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Norwich Heart, Heritage Economic & Regeneration Trust

Research Centre

The Circus in Nineteenth Century Norwich

The Barnum and Bailey Circus in Norwich in July 1899

The circus enjoyed an enduring popularity in Norwich throughout the nineteenth century and visits by circus companies with their exciting performers and strange and wonderful animals were eagerly anticipated.

Many of the early shows were menageries, such as Polito's who, in 1803, displayed his animals in the Dukes Palace Yard. A local paper considered the show 'a great treat' containing 'many different species of rare and beautiful quadropeds' which commanded the 'admiration of every spectator'. Other shows that visited the city included equestrian troupes who came complete with clowns and acrobats.

The city played host to all the major circus companies with Wombwell's National Menagerie, Batty's Circus Royal and Ducrow's Circus frequent visitors. The American showman Isaac Van Ambergh, a renowned lion tamer, also brought his show to Norwich whilst Pablo Fanque returned to his native city on several occasions.

In 1898 Phineas Taylor Barnum brought his Barnum and Bailey Circus - 'The Greatest Show on Earth' to Norwich for the first time. It arrived in four trains from Ipswich on the early morning of the 6th September before setting up at Dix's Land off Unthank Road. Later that day the circus, headed by a military band paraded through the city streets for two hours. After this there were two performances attended by over 20,000 people - many brought to Norwich by special trains - who paid one shilling for the cheapest seats or seven shillings and sixpence for a private box.

The circus formed an important part of the entertainment during Assize week, when the city was crowded with people attending the trials and enjoying the accompanying social events. Christmas was also a popular time for circuses to visit the city - especially from 1856 when Boxing Day became accepted as a public holiday in the city, giving working people an additional day off.

The nineteenth century was the heyday of the travelling circus. Norwich saw the best of them with a bewildering profusion of clowns, acrobats, unusual and unfamiliar animals, plus other more bizarre acts such as 'Prince Bonta Workey' and the Tichborne Claiment. It brought glamour, entertainment and spectacle to the ancient city providing a treat for its children - and their parents.

The Venues

The visiting circuses would erect temporary wooden buildings to put on their shows but by the 1840s large circular canvass marquees were in use, similar to that used by Batty's Circus at King's Lynn in 1843. It was sixty five feet high, three hundred feet in circumference and capable of holding up to 1,400 people.

Until lost to development the most popular sites for the circus were the city's pleasure gardens. There were a number within the city walls, the earliest being My Lord's Garden in King Street, with others on Bracondale, Barrack Street and on the Ipswich Road. But the most popular was the Ranelagh Gardens at the top of St Stephens Street, renamed the Victoria Gardens in 1837 to honour the new Queen.

Most visiting circuses used the Victoria Gardens, utilising an existing building known as the Pantheon to put on the show. The Pantheon had been built in the early nineteenth century and was a large octagonal building about seventy feet in diameter, with space for an orchestra and capable of accommodating about twelve hundred people.  It was surrounded by a garden lit by gas lamps which contained a bowling green, bars and other facilities. The Gardens closed in 1850 when the land was acquired by the Eastern Union Railway for use as their terminus and many of the buildings sold for demolition. Part of the Pantheon was utilised as the new station.

Another popular venue was the area in front of the Shire Hall known as Castle Hill. It was used in October 1833 when Ducrow's circus put up a temporary building there for the winter season and rather grandly named it 'The National Arena and Equestrian Studio'. At Christmas 1867 Mander's Menagerie advertised that its premises there would be illuminated by electric light so the lions, tigers and elephants could be seen to advantage. It was open until 9.30 in the evening.

Chapel Field was also used, as in the autumn of 1844 when Van Amburgh's circus erected a large marquee there for the Christmas season. A circus was also a feature of the Tombland Fair for many years.

Agricultural Hall

Later in the century the circus moved inside. In December 1843 Madame Ducrow's company converted the stage at the Theatre Royal into a circus ring for its performances, and in June of 1879 Stoodley's Grand Continental Cirque' appeared at the St Giles Hall in Bethel Street, originally built as a skating rink. Along with the equestrians, Stoodley featured performing greyhounds and eight clowns, including Abe Daniels and 'Funny Fred Hall'.

In 1882 the opening of the Agricultural Hall provided an ideal indoor venue for the circus. In March of the following year Hengler's Circus appeared there. It would later be the scene of an appearance by Blondin the legendary wire-walker.

In recent years visiting fairs have used Castle Meadow and Chapel Field - continuing the tradition of using the city's public spaces for entertainment.

The Acts

During the early years of the century most of the shows featured displays of animals in cages, or equestrian performers displaying acts of daring and skill on their horses.  The watching audience, many of whom worked with horses themselves, would have appreciated the skills on display.

Amongst the more notable were:

  • A horse named Ireland known as the Yorkshire Grasshopper who jumped over a wagon and horses when he appeared at the Pantheon with Moritz's Circus in 1811.
  • The 'Olympians' who appeared in Batty's circus In March 1840 being described as 'two fine young men, who on the backs of two well trained steeds and whilst at full speed went together through a course of athletic evolutions...executed in a graceful and easy, yet gay and animated manner'

An advert for Henry and Adams' Circus, 1867

When he appeared at the Victoria Gardens in January 1849 Pablo Fanque was the proprietor and star of the show on his mount Beda. A report claimed his performance was worth the admission money alone as he 'rides her with great ease, and merely by the use of the bridle, makes the handsome animal keep time and step to the music in the minuet'.

