Victorian Circus: “An evil influence”

I am researching a family tree for a friend of a friend. All of the action takes place near a town close to Belfast called Banbridge. It is on the River Bann on a stretch of river where the trees grow so thickly on the bank that I can’t see a footpath. The river is deep and dark. It looks like a magical place to have been a child. If, as a girl in a red slip dress, I found myself on one of the hidden footpaths, I certainly would have been looking over my shoulder for a wolf in spectacles. Of course, there were bogeymen in those woods and ghosts in the river. Over the course of hundreds of years, both Catholics and Protestants were marched into the river by both Protestants and Catholics and there they drowned. Men, women and children of the lake – shudder.

In 1859 a travelling circus came to town. The local Protestant minister on hearing of the planned matinée performance, in mortal fear for the afterlife of his flock, organised an open-air preaching at the time of the planned performance. His intervention worked. From a pool of a couple of thousand townsfolk, only 3 people turned up for the circus matinée (3 people whose cojones of steel I admire). The circus did not perform for the 3 people. They did go ahead with an evening performance, however. So small was the crowd though, that they didn’t cover the cost of the ground on which they erected their pavilion. It is said that the circus left town with a vow never to return to Northern Ireland as “it was a losing game”.

In the 19th century the travelling circus was a popular form of entertainment. There were hundreds of them operating throughout Britain. The fanciest British circuses toured both Europe and America and wowed audiences with trapeze acts, jugglers, performing dogs, daring horsemanship, lion-tamers and clowns.

Playbill for early travelling circus. Photo source: V&A Museum click here for full article.

The hit of the century was Barnum and Bailey’s Greatest Show on Earth. At the height of its popularity, the circus employed 1200 people and 380 horses.

Photo source V&A Museum

Now, I am no fan of the circus in the traditional big top sense. I cringe when I see those huge elephants in the tiny ring, but what was it that caused the local minister to declare this circus of 1859 an “evil influence”? I suspect you will find that the answer to that question was, girls in tights; girls in tights at a time when Queen Victoria (who was known to smile occasionally) never even showed an ankle.

Photo Source: Wikipedia

The freak show was also a popular entertainment at the time. I wonder if the circus in Ireland was travelling with a bearded lady or conjoined twins. I am sure that seeing ‘Titana The Fat Girl’ or ‘Alice Bounds The Bear Lady’ would only have strengthened my morals. Poor Titana must have had to keep up a rigorous routine of stuffing herself to maintain her puppy fat and her income; and then, to be stared at and laughed at – too awful.

Titana The Fat Girl. Photo source: University of Sheffield National Fairground Archive.

Morality can be a grey area though. Quite recently I watched a documentary about freak show performers in India. Some had the most hideous deformities – giant tumours on their bodies, another with a body covered in warts of epic proportion. They were all happy to have work though and an income in a world that would not allow them to work behind a reception desk, or anywhere else for that matter. They were proud to be contributing to their families and their families were proud that they were famous.

And if fame and acclaim were the motivators for the performers to join the circus, I think perhaps that the minister of Banbridge was right. I do think that the culture of celebrity is an evil influence. You only have to watch Big Brother or the Kardashians to see that.


6 thoughts on “Victorian Circus: “An evil influence”

  1. I am never sure why there was so much hostility to such shows, but part of it was just a fear of strangers, of travellers, which is as old as time. Strangers cannot be trusted, and are always the first suspected of any crime. Maybe it’s also a sense of jealousy, that they could move on whereas everyone else was stuck with their lot. Like the ant and the grasshopper fable. It ignores the fact that travellers have incredibly tough lives, and no safety nets.Maybe that was the appeal, the independence at whatever cost.
    BTW I just saw a great film, The Notebook’ with Ryan Gosling. He talks about his relationship as being 95% fighting but it was worth it for the other 5%. We all seek balance, but in the past there was so little choice. Unless you were an outsider, in which you often paid dearly for it
    another great post. thanks.

    • I once saw a list of all the crimes that were invented to get people transported to Oz – most of them were explicable, like setting fire to hayricks, defacing property, even processing down the main street with blackened faces. But I never figurred out why impersonating an Egyptian was a capital crime. Is it about practicing magic ? I think it was under Henry VIII that it wsa a duty to behead a gypsy or a jew – cant remember which, anyway, there were some pretty horrific laws passed.

  2. Pingback: ‘Dude looks like a lady (or the other way around)’ Rubbish Day | The Rubbish Collection Day Collection

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