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by John Le Mare

Circus in Australia really started in 1847 in Launceston, Tasmania, then just a minor seaport of perhaps 10,000 persons, in a simple, small building of timber, iron and canvas. It was successful and the urge to present travelling circus was transferred to the mainland. Early shows did well in the goldfields.

In New Zealand, circus was introduced a few decades later, by touring shows from Australia.

Both countries are small in population. Australia is larger than the whole of Europe but only has a population of about 26 million. New Zealand is smaller than Australia and has a population of just 5 million. Thus the expenses and logistics of travelling shows, such as circus, are more challenging than for those in European countries.

Currently there are about twelve independent touring circuses in Australia, presenting their shows for up to eleven months each year, with and without animals, and three in New Zealand. On top of this there are various contemporary circuses, mostly supported by taxpayer funds that present shorter seasons but which also tour overseas. Many of our performance arts schools have special studies and classes in circus art, about 80 in Australia and 18 in New Zealand. So there is a very active interest in Circus in both countries reaching down from the old established, perhaps 7th generation animal touring circuses through contemporary circus to the hundreds of young (and not so young) circus arts students learning the acrobatic skills of the professional.

A three year Bachelor course in Circus Arts is offered by the National Institute of Circus Arts, part of Swinburne University in Melbourne, and the counterpart in New Zealand is perhaps the Polytechnic Institute of Technology in Christchurch.

There are the usual animal activist organisations that attempt to disrupt performances of circuses that exhibit animals. This is a time-wasting exercise for the circus staff that is able successfully, and professionally, to present the true facts of animal welfare in circus.

A trend which probably applies to circus world-wide is that the very young people, who were the backbone of circus audiences, may now spend much of their leisure time in front of a tablet or other electronic device. So current audiences tend to include more slightly older persons, perhaps those who have become interested in the very skills they have learnt at their circus arts schools or tertiary bodies. Indeed some of the touring circuses, amongst whose many skills is their incredible ability to travel long distances and present show after show after show, are looking at this different age group and experimenting with vaudeville and burlesque adaptations of circus.

Strictly in alphabetical order, the touring circuses include: AUSTRALIA Ashtons; Cirque Africa; Eronis; Great Moscow; Hudsons; Lennons; Phoenix; Royale; Silvers; Stardust and Webers. Exotic animals are popularly featured at Lennons and Stardust.

NEW ZEALAND. Cirque Grande, Webers and Zirka.

Contemporary Australian circus bodies include Circa; Circus Oz; Flying Fruit Fly and Company 1.

A major initiative to bring together every facet of circus in Australia is the Australian Circus Festival, currently a four-day event in Sydney and now in its third year. This features workshops for students wanting to upgrade their skills; animal presentations and a “Bring your Pet” day; meetings for the various circus groups, discussion forums; industry awards; performers and jury from around the world; and attempts at world circus records. All this as well as six public performances, every one different!


by Mark St Leon, PhD, Long Jetty, NSW, Australia

Australia’s first successful circus, Radford’s Royal Circus, was opened in Launceston, Tasmania in December 1847. Its founder, English-born, Robert Avis Radford was a professional equestrian who had already achieved considerable fame on the Tasmanian racetrack. From Radford’s Royal Circus, an Australian circus industry began to flower as many of the artists that Radford brought together eventually moved on to launch circus companies of their own. Equestrian-based circus entertainments had been given in most of Australia’s major mainland coastal settlements: Hobart Town (1848), Port Phillip, now Melbourne (1849), and Sydney (1850).  Most Australian circuses travelling today can trace their origins, directly or indirectly, to Radford’s pioneering enterprise.

Soon, circus men and women began to appear in Australia, mostly from mother England, despite a voyage by sea of three months or more. In May 1852, Joseph Andrew Rowe landed with his little troupe in gold-stricken Melbourne, having crossed the Pacific from San Francisco by way of Honolulu, Papeete and Auckland. In October 1849, after rounding Cape Horn and travelling up through South America, Rowe had opened his ‘pioneer’ circus in San Francisco. He then spent several years trouping around the Californian goldfields before deciding to try his luck in far-off Australia where gold had been discovered in June 1851.

