We have launched a new website and are reviewing this page. Find out more
Open daily 10.00 to 17.45 Admission free Menu

The Development of Circus Acts


Carmo's Menagerie, Margate Football Ground, North Down, Margate, England, 22 July 1929

Carmo's Menagerie, Margate Football Ground, North Down, Margate, England, 22 July 1929T

Travelling menageries or collections of wild animals existed in Ancient Egypt and in Greek and Roman times The emperor Augustus collected tigers, lions, leopards and cheetahs. In the 12th century Henry I (reigned 1100–1135) imported wild animals to his palace in Woodstock, Oxfordshire, and in 1251 Henry III (reigned 1216–1272) established a Royal Menagerie at the Tower of London

Before the establishment of zoos collections of wild animals could be seen at 17th-century fairs and in 1793 a man called Pidcock established Exeter Exchange, a menagerie on the Strand in London

It was in the 19th century that menageries reached the height of their popularity. This was partly because overseas trade encouraged a market in animals but also because there was a real interest in seeing wild animals in the flesh.

Such was the popular interest in unusual animals that the slaughter of an elephant at the Exeter Exchange was reported in the daily newspapers, complete with details about the dissection of the poor beast.

Large travelling menageries toured the country visiting fairgrounds. These menageries were a collection of separate wagons parked in a rectangular shape. The audience stood in the middle of the rectangle and the animal tamers would enter the wagons to perform tricks.

Poster advertising the sale of an elephant hide, 1826

Poster advertising the sale of an elephant hide, 1826

Wombwell's Menagerie continued to tour until 1931. By then it was one of only two touring menageries in the country. The touring menagerie had, for the most part, been combined with the circus.

The first combination of circus and menagerie was at Astley's in 1838. A flamboyant American called Isaac Van Amburgh appeared with lions from Wombwell's Menagerie. He had become famous as a lion tamer and was the first man to put his head inside a lion's mouth. Queen Victoria was very impressed by his performance.

By the late 19th century there was an international trade in wild animals tamed for circuses, these included lions, tigers, leopards, bears, hyenas, elephants, rhinos and monkeys, many trained by Carl Hagenbeck. There were also permanent menagerie buildings in many cities.

Bertram Mills' summer circus featured a huge menagerie for the public to view before and after a performance, rather like a touring zoo. The 1948 summer season toured 137 animals including horses, ponies, elephants, bears, lions, monkeys, dogs, llamas and camels. Feeding the animals took 5 tons of hay a week and 4 tons of straw. Other more unusual animals were also shown at Bertram Mills' including a crocodile whose trainer, 'the only female fakir', placed her head inside his mouth.

Destruction of the Noble Elephant, after 1826, hand-coloured print

Destruction of the Noble Elephant, after 1826, hand-coloured print

Wild animals continued to tour with circuses up until the 1980s. Fears about endangered species and the cruelty of touring wild animals in small cages, caused many local authorities to ban circuses from performing in their area.

Chuny the elephant was imported from Bengal in 1809 and became one of the Royal Menagerie's main attractions. His death deprived his owner, Edward Cross, of one of his greatest sources of  income. He made the best of the situation, however, and made as much money as he could out of the animal's death. Selling Chuny's hide was just one method. On the day of Chuny's destruction, visitors were charged the usual entrance fee of a shilling to see the body of the elephant being dissected and removed (it took nine butchers twelve hours to take off his hide). A plaster mould of Chuny's head was made. Over a dozen surgeons dissected the carcass, watched by a large group of medical students. (By this time, Chuny had been dead for three days and the stink was horrendous.) Chuny's skeleton was then displayed in his old cage, the bullet holes in his skull clearly visible.

Newspaper article showing the auctioning of Myer's Circus, around 1887, steel engraving printed on newsprint, Museum no. PK 176/1539

Newspaper article showing the auctioning of Myer's Circus, around 1887, steel engraving printed on newsprint. Museum no. PK 176/1539

James Washington Myers had started his career in circus in America as a trick rider in 1843. He came to England in the 1850s and started his own circus which toured the UK and Europe. In 1870 Myers' was the first circus to put on an act using several elephants rather than just showing one or two. In the same season he included an act of seven lions. In the early 1880s, however, he ran into financial difficulties and was forced to sell up.

