Roll up! Roll up! The Circus is in town.

Circus elephants and riders at Rosewood, ca. 1928
(Photo: State Library of Queensland)

Can you hear it, the clown music?  (Listen to “Entry of the Gladiators” by Julius Fucik)

Why does hearing that tune or the word “circus” evoke such feelings of nostalgia to those of us who’ve had the magical experience of going to a circus? Back in 1921 C. J. Dennis wrote a poem in which he succesfully conveyed his love for the big top, urging everyone to join in the fun and excitement. It was one of the poems I learned in my school years and have never forgotten.

You may remember the phrase “run away and join the circus”. Some people did. It sounded like freedom and a way to escape. That’s what going to the circus was, escaping to a world of spectacle and seeing things you’d never seen before. The outlandish costumes and makeup, the fear and excitement felt when watching the lion, tiger and elephant acts, the fascination and awe of the trapeze and acrobats and the laughter resulting from interactions with the clowns were all amazing to a child. So much so that countless children dressed as clowns for their Fancy Dress Balls over the years. 

The spectacle started in Rosewood when the circus troupe arrived at the railway station and a menagerie of cages, animals and extremely interesting people made their way to an empty paddock and later to the showgrounds. The elephants were unloaded and they pulled the wagons along Railway Street to their destination. Suddenly a huge tent appeared which was visible to almost everyone in town. The novelty of the sight attracted large numbers of people from the all over the district and it was not unusual to see people strolling around the area eager to catch a glimpse of the exhibits.

Little Ivy Collett from John Street, was a member of the Sunshine Club (Q.T.) in 1926. She wrote, The circus is coming here on Wednesday, and all the school children love sitting on the school fence watching the elephants going backward and forward.

The first circus to visit Rosewood was St Leon’s Circus. The proprietor Matthew St Leon was an acrobat and equestrian. On Saturday night the 29th April, 1882 they performed to a crowded house and the spectators enjoyed acts of horsemanship by the lady and gentleman equestrians. The Leons professed they were only circus in Australia to have lady riders.  Acrobatic and gymnastic feats led by Monsieur Scho who performed the difficult and astonishing feat of revolving one hundred somersaults enthralled the crowd. I wonder how many children tried that the next day?  There were dogs, monkeys, bare-back horse riding and Alf St. Leon with his wonderful three trick horses Empress, Silver and Rob Roy. Also Japanese performers on a single wire and pole and Mr. Taylor with his knives, brass balls and large globe. It concluded with a clever piece entitled The Grand Liverpool Steeple Chase. (Darling Downs Gazette 26 April, 1882)

Reporters wrote: This being the first time that a circus visited this place, the novelty of the sight attracted numbers from the surrounding districts, who were highly amused with the entertainment provided for them. We can confidently recommend lovers of circuses to patronise his tent wherever he pitches it.

The circus visited again in September and many more were to come. There were also opportunities for residents to see other circus troupes when they visited Ipswich.

Visits by Circus Troupes to Rosewood.

  • Benhamo’s Circus opened in Rosewood in June1883.  See the Ad

Brothers Benhamo (William Benham) and Zebrediah (Zebediah Benham), 1877.
Photo: Performing Arts Collection, Arts Centre Melbourne

  • A travelling circus show visited 24th November, 1891.
    On Tuesday night last a travelling company of showmen made an attempt to amuse us. The call-bird at the door kept shouting ” Step inside, and you will see a circus, all but the horses, for the small sum of one little shilling, children half-price.” Several responded to this invitation, and saw first a man lying on his back playing with two large globes with his feet. Next a young lady had a bout with a pair of toy Indian clubs. Next a trick with some sticks and crockery, a little dancing, and the performing dog was taken off the chain. The ringmaster shouted “Come on.” He was coming cautiously, when one of the audience, the first prize cattle-dog at our last show, faced him in such a pugnacious style that he was with difficulty persuaded to go through a few tricks; instead of an encore he got a stroke of a hoop. Some boxing-gloves were then produced, and any of the audience who felt inclined for that sort of game were invited to step forward, and have a go with the renowned “Jimmy.” A tall young man responded, and shaped very well with his head and shoulders, which be kept twitching in real professional style. A little more boxing with New Zealand George and Jimmy brought the show to a close. The audience with some little difficulty, got on their feet (they were all lying down, no seats being provided) and departed, and although they were grumbling I am sure they were well pleased.
  • Fitzgerald Bros. Circus and other combined shows, including Carl Hagenbeck’s Zoological Circus visited in August 1898.
  • Fitzgerald Bros. Novelty Shows, Circus & Menagerie – August 1899
    This was written at the bottom of their advertisement in the Darling Downs Gazette.
    Great Jumping Match this evening at 9.30.  Messrs. Fitzgerald Bros Newhaven and Mr. Sloane’s Flirtation. For £100 (One Hundred Pounds) This match was made in Rosewood on Thursday last during the visit of the Circus there, Mr. Sloane not being satisfied with his defeat in Brisbane.
    See the Ad
  • Wirths Circus and Zoo visited in July 1905.   See the Ad
  • Wirths Circus visited in July 1908
    Last week the mammoth show paid a short visit to Rosewood, and, as usual, it was liberally patronised. A new departure was made this year by opening the menagerie after school hours in the afternoon for the inspection of the school children at a small cost. The opportunity to see the wild animals was largely availed of by the children and some of the parents.
  • Wirths visited again in August 1909 and as usual there was a full house. Large members of the school children saw the various animals by visiting the menagerie in the afternoon.  In the “moto-car act” the car used was Mr. William Edward Collett’s car.
  • Barton’s Circus visited in 9 May 1910.    See the Ad.
  • Wirth Bros Greatest Show on Earth visited in July 1911.   
  • Wirth Bros visited in July 1914, July 1915, July 1918, July 1921, August 1924, July, 1926 and June 1928.

