Frost’s Circus Life and Circus Celebrities
Thomas Frost, Circus Life and Circus Celebrities, London: Chatto and Windus, 1881.
Conversion of the Lambeth Baths into a Circus - Garlick and the Wild Beasts - Batty's Company at the Surrey - White Conduit Gardens - Re-opening of Astley's - Batty's Circus on its Travels - Batty and the Sussex Justices - Equestrianism at the Lyceum - Lions and Lion-tamers at Astley's - Franconi's Circus at Cremorne Gardens - An Elephant on the Tight-rope - The Art of Balancing - Franconi's Company at Drury Lane - Van Amburgh at Astley's - The Black Tiger - Pablo Fanque - Rivalry of Wallett and Barry - Wallett's Circus - Junction with Franconi's.
WHILE waiting for the reconstruction of Astley's, Batty obtained possession of the Lambeth Baths, a spacious building in the immediate vicinity of the Amphitheatre, and converted them, without loss of time, into a circus, which he was enabled to open at the close of November, 1841. Though the process of conversion had been hastily carried out, the accommodation and decorations left little to be desired; and, as Dewhurst, the clown, observed on the opening night, 'it, like a punch-bowl, looked all the better for being full.'
'The performances last night,’ said a critic, 'were multifarious. First, there was the phenomenon rider, the volant Mr T. Lee, who, while riding one or more fiery steeds, made "extraordinary and wonderful leaps," as the play-bill says, round the arena, and whose sinewy and symmetrical form, and untiring activity, drew forth the admiration of the audience. The clown, however, thought proper to pass a criticism upon his leg, declaring it was like a bad candle, having more cotton than fat. Next came Herr Ludovic's "celebrated extravaganza of Jim Crow and his granny," in which the old trick of carrying two faces under one hat is ludicrously exemplified. Mr Walker followed, with his wonderful feats on the flying rope and his celebrated tourbillions, in which he proved himself to be anything but a walker. He was speedily displaced by M. Leonard, the great French rider, on two fleet steeds, who was miraculously adventurous, - " hazarding contusion of neck and spine." A group of ponies was then introduced, and delighted the spectators with a variety of amusing and sagacious tricks; they fought, they leaped over poles, and through hoops, they sat down and stood up at command, they wore cocked hats and cloaks, lace caps and mantles, and supped with the clowns on oaten pies, sitting at the table with all proper decorum; they fetched and carried, they played at leap-frog, they marched, they danced, they walked on their hind legs, they bowed, and they went down on their knees, for here that was an accomplishment, and not a detriment, to any nag.
'A company of vaulters next performed some daring leaps and threw somersaults ad infinitum backwards or forwards, in rapid succession. After this Miss O'Donnell performed some pretty evolutions on horseback. Wonderful feats of "ponderosity" were next displayed by M. Lavater Lee, who balanced a feather and a plank forty feet long with equal dexterity, and by various jugglings frequently placed his physiognomy in jeopardy. These performances being over there came, "for the first time, a novel introduction, replete with new and splendid dresses, properties, and state carriage drawn by four diminutive steeds," in which the whole juvenile company appeared, entitled The Little Glass Slipper. The foundation of this pantomime is old; but it was produced with new faces last night, and elicited loud and universal approbation. Some of the performers were scarcely able to toddle, but the acting of the whole was unique, and deserving of all the praise it received. The dresses and arrangements were superlative in their style and effect. A series of gymnastics and equestrian exhibitions, with a new piece, called The Wanderers of Hohonor and the Sifans, wound up the entertainments of the evening, which were interspersed with the witticisms and waggeries of two very clever clowns, one of whom is a good punster, and the other a supple posture-master and a capital performer on the penny trumpet.'
Early in 1842, the programme was varied by a romantic spectacle called The Council of Clermont, devised for the introduction of a group of trained lions, tigers, and leopards, brought from Batty's menagerie, accompanied by their performer, Garlick. The spectacle comprised a triumphal cavalcade of Frankish warriors, mediaeval sports in rejoicing for victory, the tricks of a Greek captive's horse, and the adventures of the Greek among the wild beasts to whom he is thrown to be devoured. It had a very brief run, however, and was succeeded by the elephant, and subsequently by a tournament, to which was given the anachronical title of The Eglinton Tournament, or The Lists of Ashby! Shakspeare, it may be said, has given, as the locality of the scene of an incident in one of his plays, 'a sea-port in Bohemia;' but the making the Eglinton tournament take place at Ashby-de-la-Zouch is an anachronism as glaring as the incongruity of elephants and zebras in a Cossack camp.
