Memory Lane: the circus of family fun


On May 20, 1909, the Manawatū standard included this joke in its pages:

“On the occasion of the visit of a traveling circus in a small provincial town, the young people of the surrounding country were in awe of the large posters and the magnificent procession.”

The young son of a notoriously tight old farmer rushed eagerly to his father and asked for six pence to see the circus.

“What!” cried the old skinflint. “Sixpence to see the circus, and here just last week, I let you go up to Farmer Jones’s field to see the lunar eclipse!”

“Young man, do you want your life to be a round of perpetual mirth?” “

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A 1906 Bostock and Wombwell circus poster. She rolled through Palmerston North and pitched her tent on Broad St.


A 1906 Bostock and Wombwell circus poster. She rolled through Palmerston North and pitched her tent on Broad St.

Ironically, 112 years and modern innovations later, the circus is still an innumerable round of gaiety, under the inflated marquee.

There is still a difference. Some traditions have disappeared.

Fortunately, it’s the same marquee and the same satisfying entertainment.

Let’s go back to the history of the local circus.

According to previous newspaper reviews, Palmerston North was particularly welcoming to circuses. They were announced well in advance and the fees were affordable.

Before opening day, the circus cavalcade paraded down the town’s main street, giving crowds a glimpse of its performing artists, horses, elephants, show dogs and caged lions.

The clowns ran along the lines of observers, joking with their future audience.

When they got to their designated lot, the children crowded around, watching the roustabouts assemble the huge striped tent – the marquee.

The Square, 1907, looking towards Broad St, now Broadway, where the circus pitched its tent and put a local man into a hypnotic sleep.


The Square, 1907, looking towards Broad St, now Broadway, where the circus pitched its tent and put a local man into a hypnotic sleep.

Back in England long ago, horse trainer Philip Astley started the tradition of horse shows in a circular arena – a “circus”.

In 1825, entrepreneur Joshuah Purdy Brown realized that circus staff could push their talents far beyond large, permanent buildings.

So he invented a traveling theater – a tall tent large enough to accommodate each act of the show, striped in bright colors to stand out from a distance. The interior contained (as it does now) two traditional types of seating – tiered bleachers and, for a higher price, a range of raised seating.

Finally, it was named the Big Top.

In Australasia, brothers Thomas and George Wirth and their family circus, the largest to tour New Zealand, began their first travels across the country in 1890.

The show played a two-day season in each city: Friday and Saturday evenings, and a morning Saturday afternoon. Then, direction the next place.

One of the scariest acts (for the audience) was the trapeze routine, way above them.

A poster for the Wirth circus.

Provided / Content

A poster for the Wirth circus.

Leybourne and Lyle’s 19th century song The daring young man with the flying trapeze, inspired by the circus, will remain popular for almost 100 years.

On February 16, 1911, the Manawatū Standard reporter praised the “Healeys in their wonderful barrel vault number; the Franz troupe of worldly acrobats; Millie Sagmar with her trained dogs and ponies; wonderful tightrope walkers and jugglers, Misses Daisy and May Harley, acrobats; the leaping jockeys and horse crushers of the Willey Cooke Bros; the Lentons, acrobatic actors; and dozens of clowns … “

He also added: “The huge menagerie includes a herd of seven performing elephants; an arena full of lions, tigers, bears, wolves, leopards, jaguars, kangaroos, dogs and ponies all performing together – truly a strange gathering. And for the first time in our town a real living hippo, which cost the Wirth brothers £ 1,250. The large zoo will be open in the afternoon from 4 p.m. to 5 p.m.

“A fresh start, and one that will be greatly appreciated, is a raised platform of chairs, which is now carried with the show and on which chairs can be reserved at Park. (William Park, former mayor of Palmerston North, was also a newsagent and owner of a bookstore and novelty store in The Square.)

In the 1920s, the St Leon Circus, a well respected company, which had toured Australasia for 100 years, came to Palmerston North. It contained no wild animals, but was famous for its “draft horses, from the best and most intelligent horses known”.

Circus girl May Wirth with her riding horse in 1920.

Provided / Content

Circus girl May Wirth with her riding horse in 1920.

However, wildlife management had its drawbacks.

the Manawatū standard of November 4, 1931, reports that in Australia, “a huge African lion leaped out of the door of his cage, which had been left open, and entered the ring of a traveling circus in Springbank, Victoria. The lion roamed the township and ended up in an enclosure near the circus. It was picked up by the circus employees the next morning.

Over the following years, several American circus-themed films were screened there, including The greatest spectacle on earth, filmed in 1952. More recently there was the PT Barnum biopic, The greatest showman.

In 1963, Wirths Circus was dissolved. Many more would eventually close as well.

Fast forward to this week. The small, family-run Circus Aotearoa, located on the railway site, attracted a lot of attention and audiences.

Supervised by the Gordon Circus family, it is a young company of skilled artists in the old tradition: aerial ballet, juggling, sleight of hand, hoop skills, acrobatics and clowning.

And no animals at all.

The circus website explains: “We understand that a traveling circus was once one of the highlights of rural life, fulfilling more roles than today for rural people and offering many the only chance to see. an exotic animal.

“But those days are over, and as society has progressed, the circus must and must do the same.”

Circus Aotearoa has three final performances in Palmerston North: 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. today (Saturday) and 2 p.m. tomorrow.

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