Frost’s Circus Life and Circus Celebrities
Thomas Frost, Circus Life and Circus Celebrities, London: Chatto and Windus, 1881.
Pablo Fanque - James Cooke - Pablo Fanque and the Celestials - Ludicrous affair in the Glasgow Police-court - Batty's transactions with Pablo Fanque - The Liverpool Amphitheatre - John Clarke - William Cooke - Astley's - Fitzball and the Supers - Batty's Hippodrome - Vauxhall Gardens - Ginnett's Circus - TheAlhambra - Gymnastic Performances in Music-Halls - Gymnastic Mishaps.
WHEN Wallett, the clown, returned from his American tour, he had arranged to meet Pablo Fanque at Liverpool, with a view to performances in the amphitheatre there; but when the Shakspearian humourist arrived in the Mersey, his dusky friend was giving circus performances in the theatre at Glasgow, with James Cooke's large circus on the Green, in opposition to him. London was not, at that time, thought capable of supporting more than one circus, and it was not to be expected that Glasgow could support two, even for a limited period. Pablo Fanque retired from the contest, therefore, and removed his company and stud to Paisley. Doing a good business in that town, he returned to Glasgow with a larger circus, a stronger company, and a more numerous stud, and Cooke retired in his turn.
Wallett, who had been clowning in Franconi's circus, then located in Dublin, joined Pablo Fanque in Glasgow, and between them they devised an entertainment which was found attractive, but which produced most ludicrous consequences. There was a posturer in the company, whose Hibernian origin was concealed under the nom d'arena of Vilderini; and it was proposed that this man should be transformed, in semblance at least, into a Chinese. The Irishman did not object, though the process involved the shaving of his head, and the staining of his skin with a wash to the dusky yellow tint characteristic of the veritable compatriots of Confucius. The metamorphosis was completed by arraying him in a Chinese costume, and conferring upon him the name of Ki-hi-chin-fan-foo, which appeared upon the bills in Chinese characters, as well as in the English equivalents. Whether his sponsors had recourse to a professor of the peculiar language of the Flowery Land, or took the characters from the more convenient source presented by a tea-chest or a cake of Indian ink, I am unable to my; but the strange scrawl served its purpose, which was to attract attention and excite curiosity, and the few Celestials in Glasgow were either more unsophisticated than the 'heathen Chinee' immortalized by Bret Harte, and suspected no deception, or they were too illiterate to detect it.
It happened that an enterprising tea-dealer in the city had, some time previously, conceived the idea of engaging a native of China to stand at the shop-door, in Chinese costume, and give handbills to the Glasgowegians as they passed. A Chinese was soon obtained, and posted at the door, where, in a few weeks, he found himself confronted with a fellow-countryman, who was similarly engaged at a rival tea-shop on the other side of the street. The two Chineses - Milton is my authority for that word - could not behold the circus bills, with their graphic design of a Chinese festival and the large characters forming the name of the great posturer who had performed before the brother of the sun and the moon, without being moved. They went to the circus, and, in a posturing act, to which a Chinese character was imparted by a profuse display of Chinese lanterns and a discordant beating of gongs, thumping of tom-toms, and clashing of cymbals, by supernumeraries in Chinese costumes, they beheld the great Ki-hi-chin-fan-foo.
On the conclusion of the performance, they went round to what in a theatre would be termed the stage-door, asked for their countryman, and evinced undisguised disappointment on being informed that he could not be seen. They repeated their application several times, but always with the same result; and, the idea growing up in their minds that their countryman was held in durance, and only liberated to appear in the ring, they went to the police-court, and made an affidavit that such was their belief. Pablo Fanque was, in consequence, called upon for an explanation, and found himself obliged to produce the posturer in court, and put him in the witness box to depose that he was not a countryman of the troublesome Chineses, but a native of the Emerald Isle, who could not speak a word of Chinese, and had never been in China in his life.
Pablo Fanque moved southward on leaving Glasgow, but he fell into difficulties, and borrowed money of Batty, giving him a bill of sale upon the circus and stud. Going into the midland districts, and finding Newsome's circus at Birmingham, he went on to Kidderminster, where, failing to carry out his engagements with Batty, the latter took possession of the concern, and announced it for sale. Becoming the purchaser himself, he constituted Fanque manager, thus displacing Wallett, who had been acting in that capacity for the late proprietor.