The Olympic Arena, as Batty's new circus was called, was the scene of some feats too remarkable to be omitted from this record. Walker, on one occasion, sustained the weight of six men, and held six cart-wheels suspended, while hanging by the feet from slings; but it must be remarked that he held only two of the wheels with his hands, the others being attached in pairs to his feet, which were secured in the slings, so that the weight fell chiefly upon the rope to which the slings were attached. More remarkable feats were performed by Lavater Lee on his benefit night, when he vaulted over fourteen horses, threw a dozen half-hundred weights over his head, bent backward over a chair, and in that position lifted a bar of iron weighing a hundred pounds, threw a back somersault on a horse going at full speed, and turned twenty-one forward somersaults, without the aid of a spring-board.
Dewhurst, the clown, must be allowed to speak for himself in the bill which he issued for his benefit, and which, as regards his own performances, was as follows:
'This is the night to see DEWHURST'S long and LOFTY JUMPS, without the assistance of a springboard : - 1. Over a garter 14 feet high. 2. Over a man standing on a horse lengthways. 3. Through a hoop of fire two feet in diameter. 4. Through a circle of pointed daggers. 5. Over 10 horses. 6. Through six balloons. 7. Over three horses, one standing on the backs of the other two. And finally, to crown his extraordinary efforts, he will leap through a MILITARY DRUM, and over a REAL POSTCHAISE AND PAIR OF HORSES.
'During the evening will be introduced several NEW ACTS OF HORSEMANSHIP, during the intervals of which Mr DEWHURST will perform many surprising Feats; amongst the number, he will tie his body in a complete knot. After which he will walk on his hands, and carry in his mouth two fifty-six pound weights; in finis, it will be a GRAND BANQUET NIGHT!! More entertainments than all the Aldermen in London can swallow. Dishes to please Old and Young, Father and Son - Daughter and Mother, Sister and Brother - Fat and Lean, Dirty and Clean - Short and Small, Big and Tall - Wise and Witty, Ugly and Pretty - Good and Bad, Simple or Sad - All may enjoy, and plenty to pick and choose among - Curious Speeches, Mild Observations, Strange Questions, and Ugly Answers - Shakspeare reversed, and Milton with a glass eye - Conundrums, Riddles, Charades, Enigmas, and Problems - With a variety of real Nonsensical Nonsense, too innumerable to mention-hem!
'Mr DEWHURST Will on this night dance an ORIGINAL MOCK CACHOUCA, in a style nothing like MADAME TAGLIONI. Mr D. will likewise dance the CRACOVIENNE, as originally danced by Mademoiselle FANNY ELSLER, at her Majesty's Theatre, Italian Opera House. He will also burlesque a favourite dance of MADAME CELESTE; and conclude with a New Comic Lancashire HORNPIPE IN CLOGS.'
Batty removed his company and stud at Witsuntide to the Surrey, for a short season, Dewhurst taking another benefit, on which occasion he issued the following characteristic appeal:
'On this particular occasion Mr Dewhurst's tongue will be placed on a swivel in the centre, and black-leaded at both ends, to bring laughing into fashion.
I wonder how the people can
Call me Mr Merryman!
Worn are my clothes almost out
By being whipped and knocked about;
Torn is my face in twenty places
By stretching wide to make grimaces.
My worthy cits,
Now is it fit
That you should sit,
The whole kit,
In box and pit,
To see me hit,
Boxed, cuffed, and smit,
Sham dead as a nit,
And laugh at it,
Till your sides split?
There you sit,
To rack my wit
These rhymes to knit,
Which I have writ
To bring the folks to a house well lit,
To fill the house before we quit,
For a great attraction all admit
Will be on Dewhurst's benefit!