As well as the animals, the circus sold off all its chariots, uniforms, trappings, hoops, flags, banners, and so forth. The elephant dragging the lions' cage was 'Blind Bill' (actually a female elephant) who was enormously strong, although becoming a little unreliable in her old age. It was well known that she had killed two keepers. She was sold for 150 guineas (now nearly £5,000) to an animal trainer, John Cooper. Cooper also bought the cage of six lions whom he had trained as youngsters.

Aerial acts

The flying trapeze act was invented by Jules Léotard, a French gymnast at the Cirque Napoléon in Paris in 1859 but acrobats and tumblers had performed tricks on a slack rope at 18th century fairs.

Léotard's act was called La Course aux Trapèze and consisted of two separate trapezes which he would set swinging, then jump from one trapeze to the other. Léotard developed the act to include turning a somersault when jumping between the two trapezes. He later increased the number of trapezes to five, turning single somersaults from trapeze to trapeze.

Jules Léotard with trapeze, mid 19th century

Jules Léotard with trapeze, mid 19th century

In later aerial acts a catcher was introduced on one trapeze to catch the flyer from the other. In 1897 a double somersault through the air was achieved and a triple in 1897. This was not surpassed until 1975 when American Don Martinez achieved three and a half somersaults. (Although in 1915 Ernie Clark performed a quadruple somersault in rehearsal, unfortunately he never managed to repeat it for an audience.) Other great trapeze artists included Lena and the Flying Jordans and Con Colleano.

In the 19th century many aerial artists developed their own unique performances based round a trapeze. The Flying Zedoras were a British act that was also successful in America. In their act Pansy Chinery was shot from a crossbow through a large paper target and was caught by her sister hanging from a trapeze.

El Niño Farini was only 10 years old when he developed his trapeze act which involved hanging from a trapeze by his neck whilst playing a drum.

The Flying Zedoras and El Niño Farini, like many 19th century aerial acts, did not perform exclusively in circus. One of the most famous trapeze artists was female impersonator Barbette. Barbette became known in Paris as 'Barbette the Enigma'. He was totally convincing as a woman despite performing practically naked. Barbette first appeared in London at Bertram Mills' Circus in 1926. He later toured variety theatres across Britain.

Jules Léotard invented the flying trapeze act, still considered an essential part of any circus repertoire. His other great legacy is the item of clothing named after him: the leotard. The original leotard was an all-in-one knitted suit. It allowed freedom of movement, was relatively aerodynamic and there was no danger of a flapping garment becoming entangled with the ropes.

El Niño Farini with drum, mid 19th century

El Niño Farini with drum, mid 19th century

Even more importantly, it showed off his physique to its best advantage, making him a huge hit with women and inspiring George Leybourne to write his song about the 'daring young man on the flying trapeze'. He'd fly through the air with the greatest of ease.

El Niño 'the boy' Farini, was an orphan who was adopted and trained by the famous wire walker Guillermo Antonio Farini. Farini senior was not really Spanish or Italian as the name suggests - he  was actually called William Leonard Hunt. Exactly where Farini found El Nino is uncertain, but he was born Samuel Wasgate somewhere in Maine, USA in the 1850s. He was an attractive boy, with blond curly hair, and no fear of heights.

Sam appeared with Farini at Chelsea Pleasure Gardens for the first time in 1866. He performed this act, called Le Tambour Aerial - 'the aerial drummer', on his opening night, swinging through the air balancing on his neck. Audiences were rather shocked by how young he was (Farini claimed that Sam was only eight) but they were reassured by the big grin which apparently never left his face. Farini also provided Sam with a safety net, the first recorded use of such a thing.

