Story Of London

The First Circus (p3)

The First Circus
by Anthony Waldstock

Page 3

The circus as we know it began to develop in the early 19th century. The first travelling circuses began to appear and often consisted of no more than with a juggler, a rope dancer, and a few acrobats with simple musical accompaniment provided by one or two violins. Some did include some form of horsemanship. These normally took place in open fields and but the huge improvement in tent technology in the 1820s acted as a large catalyst for development and refinement.
In the permanent circuses in cities, other acts were gradually added to the show but the equestrian act was still the main attraction. This has given us another standard feature of the modern circus – the ringmaster. Today he tends to be the announcer, occasional foil of the clowns, and generally keeps the show flowing. However, his original contribution was to keep the horses running correctly around the ring as the rider worked his tricks – hence his traditional riding costume.

It was not until after Astley’s death in 1814 that large animals made their appearance in the circus. The first record is of two elephants, Baba and Kiouny, performing in Franconi’s circus in Paris. Amongst their tricks were catching apples with their trunks, uncorking bottles and drinking the contents and playing the hurdy-gurdy. In 1828, Astley’s hired an elephant from Cross’s Exeter Change Menagerie and simply showed the animal to the spectators. They followed this in 1832 with the similar display of a lion, a tiger and four zebras. The first authentic wild beast act took place at Astley’s in 1838 when Morok the Beast Tamer (Isaac Van Amburgh) presented his act with a mixed group of lions, tigers and leopards. The act so captivated Queen Victoria that she commissioned the artist Edwin Landseer to paint a portrait of the American with his “big cats.”

That other stalwart of the modern circus, the flying trapeze, did not appear until 1859. On November 12th that year, at the Cirque Napoleon in Paris, the 21 year old Jules Leotard made his debut. He devised his act whilst practising on the ropes and rings suspended above the swimming pool of his father’s gymnasium in his native Toulouse. He came to London in the 1860s and caused a sensation when he appeared at the Alhambra flying across the hall from trapeze to trapeze above the heads of the dining audience. He was the inspiration for the George Leybourne song “That Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze”. He devised the tight-fitting costume that bears his name in order to show off his muscles. In case of mishap, Leotard often relied on a pile of mattresses on the floor, the first safety net made its appearance at the Holborn Empire in 1871 when it was introduced by the Spanish troupe the Rizarellis.

Leotard’s popularity was soon eclipsed by that of the first tightrope walker Jean Francois Gravelot, better known as “The Great Blondin”. He was born February 28th 1824 in St. Omer, Pas de Calais in Northern France. Blondin first arrived in Niagara in early 1858. He became obsessed with crossing the Niagara River on a tightrope and on June 30th 1859, he successfully walked across the river on a tight rope in 20 minutes. He followed this by eight more crossings in the summer of 1859 during which he variously stopped to eat on omelette, perform handstands or pushing a wheelbarrow along as he crossed. His most difficult crossing occurred on August 14th when he carried his manager Harry Colcord on his back.

Blondin subsequently played to packed audiences at the Crystal Palace, where he would ascend to a great height by walking up a tightrope at a steep angle and performing various tricks once he reached the horizontal rope. During the summer of 1860, Blondin returned to Niagara for a second successful year of tight rope walking across the Niagara River for hundreds of thousands of sightseers. On September 8th 1860, he made his final tight rope crossing of the Niagara River before heading for London. Here he played to packed audiences at the Crystal Palace, where he would ascend to a great height by walking up a tightrope at a steep angle and performing various tricks once he reached the horizontal rope. He settled in Ealing and died in 1897 at the age of 73 years.

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