From the Surrey, Batty and his company removed to White Conduit Gardens, where a temporary circus was erected for the summer season, and in early autumn to the theatre at Brighton. Astley's was re-opened shortly afterwards with a powerful company and a numerous stud of beautiful and well-trained horses. Batty was himself a capital rider; Newsome, his articled pupil, was already a very promising equestrian; and the company was now joined by the celebrated Stickney, who was a great attraction during several seasons. A bull-fight was one of the special features of the programme of 1842-3, a horse being, as on other occasions when the conflicts of the Corrida de los Toros have been represented in the arena, trained to play the part of the bull.
While performing at Brighton, Batty was convicted of having performed a pantomime in a place unlicensed for theatrical performances, whereby he had incurred a penalty of L50 under an Act of the reign of George II., which has been exercised on several occasions to the vexation and loss of the circus proprietors against whom it has been enforced. Batty appealed against the conviction, and engaged counsel, by whom it was elicited from the witnesses that the dialogue did not exceed fourteen lines, and was merely an introduction to an equestrian and acrobatic entertainment without scenery. It was argued for the appellant that the spectacle which had been represented was neither a pantomime nor a stage play; and that if an entertainment without a stage or scenery was a 'stage play,’ the well-known tailor's ride to Brentford was a stage play, and, if dialogue alone made an entertainment a stage play, the clown must not crack jokes with the ringmaster, nor Punch appeal to the drummer outside his temple. Counsel reminded the bench that the Lord Chamberlain's jurisdiction did not extend to the Surrey side of the Thames, and that magistrates had power to grant licenses only at a distance of twenty miles from the metropolis; so that Astley's, the Surrey, the Victoria, and the Bower infringed with impunity the Act under which Batty had been convicted. The conviction was quashed, but the result of the appeal has not prevented other circus proprietors from being similarly molested in other parts of the country.
During the summer of 1843, Batty's company performed in the Victoria Gardens, at Norwich, where the feats of Masotta, ‘the dare-devil rider,' from Franconi's, formed a striking feature of the programme. He was famous for leaping on and off the horse, from side to side, and backward and forward, while the animal was in full career. Plege, the rope-dancer, and Kemp, the pole performer, were also in the company.
On the company and stud returning to Astley's in the autumn, the stirring events of the war in Afghanistan were embodied in one of those patriotic and military spectacles for which the establishment was famous. The national pulse did not beat so ardently at beat of drum and call of trumpet as it had done a quarter of a century before, however, and the run of the piece was proportionately short. It was followed by a spectacular play founded upon incidents connected with the battle of Worcester; a romantic equestrian drama, illustrative of the final struggle between the Spaniards and the Moors; and, towards the close of the season, by the ever-attractive Mazeppa.
Young Newsome, who displayed considerable ability as an equestrian pantomimist, was a great attraction in the circle, which now began to be enlivened by the humour of Tom Barry, who continued to be principal clown at this establishment for several years. Among the more remarkable of the ring performances during this season, other than equestrian, were the feats of one of the Henglers on the corde volante, and Kemp's tricks on the 'magic pole.'
Equestrian entertainments were given in 1844, for a short season, at the Lyceum Theatre; and, in the absence of rivalry, attracted good houses. At Astley's, new aspirants to fame and popular favour appeared in Plege, the French rope-dancer, and Germani, a clever equestrian juggler, whose performance seems to have somewhat resembled that given a few years ago at the Holborn Amphitheatre by Agouste, with the difference that Germani performed his feats on the back of a horse. He juggled with balls, oranges, and knives alternately, and then with a marble, which he caught in the neck of a bottle while the horse was in full career.
Carter, the lion-tamer, was also engaged towards the close of the season; and, his re-appearance having shown that the exhibition of trained lions and tigers was still attractive, another of the profession, named White, was engaged by Batty in 1845, with a group of performing lions, tigers, and leopards. White, however, never produced the sensation created by the performances of Van Amburgh and Carter. The equestrianism was a very strong feature of the programme this season, those accomplished riders, John Bridges and Alfred Cooke, being engaged, while Batty and Newsome were pillars of strength in themselves. Cooke's company appeared this year at the Standard, and was succeeded in the two following years by Tournaire's and Columbia's, but equestrian performances did not attract there.
