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The circus comes to town, beasts never seen before in Preston

Posted on - 22nd May, 2022 - 7:00pm | Author - | Posted in - History, Preston News, Preston Railway Station
Bostock and Wombwell's advert Pic: Circus World
Bostock and Wombwell’s circus visited Preston Pic: Circus World

In the 19th¬†century, travelling fairs and circuses brought exotic animals to towns across the North West. In 1872, Preston saw George Wombwell’s travelling Menagerie. This magnificent show had no less than 15 wagons. Wombwell’s¬†circus travelled by train, and buildings were erected on either side of Preston station to make it easier to move the animals and equipment.

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The old Butler Street entrance to Preston Station Pic: Preston Digital Archive
The old Butler Street entrance to Preston Station Pic: Preston Digital Archive

The railways enabled tons of equipment to travel with the circus. In 1872 Newsomes’s Circus erected wooden buildings on either side of Preston Station. The advertising proclaimed:

‚ÄúA new and elegant building has been erected near the railway station, the company is a brilliant one and includes several accomplished daughters of Mr Newsome‚ÄĚ

The circus arrives in town Pic: Northern Echo
The circus arrives in town Pic: Northern Echo

Special trains were laid on to encourage visitors. Additionally, advertisements in the Preston Guardian emphasised that the circus was next to the station.

There was another bonus, with circus artists appearing at local variety theatres. In fact the ‘temporary’ wooden buildings were used by Newsome’s until 1880. At this point one of the buildings became The Gaiety Theatre.

The pre-railway fairs

Images from pre-railway horse drawn menageries are rare. However the one below from the dawn of photography, in 1856, shows a typical caged animal in transit. Lions and tigers were popular with the public and some were bred in captivity.

Travelling circus in 1856 Pic: Victorian History
Travelling circus in 1856 Pic: Victorian History

In 1824, Atkin’s menagerie and travelling fair arrived in Preston. Attractions included a male lion and a Bengal tigress in the same cage. Apparently they showed affection for each other, as reported by the Preston Chronicle.

Admittance for ladies and gentlemen was 1s, servants and children 6d. This was affordable for the working classes. The average weekly wage for a labourer in 1824 was 15s.

So what could you see at the travelling fairs? Apart from lions and tigers, equestrian performers re-enacted famous scenes from history. The Siege of Janina was presented at the Pavilion. This featured armed warriors. The Wild Horses of Tartary was another popular performance.

The Wild Horse of Tartary appeared in Preston Pic: Pinterest
The Wild Horse of Tartary appeared in Preston Pic: Pinterest

Additionally, rope dancers, trampoline leapers and fairy ponies kept the audience enthralled. Eventually cruelty to animals legislation curtailed some of the circus acts.

The Wild Animals in Captivity Protection Act 1900 and early colour TV

The end was nigh for travelling circuses, when the Wild Animals in Captivity Protection Act came in, in 1900. Gradually the popularity of circuses waned.  However, the Blackpool Tower Circus continues to this day. 

Circus acts also often appeared on TV variety shows, well into the 1970s, including on some early colour shows.

Circus acts often appeared on TV. This is an early UK colour broadcast from 1965 Pic: YouTube
Circus acts often appeared on TV. This is an early UK colour broadcast from 1965 Pic: YouTube

By the mid 1960s American TV had seen colour broadcasts for many years. It was not until late 1969 that the ITV network broadcast in colour. However some UK programmes went out in the USA, and had to be made in colour. One of these rare programmes was The Hippodrome Show featuring circus acts. That was in 1965.

One of Preston’s TV connections was that the snooker championships were occasionally broadcast from the Guild Hall. Outside broadcast vans were parked outside, and you could see the miles of cables coming from the cameras as well as the uplink satellite dish.

Broadcast trucks parked up at the Guild Hall Pic: Tony Worrall
Broadcast trucks parked up at the Guild Hall in 2016 Pic: Tony Worrall

There were few colour capable studios in the UK, in the mid 1960s. Therefore colour broadcasts used two sets of cameras: one set of black and white cameras, and colour cameras were made by Marconi to a US design. This clunky system continued until shows such as Sunday Night at the London Palladium went out in colour, in the UK.

Circuses still perform in Britain, but they usually do not involve animals.



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