Evenings of Wonder – 19th Century Circus, by Sue King

report by John Slater

Sue King gave us a remarkable presentation on circus in the Isle of Man on an equally remarkable occasion, the 30th anniversary of Peel Heritage Trust
We learned that circus was born in Britain. It was based on a riding school set up in Westminster by a retired cavalryman, Philip Astley, in 1768. These schools were very popular as horses were the most common form of transport. He gave riding lessons in the morning and exhibitions of riding skills in the afternoon. These were based on his training and battle experience, including snatching wounded comrades from the ground, riding to safety and pirouetting the horse on its hind legs to facilitate hand to hand fighting.

Astley discovered that a circular ring of precisely 42’ 00” was the perfect configuration for a horse to ride at speed, the resultant centrifugal force held the rider in place, whether seated or standing. Before long, other acts were added, including tumbling (gymnastics), rope walking, acrobatics and novelty acts such as playing a violin whilst balanced on a high wire. The circus became very popular and profitable. It was adopted by others and became international.
In 1802, the circus came to Douglas being set up in a rope works. This open site was conveniently close to the centre of town.
The circus came to a site close to the Steam Packet in 1826 and then, in 1843, a larger site close to St George’s Church complete with the 42’ ring. This was under a dome and chandelier with a thousand gas burners lighting up the whole. What a wondrous spectacle for the times!
A favourite act was one man riding several horses at the same time. We saw an illustration of one performer standing astride five! Knights in armour jousting and re-enactments of Dick Turpin on Black Bess, with exchange of gunfire were even more spectacular regular acts.

Clowns became popular from about 1880 onwards and many toured Europe as well as the British Isles. One was noted for jumping from the ceiling on a rope with fireworks around his head.
One of the most elaborate circuses was inside an Indian style pavilion built on what is now the NSC.

A clown, Toney Felix (Thomas Green), retired to become landlord of The Crown public house in Ccstle Street, Peel. Apparently, he was responsible for the false Tudor façade and spurious date!
As for the water circus, you’ll have to get a copy of Sue King’s book, “Evenings of Wonder”. This is available in local bookshops.

We all retired to the Atholl Room where there was a terrific display of 30 years of Peel Heritage Trust and a birthday cake. Malcolm Kelly, inspirational Chairman of the Commissioners at the time and I, as present chairman of the trust, cut the cake. Applause and thanks to all involved!

Our next meeting is on Wednesday, the 20th November at 7.30pm in the Centenary Centre when Brenda Cubbon will lift the lid on the ‘Great’ Stanley, James 7th Earl of Derby. All welcome.