In 1846, Simpson, host of the Albion Tavern, opposite Drury Lane. Theatre, opened Cremorne Gardens, for which he engaged the company and stud of the famous Parisian circus of Franconi.
At Astley's, in this year, Newsome revived Ducrow's feat of riding six horses at once, in an act called the Post-boy of Antwerp; and a German equestrian named Hinne, with his daughter Pauline, were engaged. Young Newsome and Mdlle Hinne sometimes rode together in double acts, and in this manner an acquaintance sprang up between them which, becoming tenderer as it progressed, eventually ripened into marriage.
It was during the season of 1846 that the extraordinary spectacle was witnessed at Astley's of an elephant on the tight-rope. It is not more difficult, however, for an elephant, or any other beast, to balance itself upon a stretched rope than for a man to do so; the real difficulty is in inducing the animal to mount the rope. The art of balancing consists in the maintenance of the centre of gravity, which, it may be explained, is that point in any body, animate or inanimate, upon or about which it balances itself, or remains in a state of equilibrium in any position. In any regular-shaped body, whether round or angular, provided its density is uniform through all its parts, the centre of gravity is the centre of the body; but in an irregular-shaped body, or a combination of two or more bodies, the centre of gravity is the point at which they balance each other. If we place any regular-shaped body on a table, it will remain stationary, or in a state of rest, provided an imaginary line drawn from its centre of gravity, and passing downward in a direction perpendicular to the table, falls within its base. But, if the centre of gravity is in a part of the body above any part of the table that is outside the base, the object will topple over, and assume some position in which the centre of gravity will be within the base. Take, for example, a five-sided block of wood, and place it upon the table. If the five sides are each of the same superficies, it will stand upon either of them; but if they are unequal, and it is so placed that the centre of gravity is above a part of the table that is outside the face upon which you attempt to make it stand, it will fall down.
There is a little toy which I remember having seen when a child, and which, as it illustrates the natural law upon which the art of balancing depends, I will here describe. It was made of elder pith, fashioned and coloured into a rough resemblance to the human figure, and weighted with a piece of lead, like the half of a small bullet, which was attached to its feet with glue. The centre of gravity was, consequently, so low that, in whatever position the figure might be placed, it immediately assumed the perpendicular, and could be kept in any other only by holding it. Now, if the feet of a human being were as much heavier than the head and trunk, as the lead in this toy was heavier than the pith, we should never be in any danger of losing our balance; and an infant might be allowed to make its first essay in walking as soon as its legs were strong enough to support it, without being in any danger of a fall. But the head is, in proportion to its bulk, much heavier than the trunk; and the breadth of the trunk considerably exceeds that of the feet, which constitute the base. The balance is, therefore, easily lost; because a stumble throws the centre of gravity beyond the base.
Though the maintenance of the centre of gravity is rendered more difficult in proportion to the height to which it is raised above the base, as my younger readers may have found when constructing a house of cards, this is not the case when any disturbance of the equilibrium can be counteracted immediately, as in the case of a stick balanced on the tip of the finger. A stick three or four feet long is more easily balanced on the finger than one much shorter, because the tendency to topple over can be counteracted by the movement of the finger in the direction in which it leans, so as to maintain the centre of gravity. Those who make an experiment of this kind for the first time will be apt to find that the balancing of a stick or a broom upon the finger is difficult, owing to the smallness of the base in proportion to the height of the centre of gravity, unless the eyes are directed towards the top. The stick is at rest at the base, and any deviation from the perpendicular must commence at the upper extremity. Keep your eye on the top, and you can balance a scaffold-pole or a ladder, if you can sustain the weight. Whatever difficulty there was in the feat of balancing a ladder, to the top of which a small donkey was attached, as exhibited in my juvenile days by an itinerating performer, - whence the saying, ‘Twopence more, and up goes the donkey!' - was due entirely to the weight of the animal; because, if it was properly attached to the ladder, the centre of gravity would be in precisely the same situation as if the ladder alone had to be balanced.
