THE CIRCUS IS COMING TO TOWN!
From Chris Barltrop - pictured above
The circus is coming to town - a convoy of wagons rolling onto the grass overnight, a huge tent going up at break-neck speed, props unloaded, a box-office selling tickets and sometimes, even now, animals in stables or out grazing. They’re travellers too, the circus people, but who are they and where are they from? Do they have their own culture and language like other traveller groups?
The show we call a circus began in London in 1768. A cavalryman called Philip Astley gave displays of trick-riding in the open air near where Waterloo station is now. He realised that if he rode in a circle instead of in a straight line, people walking past would stop and watch for longer, and might give more money - the circus had begun!
Philip Astley put the first circus together, but he didn’t invent the different acts. They were already there, part of a tradition of travelling entertainment going back many, many years. Because the entertainment travelled, so did the people who performed it. They have different traditions and ways from other groups of travellers, traditions that go back before the circus started, maybe all the way back to ancient Rome. Circus people have their own language and it includes some Romany words, but most of it is based on old-fashioned Italian - “varda” means “look”, a woman is a “dona”, and “keep quiet” is “nanti parlari”.
There are many circus superstitions, such as: you mustn’t sit with your back to the ring, a bird flying into the big tent is unlucky, and no knitting inside either!
Because of the way of life, and also because of their knowledge with horses and other animals, some Romany families became circus people. The most famous of those families is called Bouglione, and they are legendary in France. If you ever go to Paris, the Cirque Bouglione is well worth a visit!
The circus is still popular in Britain but it is having its own problems. Circuses dare not have many performing animals now, if they do, the posters are ripped down by Animal Rights protestors, so advertising is impossible. Circuses will have to be licensed soon too, fine in theory, but impossible to organise when you’re travelling - and very expensive! Like other travellers, the people of the circus are under threat of extinction, but, like other travellers, they won’t give up! Circus is a way of life, not just a job, and there will be travelling circuses around for a long time to come!
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HAPPY DAYS AT THE CIRCUS - from Jean Hope
As a child I was privileged to be taken to the circus, where we mingled with the performers due to my Uncle Jack once being a performer himself. I also had free entry to the menagerie at the fair, along with my brother Peter and sister Roma. My parents were very good friends of SAM and ESTHER MCKEOWEN who was better known for his boxing booth, where FREDDIE MILLS, the famous boxer, was no stranger. Freddie was often seen standing outside the booth on a platform with other boxers, while the ‘Barker’ promoted a fight.
Another boxer was TEDDY PECKHAM, who sadly died a year or so ago. Ted, like Freddie, was a local boy and Ted and I attended the same school called HEATHERLANDS which was near HEAVENLY BOTTOM where my family lived in wagons. I knew Ted well as we were in the same class, and in those days it was mixed classes owing to teachers leaving to join the forces due to the War. When there was a break between the boxing, Sam, Esther and my parents often enjoyed a drink in THE PORT MAHON pub in Poole High Street.
The fair always arrived in November and was a must for all the locals and their children. Such excitement! The music, lights, chairplanes, the general hub-bub of it all, and how we enjoyed watching the sugar being spun to make candy floss! Along the road leading to the fair would be the street vendors, one of them was LUIGI ZOLLO who sold hot roasted chestnuts, but in later life Luigi sold ice-cream and was known to all the locals as LOOGEE. When it was time to leave the fair, throngs of people would make their way to the bus depot, children were carried up in the arms of their parents and some on their Dad’s shoulders. Not many people owned a car in those days, but it all added to the magic seen through the eyes of a child. I’m glad I lived those times and can recall them at will – happy days!
Chipperfields Circus at Brighton, 31st July 1975
By Robert Barltrop