Rope walking and high wire

Engraving of Dutch ropewalker, 17th to 18th century

Engraving of Dutch ropewalker, 17th to 18th century

Rope walkers, or rope dancers as they were often called, were a common sight at fairs all over Europe from the Middle Ages to the 17th and 18th centuries. This 'famous Dutch woman' is dressed in men's clothing of the late 17th century. Her doublet and hose meant that there was an extraordinary amount of female leg on display for the time, but the outfit allowed her to move easily, and protected her modesty. Spectators would have been able to look up her skirt if she were wearing one, although the famous 19th-century tightrope walker Madame Saqui did perform in skirts. 'Dutch' was a common corruption of 'Deutsch' (German) at this time, so this may be a German rope dancer. The writer Ned Ward described seeing a German lady at London's Bartholomew Fair in 1699 performing her rope walking act 'as if assisted with the wings of Mercury'. (Mercury was a Greek God who wore winged sandals.)

There are three types of wire acts:

  • Slack wire a drooping wire suspended between poles, usually for comedy acts or sword fights.
  • Sloped wire attached to the ground at one end and a pole at the other.
  • High wire a taut and springy wire many feet above the auditorium. Performers carry poles up to 12 metres long, which help them to maintain their balance by lowering their centre of gravity. High wire artists usually use drooping poles to lower the centre of gravity even further.
Charles Blondin carrying Mrs Blondin, mid 19th century

Charles Blondin carrying Mrs Blondin, mid 19th century

The most famous high wire walker was Charles Blondin who crossed the gorge at Niagara Falls seventeen times on a tightrope. Many people tried to emulate Blondin.

In 1859, he organised a surprise birthday party for his wife Charlotte at a grand hotel. He had a short tightrope put up in the ballroom and after a comic performance, he carried Charlotte across it on his back. She was described as 'very  graceful'.

Charlotte Gravelet had complete confidence in her husband's skill, and was unperturbed, even when he performed on a high wire at the Crystal Palace pushing their five year old daughter in a little wheelbarrow. The only time she was reported to have become hysterical, was when an assistant almost jerked Blondin off his rope whilst trying to take the (empty) wheelbarrow from him. Blondin fell, but managed to hook one knee over the rope as he did so.

This photograph is clearly taken whilst standing on the floor. The exposure needed for such early photographs required the subjects to stand perfectly still for a few seconds. This would have been very difficult on a real tightrope!

Trick riding

Philip Astley founded the circus as an extension of his riding school in 1768 and trick riding remained the central act in circus for more than one hundred years. Comic riding acts such as The Taylor of Brentford, which Andrew Ducrow first performed at Astley's Royal Circus in the early 19th century are still performed today. Riding was the most common mode of transport at the time and this may explain its popularity. Everyone who rode a horse could appreciate the difficulty of performing tricks upon its back.

A popular trick rider of the 19th century was Pablo Fanque, who was the first black equestrian in a circus.

The most spectacular acrobatic movement on horseback was that performed by Lucio Cristiani in the 1920s and 1930s. He could somersault from one bareback horse over a second, to land on a third, as they cantered around the ring.

Circus Molier equestrienne, September 1910

Circus Molier equestrienne, September 1910

This picture shows what an equestrienne, a female horse rider, had to cope with in 1910. Not only did she have to perform all the leaps and tricks of a horseback act, but had to do it fully corseted and riding side-saddle. The upright position enforced by the fashionable corset restricted her movement considerably, yet she had to remain elegant and graceful, while keeping control of her horse. The double reins necessary to do this mean that the horse was probably just as uncomfortable. You can also be sure that the extravagantly feathered hat is securely fastened to her head with several large and vicious hatpins.

The Cirque Molier was an amateur circus set up by Ernest Molier in his home in Paris in 1880, which continued until his death in 1934. Members of Parisian society were invited to watch keen amateurs in the ring.

Images of the principal lady rider, dressed as a ballerina in a tutu with cross gartered ballet shoes are captured here in two pictures. The first is dated 1884 and shows a woman performing a trick at the Covent Garden Theatre, London.

The second is a photograph of Florence Stephenson performing with Bertram Mills' Circus in the 1930s. One of Florence's most famous tricks included jumping through paper hoops (called balloons).