In the animal world, the centre of gravity is invariably so placed as to produce an exact equilibrium and harmony of parts. Every animal furnished with legs is balanced upon them; so that in man the centre of gravity is the crown of the head. The reader may test this by leaning forward or laterally, with the arms by the side, and the legs straight, when a tendency to fall will be experienced, which can be counteracted only by extending an arm or a leg in the opposite direction. The art of balancing the body in extraordinary situations, as exemplified in the feats of rope-walkers and gymnasts, depends, therefore, on the same natural law as that which enables us to balance a stick upon the finger. The centre of gravity must be kept perpendicular to the rope or bar, any tendency to sway to the right or left being corrected by the arms, or by the balancing-pole, if preferred, by performers on the rope.
I have dwelt upon this subject a little after the manner of a lecturer, because so many of the feats performed in the arena of a circus depend upon the natural law which I have endeavoured to explain, and many of my readers, who have witnessed them, without being able to account for them, may like to know something of the rationale. It may be asked, and the question is a very pertinent one, why do not equestrians fall in performing feats of horsemanship in a standing position, in which, as the horse careers round the ring, they lean inward? This phenomenon is due to the counterpoise which, in the case of bodies in a state of rapid motion, the centrifugal force presents to the weight of the body.
Centrifugal force, it must be explained, is the tendency which bodies have to fly off in a straight line from motion round a centre; and the power which prevents bodies from flying off, and draws them towards a centre, is called centripetal force. All bodies moving in a circle are constantly acted upon by these opposing forces, as may be seen by attaching one end of a piece of string to a ball, and the other to a stick driven into the ground. If the ball is thrown horizontally, with the string in a state of tension, it will fly round the stick; but, if it becomes disengaged from the string, the centrifugal force, or its tendency to fly off, will cause it to proceed in a straight line from the point at which the separation is effected.
Let us now see how these forces operate in the case of the riders in a circus. The equestrian leans inward so much that, if he were to stand still in that position, he would inevitably fall off the horse; but the centrifugal force, which has a tendency to impel him outward from the circle, or in a straight line of motion, sustains him, and he careers onward safely and gracefully. The tendency of the centrifugal force to impel him outward is counteracted by the inward leaning, while it forms an invisible support to the overhanging body. It will be observed also that the horse assumes the same counteracting Posture; and a horse quickly turning a corner does the same.
Resuming our record of circus performances, we find Pablo Fanque at Astley's in 1847, with a wonderful trained horse, Plege again appearing on the tight-rope, and Le Fort, 'the sprite of the pole,’ in a novel and clever gymnastic performance. The political events of which Paris was the scene in the following year caused the managers of Franconi's Cirque to transfer their company and stud to Drury Lane Theatre, so that London had two circuses open at the same time for the first time since the days of Astley and Hughes.
John Powell appeared during this season at Astley's, and an additional attraction was provided in Van Amburgh's trained animals, to which there was now added a black tiger, a rare variety, and one which had never been exhibited in a state of docility before. It was introduced in the drama of the Wandering Jew, a story which was then creating a great sensation all over Europe; and Van Amburgh personated the beast-tamer, Morok, through whose instrumentality the Jesuits endeavour to delay the old soldier, Dagobert, on his journey to Paris, by exposing his horse to the fangs of a ferocious black panther.
It was in this year, it may here be remarked, that Sir Edwin Landseer's great picture of Van Amburgh in the midst of his beasts was exhibited at the Royal Academy, where it attracted as much attention as the originals had done at Astley's.
Pablo Fanque's circus had, in the mean time, moved from Wakefield to Leeds, where a catastrophe occurred which has, unfortunately, had too many parallels in the annals of travelling circuses. On a benefit night in March, 1848, the circus was so crowded that the gallery fell, and Pablo's wife was killed, and Wallett's wife and several other persons were more or less injured. Wallett then joined Ryan's circus, which, however, was on its last legs; bailiffs were in possession, and its declining fortunes were brought to a climax by a 'strike' of the band. At this crisis Wallett had the good fortune to be engaged for Astley's, where a keen rivalry soon ensued between him and Barry, who claimed the choice of acts in the ring, in his exercise of which Wallett was not disposed to acquiesce. Thompson, the manager, took the same view as the latter of the equality of position of the two clowns; and Barry, in consequence, refused to perform, unless the choice of acts was conceded to him. A very attractive act was in rehearsal at this time, in which John Dale was to appear as an Arab, with a highly-trained horse, and Barry as a rollicking Irishman. As Wallett had attended all the rehearsals he was as capable of taking this part as the other clown was, and, on Barry failing to appear, he was requested by Thompson to take the part which had been assigned to his rival. Wallett complied, and enacted the part of Barney Brallaghan with complete success. Barry thereupon retired, and for many years afterwards kept a public-house in the immediate vicinity of the theatre.