In 1928 when the Circus visited the weather conditions were terrible. The proprietors had the misfortune to lose one of their valuable circus horses before leaving Rosewood for Laidley. In the early hours of the morning one of the animals strayed in front of a down goods train and was caught by the cow-catcher and thrown into the cattle grids. Its injuries necessitated that it be put out of its misery.

  • Sole Bros Circus – June 1929
    See the six famous Soles, high-jumping greyhound, world’s best. Be sure and visit Sole Bros. Circus at Rosewood, Saturday night, 22nd inst. Performing elephants, clowns, dummies, trick ponies. The Lloyd’s, lady riders, Andrew and Jack Sole, premier jockeys.

CIRCUS TRAINS. A special train standing in the North Ipswich shunting yards in the vicinity of the tarpaulin shop has been an object of interest to many people in the last few days. With another train it has been reserved by Wirth Bros., and to those associated with the circus it will be a home for almost two months. Window curtains and other comforts indicate that, despite their rovings, circus people know how to make even a train a real home. It requires a good deal of organisation to manage the circus in the efficient manner which enables it to show at a different place every night in the week, except Sunday. On Monday it left Tweed Heads, entertained the Beenleigh people, showed at Beaudesert the next night, entrained across to Rosewood for a midweek showing and up to Laidley for Thursday night. On Friday night it was in Ipswich, staying here until Saturday night. At 12.20 this morning the first train conveying the circus left for Gympie followed by the second train at 1.30 a.m. The circus people hoped to arrive at their destination in time for breakfast, intending to entertain the Gympie citizens to-night. The circus will then continue from town to town as far north as Cairns, finally returning to Brisbane at the completion of a State-wide tour for the National Exhibition in August. (Q.T. 21 June, 1929)

  • Perry’s Circus –  August 1931 (Combined circus of Perry Bros. and Sole’s)
  • Perry Bros Huge Ring Circus – May 1934.  See the Ad
  • Wirths’ Bros Ltd Mighty Circus – August 1937
    The circus was packed with new acts, death defying thrills, crazy clowns, a big troupe  of world-famous International circus stars, equestrian marvels, dare-devils of the air, whirlwind tumblers, crazy clowns, Japanese Risley artists, performing tigers, seals, elephants and canine wonders.
  • Wirths Bros Circus – Tuesday, August 1939
    Acts to thrill the folk of Rosewood included the world famous Flying De Vards direct from Madison Square Gardens, New York, who flitted through the air in their high-flying “Under and Over,” passing trick, the famous Leotard Troupe, the Briello Troupe from Cuba and the Francois Troupe of international musical comedy clowns. Wild animal acts, equestrian work, performing monkeys, dogs, and pigs also entertained. A herd of nine elephants and a menagerie of 18 cages of wild animals together with a large school of beautiful horses travelled with the show, which was hauled from place to place by two special trains.  Each afternoon the zoo opened for inspection from 4 to 6 p.m and the animals were fed at 4.15. Admission for a child cost 6d and adults paid one shilling.

While the families were attending the circus that night the homes of Harold and and Arnold Jacobs were robbed. The intruder took jewellery, money, and other goods, including a quantity of food.
See what happened to the thief.

  • Bullen Bros January 1941.      See the Ad
    One of the elephants was called to assist a cargo boat that had slipped its moorings.  Read about it.
  • Bullen Bros’ Circus – April 1942
  • Silver’s Circus & Zoo – July 1946.        See the Ad
  • Sole Bros’ New Circus – March 1947.  See the Ad

Henry Reed from Mutdapilly joined Wirth’s circus.     Read about him.

Over the ensuing years rising transport costs, insurance premiums, licence fees and red tape have hit circus operators hard and customer distaste with animals being used for the entertainment of people has seen the demise of the circus as we knew it.

It was a different time. As an animal lover who has marvelled at the spectacle, when I reflect on the plight of the animals, some of the sparkle dims in my memory of going to the circus yet the child within still remembers that indescribable feeling of wonder.

As of 15th of April, 2021 Australia is “circus animal free” following the Stardust Circus being unsuccessful in securing animal insurance.

Researched and compiled by Jane Schy

Memories from Facebook
When Wirths Circus came to town Ted (Thomas) would crank up the factory and all the elephants would enjoy a soft drink after unloading their gear at the railway station and towing it down to the showgrounds – Trish & Phil

The unloading ramps at the sale yards were more used when Wirths Circus came to town getting their animals off and back on the train – Greg Brown

Wirths Circus….what a great memory…the Elephants waving their trunks over the side of the carriage and helping tow the vans etc into place for the Show.– Nancy Leonard

That reminds me… my brothers and I used to catch little crays in the muddy pools in the culverts under the railway lines that ran past the paddock behind our house. We lived in Maddens Lane. We played cricket and rounders in the paddock. In the very early days the circus used to set up in the same paddock. That was in the late 40s early 50s when we lived opposite the school. – Carolyn Campbell


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