a circus on his own account. Wallett, always a rolling stone, joined him, and they proceeded to the north together, opening at Wakefield, where, for the present, we must leave them.
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Last modified November 2005.