Wallett endeavoured to make an arrangement for the company and stud to appear in the amphitheatre at Liverpool, but could not obtain Batty's acquiescence. Having engaged with Copeland to provide a circus company and horses, Batty's refusal to allow the Fanque troupe to go to Liverpool put him to his shifts. Having to form a company in some way, he engaged two equestrians, Hemming and Dale, who happened to be in Liverpool without engagements; and hearing that John Clarke, then a very old man, was in the neighbourhood, with three horses and as many clever lads, he arranged with him for the whole. He then started for London by the night train, roused William Cooke early in the morning, and hired of him eight ring horses and a menage horse, at the same time engaging Thomas Cooke for ring-master, with his pony, Prince, and his son, James Cooke, the younger, as an equestrian. These were got down to Liverpool with as little delay as possible, and the amphitheatre was opened for a season that proved highly prosperous.
In 1851, the expectation of great gains from the concourse of foreigners and provincials to the Great International Exhibition in Hyde Park induced Batty to erect a spacious wooden structure, capable of accommodating fourteen thousand persons, upon a piece of ground at Kensington, opposite the gates terminating the broad walk of the Gardens. It was opened in May as the Hippodrome, with amusements similar to those presented in the Parisian establishment of the same name, from which the company and stud were brought, under the direction of M. Soullier. Besides slack-rope feats and the clever globe performance of Debach, there was a race in which monkeys represented the jockeys, a steeple chase by ladies, an ostrich race, a chariot race, with horses four abreast, after the manner of the ancients, and the feat of riding two horses, and driving two others at the same time, the performances concluding with one of those grand equestrian pageants, the production of which subsequently made the name of the Sangers famous, in connection with the Agricultural Hall.
Fitzball wrote some half-dozen spectacular dramas for Batty during the latter's management of Astley's, one of the earliest of which was The White Maiden of California, in which an effect was introduced which elicited immense applause at every representation. The hero falls asleep in a mountain cavern, and dreams that the spirits of the Indians who have been buried there rise up from their graves around him. The departed braves, each bestriding a cream-coloured horse, rose slowly through traps, to appropriate music; and the sensation produced among the audience by their unexpected appearance was enhanced by the statue-like bearing of the men and horses, the latter being go well trained that they stood, while rising to the stage, and afterwards, as motionless as if they had been sculptured in marble.
Fitzball adapted to the hippo-dramatic stage the spectacle of Azael, produced in 1851 at Drury Lane. At the first rehearsal, there was as much difficulty in drilling the gentlemen of the chorus into unison, to say nothing of decorum, as Ducrow had experienced at Drury Lane in instructing the small fry of the profession in the graces of elocution. There was an invocation to be chanted to the sacred bull by the priests of Isis, and the choristers, who seem to have been drawn from the stables, entered in an abrupt and disorderly manner, some booted and spurred, and carrying whips, others holding a currycomb or a wisp of bay or straw. Kneeling before the shrine, they shouted the invocation in stentorian tones, and with a total disregard of unison; and during a pause they disgusted the author still more by indulging in horse-play and vulgar 'chaff.'
Fitzball made them repeat the chorus, but with out obtaining any improvement. They would play, and they would not sing in unison. Fitzball glanced at his watch; it indicated ten minutes to the dinner hour of the fellows. He thereupon desired the call-boy to give his compliments to Mr Batty, and request that the dinner-bell might not be rung until he gave the word for the tintinnabulic summons. The choristers heard the message, and, as they wanted their dinners, and knew that Batty was a strict disciplinarian, it had the desired effect. There was no more 'chaffing,' no more practical jokes; they repeated the invocation in a chastened and subdued manner, and before the ten minutes had expired their practice was as good as that of the chorus at Covent Garden.
Mazeppa was revived at Astley's during the season of 1851-2, and the acts in the arena comprised the fox-hunting scene of Anthony Bridges with a real fox; the great leaping act of John Bridges; the cachuca and the Cracovienne on the back of a horse, danced by Amelia Bridges; the graceful equestrian exercises of Mademoiselles Soullier and Masotta; the gymnastic feats of the Italian Brothers; and the humours and witticisms of Barry and Wheal, the clowns.
The Hippodrome re-opened in the summer of 1852, under the management of Henri Franconi, the most striking features of the, entertainment being Mr Barr's exhibition of the sport of hawking, with living hawks and falcons; the acrobatic and rope-dancing feats of the clever Brothers Elliot; and Mademoiselle Elsler's ascent of a rope over the roof of the circus.