Grand International Cirque programme, 1884-85 season
Grand International Cirque programme, 1884-85 season
Florence Stephenson, Bertram Mills' Circus, 1948-49 season
Florence Stephenson, Bertram Mills' Circus, 1948-49 season


One of the most famous and popular Augustes in Britain was Coco the Clown. Born in Russia he arrived in England in 1929 to join Bertram Mills Circus. He continued performing in the UK until the 1960s.

Coco the Clown, about 1960, Museum no. OL.51/52.I

Coco the Clown, about 1960. Museum no. OL.51/52.I

Coco's trademark costume included oversize boots and a baggy checked suit. His make up included exaggerated raised eyebrows and an oversize nose. Coco became famous on television for a road safety campaign for children in the 1960s.

Technically, Coco was not a clown but an Auguste; the foolish character who is always on the receiving end of buckets of water and custard pies. The Auguste often works with the cleverer white-faced clown who always gets the better of him.

Coco, whose real name was Nicolai Poliakoff, was born in Latvia in 1900. His parents worked in the theatre when Nicolai was born, but both lost their jobs a few years later. In order to survive, Nicolai started busking from the age of five. In 1929 Nicolai, or 'Coco' as he was then called, came to England with his young wife Valentina and began working for Bertram Mills' Circus. He left the Circus temporarily to serve in the British Army during World War II (1939–45), but returned straight afterwards.

He performed before royalty all over the world, and received a medal from the Queen for his years of work in promoting road safety for children.

Early circuses had equestrian clowns who would perform crazy tricks on and off horseback. Dickie Usher and Tom Barry who rode down the Thames in a washtub drawn by four geese, were favourite London clowns in the early 19th century.

Another popular Victorian clown was Whimsical Walker. Famous for his animal acts he taught a donkey called Tom to sing to the accompaniment of toy bagpipes, a trombone and a violin. He had to keep changing the instrument because the donkey soon became bored and would refuse to sing. Walker performed at all the famous circuses and toured the USA with Barnum and Bailey's Circus. This is the costume he wore in a performance for Queen Victoria at Windsor Castle on 25 February 1886.

Balloon ascents

Mr Sadler's balloon, date unknown

Mr Sadler's Balloon, date unknown

In June 1783 the Montgolfier Brothers first amazed the public with their invention, the Hot Air Balloon. In September of the same year they sent a dog, a sheep and a cockerel up in a balloon launched from the gardens of the Palace of Versailles outside Paris and in November a balloon ascent carrying a man was made from the centre of Paris.

A year later Vincenzo Lunardi made the first balloon flight in England, in a balloon built by public subscription which was put on view in the dome of the Lyceum Theatre for subscribers and other patrons to see. The balloon was later displayed at the Pantheon in Oxford Street, after which other fantastic 'aerostatic machines' were built, displayed and flown, with varying amounts of success.

Balloon ascents were a huge attraction in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, even at the theatre and circus. In December 1814 a balloon ascent by Monsieur Garnerin featured in Covent Garden's 1814 pantomime, 'Harlequin Whittington, Lord Mayor of London', with the child passenger Mlle. Blanche Garnerin. The playbill advertised the balloon descending 'from the roof, over the audience onto the stage'.

There was even a balloon ascent with a leopard at Astley's Circus in July 1840, which was advertised as 'The Grand Ascent of Carter the Lion King in his Leopard Balloon!'

Theatrical balloon flights were limited affairs, but clearly whetted the public's appetite for a glimpse of more spectacular ascents. In the 1830s and 1840s London's Vauxhall Gardens was famous for balloon ascents, boasting the red and white striped Royal Vauxhall balloon.

Godard's Balloon Ascent, 1864
Godard's Balloon Ascent, 1864
Mr Hampton's Balloon, June 1839
Mr Hampton's Balloon, June 1839
The Vauxhall Balloon, 29th July 1837
The Vauxhall Balloon, 29 July 1837

Side shows and freak shows

By the mid 19th century the larger touring circuses began to exhibit side shows. These would sometimes include what were then called 'human oddities', Siamese twins, giants, bearded ladies, dwarfs (then known as midgets), people without arms or legs, and people who could perform unusual acts such as snake charming. Side shows also included people from ethnic groups.