Other equestrian performers were equally renowned for their skill and grace. Typical was William Batty, whose circus frequently appeared in Norwich. A report of his performance in 1840 described him giving a display of complicated and daring horsemanship as he controlled six horses by command alone in an hour long display.

The various menageries based their appeal on the exotic and unfamiliar animals on display and the potential danger threatened by wild animals.

Wombwell's Menagerie was one of the more famous travelling shows. The proprietor George Wombwell bought elephants, ostriches, leopards and tigers from abroad for display to the public. When they died he would exhibit the dead bodies or get them stuffed and put on display! At the height of his success he was running three travelling menageries which criss-crossed the country in huge convoys of horse drawn wagons.

Another of the major menagerie operators was Isaac Van Amburgh whose show travelled around England during the 1840s and visited Norwich in October 1844. Van Amburgh was celebrated as a lion tamer who would enter a lion's cage alone, and on occasion put his hand or head in a lion's mouth.

Other acts were less dangerous and provided comic and artistic entertainment. Displays by acrobats were popular. Each circus had its star performers such as Aaron Hassan, an Arab who appeared with Newsome's Circus in 1862, and was described as graceful and agile. His wife also starred in the show, walking the tight rope high above the crowd.

Most circuses featured trapeze artists whose balance and daring astonished the audiences. Typical was the 'Marvellous Eugene', one of the star performers of the Henry and Adams circus. He displayed his skills one hundred feet above the audience doing 'pirouettes in mid-air, and somersaults from bar to bar the extreme length of the building' during its stay on the Castle Hill in December 1867.

The most loved were the clowns such as Abe Daniels, known as 'the musical clown' who played the violin and banjo whilst performing, Frederick Hall, known as 'Funny Fred Hall', and Stonette with his performing dog. One of the most popular, was 'Whimsical Walker'. He was known for the seventeen inch long shoes he wore as part of his slapstick act. His visits to the city were hugely popular, especially with children, and provided enduring memories for many. In 1883 he appeared with a pair of trained donkeys at Hengler's Circus at the Agricultural Hall.

Jem Mace

From time to time circuses featuring pugilists who put on exhibition bouts came to Norwich. During his visit in April 1862 Tom Sayers exhibited his medals and winner's belts and fought an exhibition bout without fuss but when an American boxer named Heenan brought his circus to Norwich later that year he was prohibited from fighting by the city authorities. The same thing happened a few weeks later when Jem Mace wanted to put on an exhibition bout.

Some of the acts were rather bizarre, such as Prince Bonta Workey who appeared with Wombwell's Menagerie in Norwich during the Christmas of 1868. They claimed he was a son of the late King Theodore of Abyssinia and advertised that he would hold levees in his Grand State Saloon each day during the circuses' stay in the city when Abyssinian relics would also be on display.

Perhaps the oddest of the lot was the Tichborne Claimant. His real name was unknown but he claimed to the long lost heir to an aristocratic title. He was unable to establish his claim and was eventually imprisoned for perjury. When released he toured the country making public appearances to raise money and appeared with Sanger's Circus in Norwich in 1885. He was later to die in poverty.

Thrills and Spills

Running a circus or menagerie was a complex, and at times dangerous business. Dealing with wild animals was potentially very dangerous and there were several incidents where animals escaped or attacked people. In December 1845 a tiger escaped from a menagerie travelling through Potter Heigham causing panic in the village. Fortunately it was soon recaptured without it or anybody else being hurt.

A more serious incident occurred in March 1862 when Maccomo, a lion tamer with Mander's Menagerie, was attacked during a performance being held near Victoria station. The lion had been beaten by him during the performance and reacted by biting the tamer's hand and dragging him across the cage floor. Maccomo, who had attacked by a lion during a previous visit to the city, lost part of a finger.

On several occasions circus buildings collapsed but without loss of life. In December 1833 a large wooded building recently erected for a circus at De Caux's gardens was blown down during a severe gale. Three years later a similar building was destroyed at the Ranelagh Gardens. The most serious accident occurred in November 1857 when during a performance of Gilbert's Equestrians at the Orchard Gardens in Heigham the gallery holding over 300 people collapsed. Remarkably no one was seriously hurt. A few years later a similar accident took place when a row of elevated seats collapsed at an exhibition boxing match at a building near St Stephen's Gate. One man suffered a broken leg.

These incidents paled into insignificance beside the disaster that occurred at Great Yarmouth in May of 1845 when over eighty people lost their lives after the collapse of the suspension bridge. As part of a promotional event for Cooke's Equestrian Circus a clown named Nelson announced he would sail down the river in a tub pulled by four geese form the old bridge to the recently widened Suspension bridge in the town.

Thousands of curious spectators gathered to watch, with about 500 standing on the Suspension bridge to get a good view. As the tub pulled by the geese and containing Nelson passed under the bridge the spectators rushed to the south side to obtain a better view. The result of this mass movement was catastrophic. The suspension rods holding the bridge snapped, the chains gave way and the bridge roadway tipped on its side dropping the spectators into the river.

Many were quickly rescued but despite the efforts of boatmen and others there was fearful loss of life. At least eighty were known to have died and many others may have been washed away.

Nick Williams

May 2012

We are grateful for permission to use the images included courtesy of:

Norfolk Record Office

George Plunkett's Photographs of old Norwich which can be viewed at

Norfolk County Council Library and Information Service whose Picture Norfolk site includes thousands of images of Norfolk's history and can be viewed at