Batty, who was reputed to have died worth half a million sterling, was succeeded in the lesseeship of Astley's by William Cooke, who, with his talented family, for several years well maintained the traditional renown of that popular place of amusement. Like the Ducrows, the Henglers, the Powells, and others, the Cookes are a family of equestrians; and not the least elements of the success achieved by the new lessee of Astley's were the wonderful feats of equestrianism performed by John Henry Cooke, Henry Welby Cooke, and Emily Cooke (now Mrs George Belmore). Welby Cooke's juggling acts on horseback were greatly admired, and John H. Cooke's feat of springing from the back of a horse at full speed to a platform, under which the horse passed, and alighting on its back again, was quite unique.
Vauxhall Gardens re-opened in 1854 with the additional attraction of a circus, in rivalry with Cremorne, now become one of the most popular places of amusement in the metropolis. The sensation of the season was the gymnastic performance of a couple of youths known as the Italian Brothers on a trapeze suspended beneath the car of a balloon, while the aerial machine was ascending. The perilous nature of the performance caused it to be prohibited by the Commissioners of Police, by direction of the Home Secretary; a course which was also adopted in the case of Madame Poitevin's similar ascent from Cremorne, seated on the back of a bull, in the character of Europa, though in that instance on the ground of the cruelty of slinging the bovine representative of Jupiter beneath the car.
Some years afterwards, the gymnasts who bore the professional designation of the Brothers Francisco advertised their willingness to engage for a trapeze performance beneath the car of a balloon; but they received no response, probably owing to the official prohibition in the case of the Italian Brothers.
'Would not such a performance be rather hazardous?' I said to one of them.
'Oh, we should only do a few easy tricks,' he replied. 'We should soon be too high for anybody to see what we were doing, and need only make believe. Once out of sight, we should pull up into the car.'
‘Of course,' I observed, 'the risk of falling would be no greater than if you were only thirty or forty feet from the ground; but, if you did fall, there would be a difference, you would come down like poor Cocking.'
'Squash!’ said the gymnast. 'As the nigger said, it wouldn't be the falling, but the stopping, that would hurt us. But the risk would have to be considered in the screw; and then there is something in the offer to do the thing that ought to induce managers to offer us an engagement.'
In 1858, Astley's had a rival in the Alhambra, which, having failed to realize the anticipations of its founders as a Leicester Square Polytechnic, under the name of the Panopticon, was converted by Mr E. T. Smith into an amphitheatre. Charles Keith, known all over Europe as ‘the roving English clown,' and Harry Croueste were the clowns; and Wallett was also engaged in the same capacity during a portion of the season. One of the special attractions of the Alhambra circle was the vaulting and tumbling of an Arab troupe from Algeria. Vaulting is usually performed by European artistes with the aid of a spring-board, and over the backs of the horses, placed side by side. The head vaulter leads, and the rest of the company-clowns, riders, acrobats, and gymnasts-follow, repeating the bound until the difficulty of the feat, increasing as one horse after another is added to the group, causes the less skilful performers to drop, one by one, out of the line. The Arab vaulters at the Alhambra dispensed with the spring-board, and threw somersaults over bayonets fixed on the shouldered muskets of a line of soldiers. This feat has since been performed by an Arab named Hassan, who, with his wife, a French rope-dancer, has performed in several circuses in this country.
Vauxhall Gardens, which had been closed for several years, opened on the 25th of July, in this year, for a farewell performance, in which a circus troupe played an important part, with Harry Croueste as clown. Then the once famous Gardens were given over to darkness and decay, until the fences were levelled, the trees grubbed up, and the site covered with streets, some of which, as Gye Street and Italian Street, still recall the former glories of Vauxhall by their names.
Some reminiscences of the provincial circus entertainments of this period have been furnished by Mr C. W. Montague, formerly with Sanger's, Bell's, F. Ginnett's, Myers's, and William and George Ginnett's circuses, and now manager of Newsome's establishment. 'Early in the spring of 1859,' says this gentleman, 'some business took me into the neighbourhood of Whitechapel, and while passing the London Apprentice public-house, I heard my name shouted, and looking round espied Harry Graham, whom I had known in the elder Ginnett's circus. He was doing a conjuring trick outside a miserable booth, at the same time inviting the public to walk in, the charge being only one halfpenny. On the completion of the trick, he jumped off the platform, and insisted on our adjourning to the public-house, where he explained the difficulty he was in, having been laid up all the winter with rheumatic gout. On his partial recovery, he was compelled to accept the first thing that offered, which was an engagement with the owner of the booth, a man known in the profession as the Dudley Devil.