Today, these acts would be considered offensive and racist but in the late 19th century they were popular.

An increase in public interest in science and evolution had been prompted by the writings of Charles Darwin among others. Circus proprietors borrowed from the language of science to 'exhibit' their performers.

In America people were 'displayed' as 'exhibits' in 'museums'. The most famous of these museums was Barnum's 'Hall of Living Curiosities' in New York.

Performances of side shows were sometimes accompanied by pamphlets describing the physical condition of the 'exhibits' and explaining their scientific significance. The pamphlets also contained quotes from notable people who had seen the exhibit and could vouch for its authenticity. In addition, postcards of freaks were very popular – often manufactured in a studio to exaggerate their condition.

Lavinia Warren, Tom Thumb's wife, had 50,000 images of herself printed in one go. These were displayed in front of the 'exhibits' and sold to the audience for profit. Barnum and Bailey's Hall of Living Curiosities closed in 1908 because the proprietors were receiving too many letters of complaint.

Flyer advertising 'Two Extraordinary Individuals', printed by Schulze and Dean, England, 1811-1820, Museum no. S.1290-1982

Flyer advertising 'Two Extraordinary Individuals', printed by Schulze and Dean, England, 1811-1820. Museum no. S.1290-1982

The freak show continued in smaller circuses as part of their side shows. Side shows were displayed on the way into the big top tent. They would have a central pit where the exhibits 'performed' surrounded by an audience walkway.

Larger circuses with 12 to 15 exhibits would display them in the midway, the long oval tent leading to the main show. Circuses also had what were known as 'gaffed freaks' where people pretended to be freaks by dressing up. Bertram Mills' circus included freaks in its side shows.

By the 1940s freak shows were considered distasteful and morally unacceptable and the acts slowly began to disappear.

Nanette Stocker and John Hauptman appeared as a musical double act for several years. The poster makes much of their unusual size, as if this should affect their musical ability.

However they appear to have been talented musicians by any standards. Nanette came from Austria, and started touring as a teenager after her mother died in 1797. The following year she met John Hauptman in Strasbourg.

Nanette's guardian and manager arranged for them to appear together for the first time at the Grand Theatre at Clermont in France.

In the early 19th century there were still few opportunities for people of restricted growth, and performing was one of the few ways to earn a living. Whether they got their fair share of the money earned depended on the scruples of their manager.

Freak Show Poster, 19th century, black and white lithographic print, Musuem no. S.1-2009

Freak Show Poster, 19th century, black and white lithographic print. Museum no. S.1-2009

This 19th-century black and white lithographic print features a fairground showman enticing an audience to a freak show, pointing at one of the painted canvas advertisements.

Before the technology for printing large coloured posters was developed, images painted on cloth or wood panels were great publicity but couldn't be mass-produced. They may also have been used to advertise attractions or performances before printing was invented.

Freak shows were a popular feature of fairgrounds and circuses in the 19th century.

'Exhibits' would include people who could perform unusual physical feats, such as contortionists, or people with unusual physical appearance such as conjoined twins, dwarves, or unusually hairy people.

Even people from other continents were exhibited, and fascinated those who didn't travel abroad, and didn't know what other races looked like. Exotic or unusual animals were popular exhibits too, such as a horse who could apparently count, or 'Learned Pigs' who were said to be able to read and write.

Circus memorabila poster, 'Cirkus Schumann: Schaeffers Dvaerge', printed by Adolph Friedlander, Hamburg, Germany, 1926

Circus memorabila poster, 'Cirkus Schumann: Schaeffers Dvaerge', printed by Adolph Friedlander, Hamburg, Germany, 1926

Circus memorabilia poster, 'Cirka : De Dikste Dame der Wereld', printed by Marc, Brussels, Belgium, 1928

Circus memorabilia poster, 'Cirka : De Dikste Dame der Wereld', printed by Marc, Brussels, Belgium, 1928

International Training Course

The Victoria and Albert Museum welcomes applications for ‘Creating Innovative Learning Programmes’, its new one week intensive course. This is a unique training opportunity for museum professionals from overseas who are interested in attracting and programming for a range of museum audiences.

Find out more