Victorian Circus, theatre
Charlie Keith, 1850-1900, sepia photograph
In the 1860s Charlie Keith toured France, Spain, Belgium, Germany and Italy and returned to England to tour with Franconi's Circus. Despite his popularity, he found that no circus was willing to employ him under his own terms and conditions. So, in May 1868, he opened his own circus, a portable wooden building which he called Grand Cirque Imperial at Exeter, featuring his own troupe of riders, jugglers and gymnasts. Although his circus was popular, his expenses were considerable and he lost a great deal of money. Tradesmen overcharged him for work they had done for him, thinking that a circus with such large audiences was bound to be wealthy.
Printed playbill for Charlie Keith's circus, Douglas, Isle of Man, 1880
Charlie Keith's playbill for his season in Douglas on the Isle of Man implies that the whole circus was performed by Keith himself since he is the only person named on the bill. This shows his canny business sense. As he did not keep the same company for the entire season, he produced a general playbill, saving himself reprinting costs. Keith spent his money instead on erecting the first permanent circus building on the Isle of Man, which was 'brilliantly illuminated' by gaslight. He advertised 'entertainment of a superior class', which included riders, gymnasts, acrobats, horses, dogs and monkeys as well as a band and Keith's own performances as one of the clowns. Keith also produced 'spectacles' including Cinderella and the Little Glass Slipper in which 100 local children aged four to ten took part.
Charlie Keith's Circus rules and regulations, late 19th century
These rules and regulations show that Charlie Keith's Circus was run with great discipline. Performers were fined half of one night's salary if they were not in their places ready to perform at their allotted time and the next performer on the programme had to be ready to go on in case of mishaps – the audience should not be kept waiting. Rule no.4 shows that there were strict fines for drunkenness during working hours. The sternest warning accompanies the rule on smoking (no. 6). Fire was always the greatest risk to the circus, because of the danger to the animals and the artistes, and also to the circus building itself. Keith's Circus had been razed to the ground by a fire, and he nearly went bankrupt. Anyone found smoking in the circus or in the dressing rooms of Keith's Circus was fined.
Portable circus patent, 9 June 1882, black and red ink on embossed paper
Charlie Keith patented the idea of a 'new travelling building for a circus' in 1882. He disliked working in conventional touring tents which inevitably leaked and were uncomfortable for performers and audience, so instead had built substantial but temporary wooden structures wherever he went. Having established the patent in February, Keith began work on the design, and spent approximately £2,000 on the project, a huge amount for his day. By April he had opened for business in Huddersfield, in what The Manchester Guardian newspaper described as 'The Greatest Novelty of the Present Age'. The circus consisted of a ring of ten 'monster' carriages with cushioned seating, and a canvas covering above the ring and seating, held up by a central pole. The carriages were beautifully painted inside, with doors at either end so that one could walk around the whole ring without stepping outside. The circus was fitted with gas lighting and could hold an audience of about 1,500.
Charlie Keith's Travelling Circus, Midsummer Common, Cambridge, 1890, sepia photograph
Charlie Keith and his new business partner, Palmyra, erected this temporary circus building on Midsummer Common, Cambridge. The posters around the entrance advertise a 'ten week season' from Bank Holiday Monday, 4 August 1890, with tickets costing a shilling for the pit and two for a box.
Scholar's ticket, around 1894, mass-produced ticket printed in black on white paper
This ticket was probably issued in 1894 in Nelson or in 1895 in Blackburn, as these were the only two places when admission was fourpence. This 'Scholar's ticket' was one of Charlie Keith's attempts to offer lower admission prices to children. In later years children were offered half priced tickets to the Pit and Promenade at Keith's Circus. At the Day Performances on Thursdays and Saturdays, tickets to all parts of the circus were sold at half price to children. Wealthy patrons could buy a season ticket, which would admit them to all parts of the circus at every performance, while there was a range of prices for Boxes, Pit or Promenade. There were no seat numbers in the circus. Once you had bought a ticket for your chosen part of the circus you simply went in and found a seat.