'Poor Harry begged me to give him a start; so I came to an arrangement to take him through the provinces as M. Phillipi, the Wizard. This was on a Friday; on the following Wednesday he appeared at Ramsgate to an eighteen pound morning performance and a fourteen pound one at night, our prices being three shillings, two shillings, and one shilling, although in Whitechapel he would not have earned five shillings per day. Among other places I visited was Dartford, where I took the Bull Hotel assembly-room, which had been recently rebuilt, but not yet opened. Mrs Satherwaite, a lady of considerable distinction, kindly gave me her patronage, and I arranged for a band at Gravesend. On the day of the performance, towards the afternoon, the band not having arrived, I sent my assistant to Gravesend, with instructions to bring a band with him. Half-past seven arrived, the time announced for opening the doors, when a large crowd had assembled, as much out of curiosity to see the new room as the conjurer, and in a short time every seat was occupied.
'Just before the clock struck eight, the time for commencement, in came my assistant, saying the band had gone to Dover, to a permanent engagement. I ran round to the stage-door, and told Graham. He said it was impossible to give the entertainment without music. In my despair, I rushed into the street, with the intention of asking Reeves, the music-seller, if he could let me have a pianoforte. I had not got many yards when I heard a squeaking noise, and found it proceeded from three very dirty German boys, one playing a cornopean, another a trombone, and the third a flageolet. On accosting them, I found they could not speak a word of English; so I took two of them by the collar, and the other followed. On reaching the stage-door, I could hear the impatient audience making a noise for a commencement.
Harry Graham, on seeing my musicians, said it would queer everything to let them be seen by the audience. "I can manage that," I said; "we will just put them under the stage, and I will motion them when to go on and when to leave off." In another moment M. Phillipi was on the stage, and received with shouts of applause from the impatient audience. On the conclusion of the performance, I went to the front, and thanked Mrs Satherwaite for her kindness, when she said, "He is very clever; but, oh! that horrid unearthly music!"'
‘On finishing the watering towns, I took the Cabinet Theatre, King's Cross, where M. Phillipi appeared with success. One evening, to vary the performance, we arranged to do the bottle trick, and specially engaged a confederate, who was to change the bottles from the top of the ladder, through one of the stage-traps. By some error, the man took his position directly the bell rang for the curtain to go up, instead of doing so, as he should have done, at the commencement of the second part of the entertainment. M. Phillipi commenced his usual address, explaining to the audience that be did not use machinery or employ confederates, as other conjurers are wont to do; and to convince them, he pulled up the cloth of the table, at the same time saying, "you see there is nothing here but a common deal table." To his surprise, the audience exclaimed, "There's a man there!" But he was equal to the occasion, and went on with his address, taking the first opportunity to give the confederate a kick, when down the ladder he went.
'At this establishment, while under my management, the earthly career of poor Harry Graham was brought to a close. For many years it had been his boast that his Richard III. was second only to Edmund Kean's, and that he only lacked the opportunity to astound all London with his impersonation of the character. Now the opportunity had arrived, and he determined to play it for his benefit; but, unfortunately, the excitement of this dream of years was too much for him, and he died a few days afterwards. Those who are curious about the last resting-place of this world-renowned showman may find his grave in the Tower Hamlets cemetery.
'In the following winter, I joined Ginnett's circus at Greenwich, and found the business in a wretched condition. The principal reason for this state of things was, that the circus had only a tin roof and wooden boarding around, and the weather being very severe, the place could not be kept warm. I was at my wits' ends to improve the receipts when, being one day in a barber's shop, getting shaved, the barber remarked, "There goes poor Townsend." On inquiring I found that the gentleman referred to had been M. P. for Greenwich, but in consequence of great pecuniary difficulties had had to resign. My informant told me that he was a most excellent actor, he having seen him, on more than one occasion, perform Richard III. with great success; and what was more, he was an immense favourite in Greenwich and Deptford, he having been the means, when in the House of Commons, of getting the dockyard labourers' wages considerably advanced.