But Rowe was not the first American circus man to land on Australian soil, nor was he the first to arrive with a troupe of performers since, in March 1851, more than a year before Rowe’s arrival in Melbourne, a small ‘equestrian company’ under the direction of an American circus man, John Sullivan Noble, arrived in Adelaide, capital of the colony [now state] of South Australia, by the 171-ton brig Wanderer – not from California or any other part of the United States but from South Africa after a voyage of nearly two months from Cape Town. The Wanderer’s passengers included Mr and Mrs Noble and ‘five children’ and a cargo including ‘four circus horses’. Four of the ‘five children’ were actually Noble’s young performers, rather than family members: the riders Mr and Mrs Cardoza, the ‘bold and daring horseman’ Master Hernandez and a gymnast, Master Francisco Oliveira. Early the previous year, Noble arrived in Cape Town with his troupe from Rio de Janeiro and there opened his Olympic Circus.They appear to have remained in Cape Town and its vicinity throughout 1850.

John Sullivan Noble was born at Rochester, Massachusetts on November 5, 1814, the son of John and Azubah Noble. Details of his early life are sketchy at best. In his Annals of the American Circus, the late Stuart Thayer noted the activities of a juggler named ‘Joseph Noble’ around 1838. A playbill in the British Library for the circus of Mann & Welch, opening in Kingston, Jamaica in March 1842, listed a ‘J. Noble’ among its equestrian and gymnastic performers. But nothing else has come to light. Noble was apparently married when he landed in Adelaide in 1851 but there is no hint of her identity, if indeed they were married since, in Sydney, later that year, Noble married a local, Irish-born girl, Mary Anne O’Loughlan.

Soon after reaching Adelaide, Noble took over the lease of the little city’s Royal Amphitheatre. Renaming it the Olympic Theatre, his little company commenced a brief series of exhibitions there on March 19, 1851. Noble obviously introduced something fresh to the colony. The performances were immediately recognised as ‘far superior’ to anything of the sort previously seen in South Australia. Noble carried much of the performance himself with his feats of horsemanship, vaulting, throwing up to ‘20 somersets [somersaults] at an astonishing height’, and slack wire dancing. Noble and his wife gave a rendition of Ducrow’s equestrian piece, The Swiss Peasant and The Mountain Maid. Other members of the company included the rider Signor Cardoza da Silva and the ‘bold and daring’ horseman Master Hernandez.

After a short season in Adelaide, Noble and his troupe shipped for Sydney in April 1851. Sydney, with a population of about 44,000 (today it is over 4 million!) was Australia’s largest city and port. Wquestrian performances had already taken root with the opening there of the Royal Australian Equestrian Circus in October 1850. Over the next three and a half years, Noble played a key role in presenting circus entertainments in Sydney, Melbourne and Geelong and their adjacent goldfields.

Owing to the lack of suitable equestrian amphitheatres in the young city, Noble opened his Olympic Circus in Sydney on the stage of the city’s principal theatre, the Royal Victoria Theatre.  In June 1851, after a brief season in Sydney, Noble joined forces with the local circus man, John Malcom to open a circus – also called the Olympic Circus – at the Northumberland Hotel, West Maitland, in the Hunter Valley about 150 miles north of Sydney. Returning overland to Sydney, Noble found audiences at Parramatta so good he gave equestrian performances for several evenings, varying his program nightly.

Once again in Sydney, Noble and his little company moved into a new venue, an old timber building at the rear of an inn, The Painter’s Arms, in Castlereagh Street, in September 1851. Noble’s company was now augmented by a clown, Mr Albray. A high-minded public declaration of moral virtue preceded Noble’s re-opening in the city.