Thompson was succeeded in the management by William Broadfoot, the brother-in-law of Ducrow, whom he resembled very much in disposition and temper. One day, during the rehearsal of a military spectacle, a cannon ball, which was among the stage properties, was thrown at him, which so enraged him that he offered a reward of L2 for information as to the person by whom it had been thrown, the hand which had impelled the missile being unknown at least to himself. There was a fine of ten shillings for practical joking during rehearsals, but the reward left a wide margin for its payment, and tempted Walled to acknowledge that he was the offender. Broadfoot paid the reward, and Wallett paid the fine, afterwards expending the balance of thirty shillings in a supper, shared with Ben Crowther, Tom Lee, and Harvey, the dancer.
There was another supper at Astley's which the parties did not find quite so pleasant. Batty produced an equestrian drama called the - Devil's Horse, in which Wallett had to play a subordinate part, one agreeable incident of which was the eating of a plate of soup. One night, James Harwood, the equestrian actor, intercepted the soup in transit, and refreshed himself with a portion of it, which so enraged Wallett that he broke the plate on the offender's head. By this assault he incurred the penalty of being mulcted of a week's salary, the means of evading which exercised his mind in an unusual degree. The expedient which he hit upon was the borrowing of ten pounds from the treasurer, George Francis, having obtained which he went his way rejoicing. He did not present himself at the treasury on the following Saturday; and Batty, meeting him on Monday morning, inquired the reason of his absence.
'I had no salary to receive,’ replied Wallett. 'I had borrowed ten pounds of Mr Francis in the week.'
‘Then your fine will be a set off against next week's salary,' observed Batty.
'Aren't you aware, sir,' rejoined Wallett, 'that the time I was engaged for expired on Saturday night?'
By this stratagem he escaped the payment of the fine; but his engagement was not renewed, and, having saved some money, he started a circus, and opened with it at Yarmouth. Business was very bad there, and he proceeded to Colchester, where part of the circus was blown down by a high wind, and this accident created an impression of insecurity which damaged his prospects in that town beyond repair. At Bury St Edmunds and Leicester he was equally unsuccessful, and determined to proceed northward. Nottingham afforded good houses, but Leeds was a failure, and at Huddersfield the gallery gave way, and the alarm created by the accident deterred persons from venturing into the circus afterwards. Franconi's company were doing good business at Manchester, in the Free Trade Hall, at this time; and Wallett, after two more experiments, at Burnley and Wigan, with continued ill fortune, effected an amalgamation with the French troupe. James Hernandez, one of the most accomplished equestrians who have ever entered the arena, made his debut at Manchester while the combined companies and studs were performing there, and proved so sterling an attraction that he was engaged for the following season at Astley's.
Crowther, who has been incidentally mentioned in connection with Wallett, married Miss Vincent, 'the acknowledged heroine of the domestic drama,' as she was styled in the Victoria bills. The union was not a happy one, though the cause of its infelicity never transpired. It was whispered about, however, that a prior attachment on Crowther's part to another lady had something to do with it; and there were many significant nods and winks, and grave shakings of the head, at the bar of the Victoria Tavern, and at the Rodney and the Pheasant, over the circumstance of his strange behaviour in the church at which he and the fair Eliza were married. The talk was, that the bride's position and worldly possessions had tempted him to break the word of promise he had plighted to another, and that compunction for his faithlessness was the cause of his strangeness of demeanour on the wedding-day, and of the domestic infelicity which it preluded. But nothing ever transpired to show that these rumours had any foundation in fact.
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