'It immediately struck me that, if I could get the ex-M. P. to perform in our circus, it would be a great draw. With this object in my mind, I waited on Mr Townsend the next morning, and explained to him my views. "Heaven knows," he said in reply, "I want money bad enough; but to do this in Greenwich would be impossible." I did not give it up, however, but pressed him on several occasions, until at last he consented to appear as Richard III. for a fortnight, on sharing terms. The next difficulty was as to who should sustain the other characters in the play, there being no one in the company, except Mr Ginnett and myself, capable of taking a part. We got over the difficulty by cutting the piece down, and Mr Ginnett and myself doubling for Richmond, Catesby, Norfolk, Ratcliffe, Stanley, and the Ghosts. The business, notwithstanding these drawbacks, turned out a great success; so much so, that Mr Townsend insisted on treating the whole of the company to a supper. Shortly afterwards, he went to America.
'In the following year, while at Cardiff, we got up an equestrian spectacle entitled The Tournament; or, Kenilworth Castle in the Days of Good Queen Bess, for which we required many supernumeraries to take part in the procession, the most important being a handsome-looking female to impersonate the maiden Queen. Walking down Bute Street one day, I espied, serving in a fruiterer's shop, a female whom I thought would answer our purpose admirably. So I walked in, and made a small purchase, which led to conversation; and by dint of a little persuasion, and explaining the magnificent costume to be worn, the lady consented to attend a rehearsal on the following day. She came to the circus, received the necessary instructions, and seemed highly gratified when seated on the throne, surrounded by her attendants.
'On the first night of the piece, everything went off well until its close, when Mr Ginnett rushed into my dressing-room, in great excitement, exclaiming, "There is that infernal woman sitting on her throne!” I immediately proceeded to the ring-doors, and there, to my dismay, saw the Queen on the throne by herself, and the boys in the gallery pelting her with orange peel. I beckoned to her, but she seemed to have lost all presence of mind. I sent one of the grooms to fetch her off, and amidst roars of laughter her royal highness gathered up her robes, and made a bolt. It appeared that the Earl of Leicester, who should have led her off, had, for a joke, told her to stay until she was sent for.'
Gymnastics continued in the ascendant at the Alhambra long after its conversion into a music-hall, and crowds flocked there nightly to witness the wondrous, and then novel, feats of Leotard, Victor Julien, Verrecke, and Bonnaire on the flying trapeze. Somersaults over horses in the ring, being performed by the aid of a spring-board, are far surpassed by the similar feats of gymnasts between the bars of the flying trapeze. The single somersaults of Leotard and Victor Julien were regarded with wonder, but they have been excelled by the double somersault executed by Niblo, which, in its turn, has been surpassed by the triple turn achieved by the young lady known to fame as 'Lulu.' I am not aware that a quadruple somersault has ever been accomplished, if indeed it has ever been attempted. It was stated, about three years ago, that a gymnast who had attempted the feat in Dublin paid the penalty of his hardihood in loss of life; but experience has rendered me somewhat incredulous as to the rumours of fatal accidents to gymnasts and acrobats which are not confirmed by the report of a coroner's inquest.
Besznak, the cornet-player of the London Pavilion orchestra, said to me one evening, several years ago, 'You know Willie, the bender? Well, he is dead; went into the country to perform at a gala, and caught a cold, poor fellow!' Willio is, however, still living. I will give another instance. About two years ago, one of the Brothers Ridgway met with an accident at the Canterbury Hall, while practising. Some weeks afterwards, it was currently reported that his injuries had proved fatal. Subsequently, however, a gentleman engaged in the ballet at the Alhambra, and who, at the time of the accident, had been similarly engaged at the Canterbury, was accosted one evening, while returning home, in the well-known voice of the young gymnast who had been reported dead. Turning round in surprise, he saw that it was indeed Ridgway who had spoken, looking somewhat paler than he did before the accident, but far more lively than a corpse.
Great as the risks attending gymnastic feats really are, they are not greater than those which are braved every day by sailors, miners, and many other classes, as well as in hunting, shooting, rowing, and other sports, not excluding even cricket. While there are few gymnasts who have not met with casualties in the course of their career, the proportion of fatal accidents to the number of professional gymnasts performing is certainly not greater than among the classes just mentioned, and I believe it to be even less. During the period between the advent of Leotard at the Alhambra and the present time, only two gymnasts, so far as I have been able to ascertain, have been killed while performing; and the prophecy attributed to that renowned gymnast, that all his emulators would break their necks, has, happily, not been fulfilled.
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.