The strictest attention will be paid to ensure becoming order and conduct; also that no immoral language or improper performance be introduced by the clown or any of the company, in order that the most fastidious can visit this place of amusement without the slightest repugnance …

By this time, gold had been discovered at Sofala, near Bathurst, about 200 miles west of Sydney. As thousands scrambled to reach the new goldfields and find their fortune, the city was being drained of people – and therefore audiences. Noble decided to follow them. His company gave its final performance in Sydney early in December 1851 and then took to the road – what there was of it – for Bathurst, only to find that several other small circus companies were already arived. But, by this time, further and potentially richer discoveries of gold had been made in the southern colony of Victoria, just north of Port Phillip, today’s Melbourne. Noble decided to be the first one there. He returned to Sydney with his troupe early in 1852 and, a few weeks later, shipped for  Port Phillip.  Shortly after the arrival at Port Phillip of ‘Mr and Mrs Noble, together with their equestrian establishment’ Noble sought: a licence to perform as an equestrian with my company in the City of Melbourne for a short period … The erection for this performance will be a canvasted [sic] pavilion for which there will be procured a respectable location which will not interfere with the Building Act.

License granted, Noble began construction of a temporary but ‘commodious’ building, circular in shape with tiered seating for 500 people, apparently the same site Hayes occupied in 1849. His Olympic Circus opened on the evening of February 23, 1852 with admission prices of two shillings for the pit and four shillings for the boxes. The opening performances: fully equalled the promise of the bills, and when a little better arrangement is made with regard to the admission of visitors, and the business of the evening commences at an earlier hour, the circus will provide a formidable rival to the theatre.

Noble’s troupe was not the first circus seen in Melbourne but it was the first successful circus and Noble is therefore rightly described as the originator of circus entertainments in the colony of Victoria. A man named Thomas Henry Hayes had attempted to opoen a circus there in 1849 but the authorities had placed all sorts of obstacles in his path and he was forced to close down after a few weeks. One of the ‘authorities’ was John Thomas Smith, the city’s mayor and the owner of the city’s only theatre and who resented the competition.

Noble’s company now included the ‘Juvenile Llewellyn’ on his rapid courser; Signor Honora’s ‘Herculean’ feats of horsemanship; Master Hernandez in a scene on horseback called The Greek Robber and feats of agility on the ‘rotary globe’; the clown W. Albray; and Francisco and several other unnamed juvenile performers. Noble participated in the battout leaping with the entire company, ‘throwing from twenty to thirty somersaults at an astonishing height’. Noble performed on the corde volante. A pantomime concluded each evening’s entertainment. Equestrian pieces such as The Roman Gladiator, The Flight of Mercury and The Mountain Maid or, The Swiss Shepherd came from the repertoire of Andrew Ducrow. Another equestrian piece, The Countryman’s Visit to the Circus, or The Clown Deceived, suggests the traditional equestrian burlesque, The Peasant’s Frolic.

Noble’s Olympic Circus opened every evening during the week but on Saturday evenings it was closed, like most other public entertainments, as hordes of ruffians from the suburbs entered and overran central Melbourne.

For the remainder of his stay in the Australian colonies, approximately another two years, Noble’s fortunes entwined with other showmen such as the English circus man Henry Burton, the American William H. Foley and the London-born equestrian, John Jones. Jones brought his equestrian troupe from Sydney to Melbourne in October 1852 and joined Noble for an engagement at the Olympic Circus, Bourke Street. Noble joined forces with Foley and Jones to take a circus onto the Victorian gold fields during 1853-4. But, after taking out naturalisation as a citizen of New South Wales in 1855, evidently to purchase property, Noble’s name appears no more in Australian circus annals. It is uncertain in which direction he headed but, by 1860, he had returned to the United States for in that year he made application (despite his Australian naturalisation!) for himself and wife for a passport, evidently to start trouping through South America. In 1862, it was reported that Noble was ‘doing quite well’ in Rio de Janeiro with his own circus. After three years touring South America, he returned to New York in 1865 but nothing more of his life or career comes to light. He may have died shortly after as his name does not appear on 1871 US census.

So, the presence in Australia in John Sullivan Noble over the years 1851-5, as brief as it was, materially contributed to the foundation of an Australian circus industry. His life and career in circus deserve deeper investigation.


by Don Covington, President

When I was younger, an experienced and respected circus artist surprised me by saying “there’s nothing new in the circus, it’s all been done before”.  This seemed a strange statement from a man renowned for introducing unique and captivating equestrian displays that were constantly in demand.  His words seemed to contradict my experience with circus, where each visit introduced me to new surprises.  Later, in researching circus topics, his words would come back to me as I discovered examples of historic presentations that utilized ideas that I had previously assumed were both original and contemporary.  Egyptian tombs depicted jugglers and acrobats; medieval paintings captured funambulists crossing town squares.  And, yes, horses had circled countless rings making endless repetitions of familiar patterns for centuries.

If, indeed, circus is constantly replaying the same theme, how has it survived for 250 years?  Wouldn’t it seem that society, especially in our frantic times, would quickly tire of seeing familiar sights and move on to something entirely new and different?  Perhaps there is more to the appeal of circus than the obvious splash of spectacle and the practiced perfection of superbly trained athletes.

Maybe instead of looking at the individual elements, we should concentrate instead on the effect that well conceived and executed circus has on spectators.  Circus, when done right, removes the audience from the everyday and forces them to expand their horizons; to contemplate not only what is possible but what is important.  In its purest form, spectators surround the circus ring and become part of a community populated with a representative sample of everyday life…animals, comedians, actors, athletes, musicians and artists.  The performance draws its energy from the collective input of all concerned and most importantly from the reaction of the crowd.  The circus echoes the world but at the same time is an example of what an ideal world could be.  Perfection can be achieved, fears can be conquered and surprises can delight.  Working together, we can become better than we were alone.

The history of the circus is filled with dire events that, at the time, seemed to predict that the circus would not survive.  Here in America, the recent closing of Ringling Bros and Barnum & Bailey Circus was one such milestone.  Skeptics were quick to announce that, without the support of what was famously known as the Greatest Show on Earth, American circus was doomed.  However, in the same year that Ringling ended its run, a folklife festival on the National Mall in Washington DC celebrated the circus as a national cultural heritage and tens of thousands of citizens flocked to see a dizzying array of circus presentations featuring troupes from all corners of the country.  The festival affirmed that while one show had disappeared, flocks of others were carrying on.  Panel discussions and presentations attempted to educate the public on the many creative processes involved in circus.  Young artists demonstrated their skills.  Circus veterans spun tales of life on the road and in the circus ring.  Scholars dissected historic events and debated arcane facts.  Circus directors worried about the bottom line and clowns dissected what it takes to make someone laugh.  Most important of all, there was a big top where, up to four times a day, people could gather around a ring and experience the magic of the circus.  Time and time again, casual passers by, families, tourists, bureaucrats, professionals and circus enthusiasts filled the seats and shared an experience that changed their lives.  Almost without fail, the crowd, which had entered as strangers taking advantage of an unknown free performance, was moved by the end of the show to rise as one and give the artists a standing ovation.  For that moment, and hopefully for a long time thereafter, they had become transformed by the circus.  All of the history, tradition and passion of the past combined to motivate the creative teams, coaches and directors who then mentored the artists who became ambassadors initiating newcomers into the wonders of a mystic shared experience.  Implicit in it all and most important to its success, is the connection established between the artist and the spectator.  Great artists may be superbly accomplished technicians, but mastery of skills alone does not make them memorable.  The emotional attachment between performer and spectator makes all of the difference.  Charisma in the ring transports the audience to a common ground where they can share the joy of a difficult task perfectly accomplished and the pride manifested in achieving a lofty goal.

For two and a half centuries people have been drawn to the circus by the promise of revival, respite from the everyday and the hope of glimpsing a brighter future.  They come to be entertained, enlightened and energized.  They bring their children in the hope that a new generation will experience the same joy that is a cherished memory in their own past.  The faces in the ring and those in the audience are constantly changing, but a shared passion ensures that the spirit of the circus thrives from day to day, year to year and into the future.

Perhaps the fact that “it has all been done before” is why the circus remains so powerful and important.  Circus reaffirms the importance of shared enthusiasm, renewed hope and delight in accomplishment.  Circus celebrates cooperation and dedication.  It provides hope and affirms the simple delight of escaping to a friendly and comforting place.  Circus is as important today as it was 250 years ago.  Vive le cirque.


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